Discussing the local ingredients going into his distillery's spirits, Morgan says, "It was really important to us that we take from what's around us."
With that in mind, all the grains going into Branch & Barrel Distilling's spirits -- like barley, wheat, and rye -- are sourced from within Colorado itself. "Last year our corn came from Wiggins," says Morgan. "The rest of our grains come from the Alamosa region, Del Norte." Sometimes the company works with Monte Vista's Proximity Malt for its acquisitions.
The distillery's flagship spirit is its Branch & Barrel Bourbon. "When you drink it, it's very smooth," but has "a lot of flavor," says Morgan, adding how the distillery delivers a "good product, at a good price." Morgan notes, "We're on the shelf for $60, right now for our flagship bourbon, and most of our competitors, for that same [type of] product, are $75 to $120."
Flavors sourced from within Colorado extend beyond just the grains themselves. For its Honey Barrel Aged Bourbon, the company lends its already-used bourbon barrels to Berthoud's Bee Squared Apiaries, which fills them up with honey to produce its own Whiskey Barrel Aged Honey product. The barrels are then returned to Branch & Barrel, which ages bourbon in them for over a year. Although another distillery has a similar arrangement with the apiary now, Morgan says Branch & Barrel was the first distillery to release a spirit aged in that fashion.
In that regard, but no less craft-wise, Branch & Barrel is more homegrown than one of Morgan's previous ventures. When Morgan began Mad Monk Tea in California, he used to travel overseas to source all of the tea. "When I started drinking tea, it became a hobby, a passion, and a business," says Morgan. "I wanted to drink the best tea. I couldn't find it in the States, so I started going to Asia to find it."
Morgan's enthusiasm is apparently contagious. He started Branch & Barrel with two friends, Scott Freund and Tom Sielaff, who also work within the construction industry in Colorado, as does Morgan. Furthermore, Freund and Sieflaff weren't even alcohol consumers. Before entering the trade, the trio set out distilling with only the rudimentary knowledge they learned from books ordered off of Amazon. They made test batches in Sielaff's backyard. And to mimic barrel-aging, they would put various types of twigs -- from, for instance, apple, cherry, oak trees -- into mason jars.
One wood stood out, in terms of both added flavor and color: plumwood. Today, the Branch & Barrel catalog includes Plumwood Barrel Aged Whiskey. Morgan describes it as possessing a "red, purple color" and "stone fruit notes." He says, "It's like a little peppery. It's a phenomenal flavor profile -- and it's something that no one's ever done." After the base whiskey is initially aged in a barrel, it's added to the plumwood resting within stainless steel tanks. "We work with local plum farmers," says Morgan. "We essentially get their twigs, all their cuttings and trimmings from the year. Or if their trees died, we get those and we cut them down, we dry them, we kiss them with a flame."
The partners have gone from distilling in a backyard to operating a facility in Centennial. This year, Morgan expects to manufacture around 400 barrels of whiskey. Presently, the distillery has about 370 accounts, the majority consisting of liquor stores.
Helming production is Master Distiller Rick Warren, who transitioned from being an electrician for the distillery site into making spirits. "He's worked his butt off and done an incredible, incredible job," says Morgan of Warren. The partners lend a hand however possible: For instance, co-owner Scott Freund, a plumber, procured and welded together the equipment, including the first still -- which he fabricated using a vat which had previously been used to make Campbell's Soup.
Morgan notes how some businesses acquire their spirits from outside distilleries, put their own names on it, and then spend most of their money on marketing. "I didn't realize until I started this business how much of this industry is smoke and mirrors," he says. "We didn't come out with anything that we wouldn't put our names on. We never bought anything to blend: Everything we've ever sold, we've made 100 percent."
He further emphasizes how the partners aren't interested in building the brand, then selling it to the highest bidder. Rather, Branch & Barrel is a business the proprietors "plan on handing down to our children -- and our children's children," says Morgan.
Challenges: "There's a lot of competition," says Morgan, "you know, getting in front of people. People aren't going to go buy a $60 bottle if they haven't tried it."
Opportunities: The turn towards craft products. "People are taking a lot more control over what they consume," says Morgan, becoming "conscious consumers."
Needs: "A marketing budget," says Morgan. "And just more exposure, honestly."