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When Brendon Cussio and his wife moved to Colorado in 2015, they went above and beyond the typical new-homeowner renovations and design tweaks to personalize their Highlands Ranch home. Most notably, they built a full-scale, Prohibition-era speakeasy in the basement, complete with a fake bookshelf door that requires pulling out a book to get inside. The couple loves cocktails and socializing and, for the last four or five years, they’ve hosted monthly tastings with friends in their cozy bar. In fact, the gatherings are so popular that Cussio estimates they sample, on average, between 150 and 200 different spirits each year.
To stock their bar with rare, eclectic, or otherwise noteworthy liquors, they go to Applejack—the iconic, family-owned beer, wine, and spirits store that’s been a Wheat Ridge landmark since 1961. “When I go there, there’s an entire wall of whiskey, an entire wall of gin—when I go other places, there’s maybe four, five, 10 options. Here, you’ve got hundreds of options so I can just play. I’ll grab a bottle, try something new, see if I like it, and go from there,” says Cussio, a 36-year-old management consultant.
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There’s a reason that generations of libations lovers like Cussio regularly make the trek to Applejack from across the Centennial State. Over the course of the last 60 years, the store has established itself as the place to go for beer, wine, and spirits, especially those that are hard to find or available in super limited quantities. Today, the store stocks more than 15,000 different items (for comparison, other liquor stores typically stock only a few thousand products) and has more than 125 employees on-hand to check customers out, answer questions, offer recommendations, or special-order products. “We have a saying, which is, ‘If we don’t have it, you don’t need it,’” says Jim Shpall, Applejack’s CEO.
Applejack first opened in 1961 in a much smaller building in the Applewood Village Shopping Center. To name his new store, founder Herb Becker drew inspiration from the shopping center’s name, as well as from a type of brandy made from apples called applejack. At some point in the store’s early years, Becker erected the iconic, retro-looking “Applejack Liquor” sign that still stands today and acts as a beacon for people driving on I-70 (which only went as far west as Wadsworth Boulevard when the store first opened, according to Shpall). In 1974, Becker moved the store to its current location in the same shopping center and, six years later, he sold the business to beer, wine, and spirits wholesaler Alan Freis. “They later formalized it, but the original deal was on the back of a napkin and I’ve never been able to find that napkin,” Shpall says.
Freis took the Colorado company to a whole new level, primarily by increasing advertising to boost the store’s visibility. Shpall officially entered the picture when he married Freis’ daughter, Debbie, in 1984. Ten years later, after a little convincing by Freis, Shpall took over the company and has been at the helm ever since, carrying on his father-in-law’s vision for Applejack. “We wanted to create an environment where people would want to travel from all over to come to Applejack—that the store would be an attraction in and of itself,” Shpall says. “How do you make it so that it is attractive and has something to offer to anyone? And that goal is what made Applejack what it’s become.”
The now-iconic liquor store has undergone several expansion and renovation projects over the years—today, the Wheat Ridge store encompasses more than 40,000 square feet. Most recently, Applejack completed a $3 million top-to-bottom refresh that includes enhanced lighting, new beer coolers and register systems, improved signage, a redesign of the open ceiling, and other improvements.
Last year, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company also opened its second location in Thornton near the Denver Premium Outlets along I-25. Though the timing wasn’t ideal, crews had already started building the second store when the pandemic struck and Shpall decided to move ahead. “We just did it slowly,” he says. “We didn’t have a grand opening because we couldn’t, but we just let it grow organically by offering up what we were known for—great prices, great selection, and great service.”
The Wheat Ridge store successfully pivoted during the pandemic to ramp up its curbside delivery and pickup options. Shpall bought a fleet of new delivery vans and hired scores of additional employees, many from the then-shuttered service industry, to keep up with demand while people mostly drank at home. “It was an exponential growth, legitimately overnight,” he says. “We went from a few tens of orders for delivery a day to hundreds upon hundreds.”
And while those touchless options proved to be incredibly popular, many (masked) Applejack customers continued to do what they always did: stroll up and down each and every aisle in search of the latest and greatest boozy products that the store’s experienced buyers discover during their extensive—and ongoing—research. Though Applejack’s owners have watched fads come and go—from inexpensive jugs of wine to fine wine, from vodka to whiskey, from Miller, Budweiser, and Coors to thousands of craft beers—Shpall isn’t yet sure if and how people’s drinking habits will shift, long-term, because of the pandemic. But, born from COVID-19 or not, whatever the next trend is, you can bet that Applejack will be the first to have it on its shelves. “The future is … we don’t know, but we’re trying to always stay on the cutting edge,” Shpall says.