In a state where craft beer holds a permanent spot in the fridge, it's little surprise that alcohol-loving tinkerers and experimenters would turn their heads toward a new goal: craft distilling. This isn't bathtub gin or backyard applejack, though. Microdistilleries such as Stranahan's, Leopold Bros., and Peach Street are crafting small, refined batches of vodka, gin, and whiskey. By echoing the success of the craft brewing movement—creating a niche product and working together against the big liquor companies—these distilleries are quickly placing their bottles on the shelves of higher-end bars and liquor stores.
Colorado has proven fertile soil for the industry. With 13 craft distilleries, we have the third-highest number in the nation (trailing only Oregon and California). Local distillers are successful thanks in part to Colorado drinkers looking for homegrown products. "Our craft beer and wine scene has accelerated the local palates to want to taste interesting liquors," says David Thibodeau, cofounder of Peach Street Distillers in Palisade, who's seen more than a 50 percent sales increase in 2009.
Still, challenges remain: Waiting for spirits to age can mean two or three years of negative cash flow, while distribution, dominated by international liquor companies, can be difficult. Recently, local distillers formed the Colorado Distillers Guild; wisely, they hired craft brewing veteran JoAnne Carilli-Stevenson to run the show. "The biggest challenge is awareness," says Carilli-Stevenson. "I think people still don't know we have a Colorado bourbon. And how many people know we have a Colorado potato vodka?"
Thibodeau, who cofounded Ska Brewing in Durango, thinks the camaraderie in the industry will boost sales and make Colorado an epicenter of microdistilling. Peach Street and Stranahan's, for example, order their barrels together; other distilleries have shared sales personnel. "I think it's appealing to people to know that we're all friends," Thibodeau says. "I hope it evolves like the craft brewing industry, where we've found that the same rising tide floats all boats."
Spirit Whiskey Tasting Note Drop in an ice cube to tame the heat of the strong (94 proof) whiskey.
Leopold Bros., Denver
Spirits Liqueurs, vodka, flavored whiskeys, rum, gin, absinthe
Tasting Note The rum is unusually smoky, thanks to aging in bourbon barrels. www.leopoldbros.com
Peach Street Distillers, Palisade
Spirits Vodka, gin, brandy, bourbon, grappa
Tasting Note Colorado's first bourbon is smooth and high-end—think Blanton's. www.peachstreetdistillers.com
Roundhouse Spirits, Longmont
Spirits Gin, coffee liqueur
Tasting Note The gin carries floral aromas: lavender, chamomile, and hibiscus. www.roundhousespirits.com