"It takes 20 years to establish a whiskey brand," posits Al Laws, founder of Laws Whiskey House, just like Warren Buffett has said it takes 20 years to build up a company's reputation. Founded in 2011, Laws sees his business as being just over the halfway mark towards that vaunted goal.
So then, hypothetically, does it also take 20 years to establish a flourishing craft spirits industry in a state where -- like most -- there hadn't been one before? Year one in Colorado is often said to be 2004, when Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey was founded.
What's changed in the 18 years since 2004?
For one, the Colorado Spirits Trail lists over 60 craft distilleries presently within the Centennial State.
And it's not just the distilleries themselves that help spark an industry. There are the growers of grain and the maltsters, too. Luckily, Colorado now includes them, as well. Among the contenders at this year's Colorado Manufacturing Awards, Copper Sky Distillery sources the majority of its ingredients from Root Shoot Malting in Loveland. Ironton Distillery & Crafthouse gets its corn and rye from Whiskey Sisters Supply, while its barley comes from Troubadour Maltings. And Laws Whiskey House obtains its grains from Whiskey Sisters Supply and the Colorado Malting Company -- and it does so to the tune of around 1.7 million pounds of heirloom and heritage grains per year, at the present time.
All of the Colorado distilleries that are finalists in this year's CMAs express a love of whiskey. (Ironton is the only one making spirits like vodka and gin; Copper Sky has a barrel-aged rum in the works.) And they all see room for expansion into additional territories. There's a promising future ahead -- but, assuredly, it's going to require tenacity.
As the large tattoo lettering on Al Laws' right forearm -- which runs from below his elbow all the way down to practically his wrist -- reminds him on a daily basis about his profession, "There are no shortcuts."
Head distiller Laura Walters says Ironton creates "very approachable" spirits, and seeks to be "the whiskey of the people." Recently offering 10- to 12-month-old single malt, rye malt, and bourbon, the distillery will be releasing three of its two-year-old whiskeys this summer.
For those seeking a clearer offering inside the glass, there's Ironton's Ponderosa Gin. "We actually harvest the pine needles from our distillery garden, as well as some of the other botanicals that we use in it," says Walters. And there's the distillery's Genièvre Gin and Rye Aquavit -- spirits which have also won awards at the Denver International Spirits Competition, as well as from the American Distilling Institute.
Presently, most of the spirits are sold from behind the bar at Ironton's Denver locale, which Walters says feels more like a bar than a traditional distillery, hosting a variety of events. But a goal for 2022 is widening distribution across the state -- already at 200 accounts -- so that "other people can experience that spirit of adventure that we feel our products represent," says co-founder Kallyn Romero. "We like to say we're distilling the spirit of Colorado."
Living in Colorado Springs after his time in the Air Force, Mike Root didn't know exactly where Longmont was when a friend informed him about a potential space for Root's proposed distillery there. Root says he "immediately fell in love with this community and knew this was where our brand belonged, and it's just been a great reception ever since."
Copper Sky Distillery started its business by blending whiskeys it contract sources, as it sets about creating its own. The distillery won a Platinum Award from Fred Minnick's ASCOT competition for its seven-year bourbon. Root credits the "very established palate" of his head blender/distiller Isaac Haefner as a "cornerstone" of the distillery's success.
Copper Sky's spirits can be found "all over Colorado" as well as four additional states. "We're hitting the ground hard," says Root. "It's quite exciting."
In May the company will begin distilling whiskey in its new 7,000-square-foot space, a former Butterball turkey factory. The building will include two tasting rooms: one public, one private. And it will have nearby views of "sunsets over the Front Range" from which the distillery draws its name.
Founder Al Laws says there are 4,000 barrels of whiskey aging at his distillery, presently. But by the end of 2023, he expects that number to climb to 7,000 barrels. The whiskey is aged a minimum of three years before the public gets to drink any of it.
"We just released our annual bottled and bonded rye and bourbon," says Laws. "The bourbon's eight years old and the rye is seven years old, this year." The former is the first bonded bourbon in Colorado history, according to Laws' website.
Besides Colorado, the distillery's whiskey can be found in 17 states, with primary out-of-state markets being Georgia, Illinois, Texas, and California. Tourists and locals will be able to sip the whiskey closer to the source when construction is finally completed on the distillery's much-anticipated visitor and education center. Permits permitting, the work ought to commence in June -- with estimated costs, back in 2020, expected to be $2.7 million.
It's a complex business, he's running. And Laws, who sees the distilling of a whiskey akin to a spiritual discipline, says, "I think it's the most complex -- and certainly the highest-evolved spirit -- that's made."
CompanyWeek profile (May 2020): https://companyweek.com/article/laws-whiskey-house
The winners of the 2022 Colorado Manufacturing Awards will be revealed on April 7 in Denver. The event is open to all Colorado business enthusiasts and stakeholders. REGISTER HERE for the 2022 CMA Winners Reveal & Gala.