By John Garvey | Oct 02, 2018
Fort Collins, Colorado
The second craft distillery in a city that now has seven, CopperMuse is best known for its vodka, bottling such infusions as Bacon Infused Vodka, and its Art Deco flair.
With only one still capable of producing 50 gallons at a time, the distillery makes an impressive variety of spirits: silver rum, gold rum, vodka, gin, tequila, infused vodkas, and liqueur.
It takes a pound and a half of bacon for each five-gallon batch of Bacon Infused Vodka, the spirit which has garnered the most attention. "It's such an unusual ingredient to infuse into vodka," Hevelone muses, "but is a very logical choice for those that love Bloody Marys."
Hevelone and his wife, Heather, were longtime homebrewers who toyed with the idea of starting a brewery during their college years in the late 1980s and early '90s. At the time, it was difficult to justify setting aside two engineering careers and, like so many others, they felt the craft beer market had reached its saturation point. (The number of breweries in Fort Collins proper has more than quadrupled in the quarter-century since.)
Hevelone never lost the drive to start a business, however. His "aha moment" arrived one afternoon in Denver, where he had his first exposure to craft spirits. "It was a Leopold Brothers down in Denver and I just had their gin and tonic," he recalls. "And I remember drinking it and was just amazed. . . . And then I kind of asked a few more questions and found out that they were a craft distiller and you know, it was something that I wasn't even familiar that you could do as a craft."
At the time, Fort Collins had not one craft distillery.
Leaving a secure career in engineering to found a distillery wasn't exactly as easy as picking out a tie, but when the time came he charged in headfirst. "I didn't try to work while doing the distillery," Hevelone says. "Once I committed to doing that, I jumped full steam ahead."
CopperMuse's signature drink is the Copper Mule, a twist on the Moscow Mule made by combining the distillery's award-winning Vertueux vodka with 40 percent infused vodka (Cucumber, Lavender, Jalapeno, and Strawberry are all options) and limeade ice cubes.
As far as branding goes, the Hevelones had an idea of what they wanted: an Art Deco theme invoking Greek mythology, but identifying something true to that vision that wasn't already claimed was challenging. Ceres, the Greek goddess of grain was taken, as were so many others.
Hevelone arrived at the name CopperMule with the help of a branding agency. He later enlisted Loveland-based designer Josh Emrich -- who specializes in the craft beer space -- to do the logo and other materials.
Like other businesses in downtown Fort Collins, the location has been a mixed blessing for CopperMuse. "Being here in the heart of downtown Fort Collins has been just a wonderful boon to getting us known to this community and things like that," notes Hevelone, citing nice foot traffic from a regular slate of events in the vicinity. "That's just created it kind of a nice destination location. . . . We picked up regulars on a very quick basis."
But the prime location comes with a price. "Recently I was kind of getting to the point where I was maybe going to pay myself a decent wage and then my rent increase happened here in the beginning of June. So I kinda had to push that off a little bit."
Challenges: For many spirits, it takes a long time to bring the finished product to market, presenting challenges with financing and inventory. "You know, you're trying to get a company profitable and . . . get some products to market quickly so you can keep the cash flow going," says Hevelone. "But then every once in a while, spending a little money to set a barrel aside . . . has been a really huge challenge. And I think a lot of distillers face that because you can't just go to the bank and say, 'Hey, I need a $500,000 loan so I can fill a bunch of barrels.' They have a hard time seeing the value of that barrel and how much it's going to grow in value over those years."
There's also a "delicate balance" to managing growth because costs often increase in large increments or step functions. Growing or deferring on new investment is never an easy call.
Opportunities: Hevelone has always looked to local breweries New Belgium and Odell as models when contemplating expansion, branching out one or two states at a time without compromising quality. CopperMuse began distributing to Oklahoma in September 2018, and Hevelone is exploring distribution opportunities in Michigan and Georgia.
Hevelone plans to eventually move production to a larger facility in a lower-rent area, allowing him to use larger stills and do more barrel storage and aging. Timing that right by taking into account rents, capital equipment costs, production costs, product demand and other factors that influence cash flows won't be easy. CopperMuse will maintain its downtown location as a destination retail, tasting, and light dining spot.
Needs: "There's some capability that I would like to add," says Hevelone. "Right now our equipment limits us in being able to do bourbons which are of course one of the most popular whiskeys in the United States. And in order to do bourbons, I have to kind of get some different kinds of equipment."
A closely related need is access to capital. "One of the things I'm always taking a look at is, do we keep it still 100 percent privately owned? Do we open it up to a few investors and stuff like that? And there's pluses and minuses to that."