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DSTILL Strikes Back: Craft Distilling Confab Aims to Become the Industry's (and Denver's) SXSW

The main event will showcase 45 craft distillers pouring for more than 1,000 tipplers at the McNichols Building in Civic Center Park on Thurs. March 13.

The second annual DSTILL is back in Denver this week for workshops and the main event.

Colorado is home to nearly 10 percent of more than 600 craft distilleries in the country.

The event coincides with the annual convention for the American Craft Distillers Association in Denver.

The second annual DSTILL is back in Denver this week for workshops and the main event: the showcase with 45 craft distillers pouring for more than 1,000 tipplers at the McNichols Building in Civic Center Park on Thurs. March 13. Organizer Chuck Sullivan says he wants to make the event "the South by Southwest of the craft-spirits world."
Chuck Sullivan, Co-Founder of Something Independent, has been working on the second DSTILL showcase since the first one ended last April. The sold-out tasting event was a big hit, attracting more than 1,000 people to the McNichols Building in Civic Center Park.

Sullivan says DSTILL is a perfect fit for Denver, noting that Colorado is home to nearly 10 percent of more than 600 craft distilleries in the country. The consumer's palate is educated, he adds, thanks to the craft-brewing boom that preceded distilling in the city by 20 years.

"There's something uniquely Colorado about craft distilling," says Sullivan. "Whether you're a whiskey drinker or not, there's that image of trailbreaking and pioneers, and taking pride in your work."

He describes a vision of DSTILL encompassing craft spirits as well as the corollary lifestyle and culture. "South by Southwest was just music at one point, and now it's everything.

Denver has three distilleries participating in the March 13 showcase (Leopold Bros., Mile High Spirits and Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey), and about half of the 45 distilleries pouring at the tasting are from Colorado. Sullivan is expecting another sellout.

Gargoyle launch

After a "First Pour" event on Monday and a moderated panel discussion at Wynkoop Brewing Company on Tuesday, DSTILL is warmed up for the main events. Tonight (Wed. March 12) sees a trio of workshops devoted to whiskey (Ste. Ellie), rum (TAG) and gin (Session Kitchen).

Sullivan says several "all-stars of the craft-spirits world" will be at the workshops, including Jake Norris, formerly head distiller at Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey at the Ste. Ellie  event. Norris is pulling the veil off his Laws Whiskey House project that he's been hatching (and aging in barrels in Denver) since he left Stranahan's in 2011.

"He's going to announce publicly what he's doing for the first time," says Sullivan. "It's going to be big news. He's going to pull out some of that juice he's been storing and barreling. These craft distillers, they're super stoked."

Sullivan points out that four of six industry participants in the rum workshop are women, including Karen Hoskin and Renee Newton, the respective President/Owner and Distiller at Crested Butte's Montanya Distillers, and Maggie Campbell, Head Distiller at Privateer Rum of Ipswich, Massachusetts.

Versed & Immersed

At "The Distiller, The Bartender & Your Cocktail" on Tuesday night in the Mercantile Room at Wynkoop Brewing Co. in LoDo, about 80 people are listening to the panelists, who Sullivan describes as "two of Colorado's top distillers and two of Colorado's top bartenders": Leopold Bros.' Todd Leopold and CapRock's Lance Hanson being the former and Breckenridge-Wynkoop's Ken Kodys and Williams & Graham's Chad Michael George the latter.

Many kudos were given to Colorado's craft breweries that paved the way for the state's craft distilleries. "All the heavy lifting was done by the brewers," says Leopold. "All of it."

Leopold commends Colorado state legislators past and present for the legal framework that allows brewers and distillers to sell directly to retailers, restaurants, bars, and consumers, and the flexibility that allows temporary licenses for out-of-state DSTILL participants who don't yet have distribution in Colorado.

"In most other states, there is a three-tier system -- we have to sell through a distributor," he explains. "In Colorado, we can sell direct. We love it because we can establish really good relationships with buyers."

The Hotchkiss-based Hanson calls Denver the perfect place for craft industry. "I don't think you could find a better city right now for the craft/maker movement."

Not that there isn't a bit of a craft-distilling bubble. "Not all of us are going to survive," says Hanson. "We're riding a wave now, but we're going to have a bit of a correction here. The question is, 'Is this product exceptional?' Quality is the movement."

"There's definitely a bubble," agrees Leopold, "but what I'm seeing is repeating the past, where you had neighborhood distilleries. What I'm really excited about is replacing all that local agriculture that was lost after Prohibition."

A spring traditionColorado is home to nearly 10 percent of more than 600 craft distilleries in the country.

The 2014 event coincides with the annual convention for the American Craft Distillers Association in Denver, just as the 2013 edition of DSTILL overlapped with the annual conference of the American Distilling Institute in the city.

Sullivan says it can stand on its own legs at this point. "We believe DSTILL is an anchor industry event at this point in time," he says. "We owe a lot of that to partnering with ADI in 2013 and ACDA in 2014." In 2015 and beyond, he adds, "We hope DSTILL is a date on the calendar for the national craft-distilling industry."

"One of the reasons ADI came to Denver for their conference was DSTILL," he adds. "What better place than Denver for this event, with a craft-inclined consumer and a demand for small-batch products. It's an attractive opportunity for distillers to get in front of a really receptive audience."

DSTILL is one of a number of events in the growing industry that usually target insiders or the general public, but rarely both. "What's really different about this one is it is really bridging that gap between industry-specific and consumer specific," he explains. "DSTILL offers something for everybody. It's pulling back the curtain and offering the consumer a glimpse into the industry."

He sees DSTILL as the vernal counterpart to Denver's annual Great American Beer Festival, the country's biggest beer event.

"We have the entire craft-brewing industry here every fall," says Sullivan. "It sure as heck would be an honor to host the craft-distilling industry each spring."

DSTILL runs through Sat. March 16 at multiple venues. Workshops (Mar. 12) include food and flights of liquor for $60. Showcase (Mar. 13) tickets are $50 in advance or $60 at the door on the night of the event at the McNichols Building in Civic Center Park.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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