By Chris Meehan | Nov 25, 2018
Honey products and craft spirits
The Honeyville story goes back a century to its origin in California in 1918, where it was founded by the Mayer family. The Mayers moved to Colorado in 1953, bringing the business with them.
In Durango, co-owner and President Danny Culhane's dad, Vernon, began beekeeping around 1925. The Culhanes bought Honeyville from the Mayers in 1986, allowing it to remain a family-owned business.
"It was the biggest retail honey outlet in the country," Danny says. "They always did mail order, and all those things. When they moved here in 1953, they kept that up. When we bought them out in '86, we greatly expanded that. Our mailing list now is almost 200,000 names. Plus, our retail is way bigger than it ever has been." The growth has forced Honeyville to transition from producing its own honey to sourcing it from apiaries in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.
Manufacturing honey products hasn't changed much, but the business has changed in other ways. "I think we're more sophisticated than we used to be," explains Danny, noting that Vernon started pioneering honey recipes with whipped cinnamon honey, as well as jams and jellies with honey. "A lot of our recipes are more multidimensional now," says Danny. "We've got one line of sauces and syrups, two kinds of barbecue sauce, a vinaigrette, and we've got about 14 different flavors of whipped honey."
The biggest evolution of the company is being led by Danny's son, Kevin, and Adam Bergal, who together launched Honey House Distillery in 2012. The longtime friends first discussed the idea of launching a distillery around 2008. "He started talking about micro-distilleries and how they were going to be the next big rage, and they were in their infancy and where the microbrewing industry was 20 years ago," Kevin explains.
The distillery now produces five honeyed spirits and is growing rapidly, led by sales of its Colorado Honey Whiskey. Kevin estimates that the distillery's business is growing between 15 percent and 20 percent annually, but it still has a long way to go to catch up with Honeyville.
"Honeyville's a pretty established business, 100 years going, so the distillery's lagging," Kevin contends. "But the future with craft distilling is open and broad, so I think it's definitely got potential to get up there."
Regardless, Kevin doesn't anticipate growing Honey House's portfolio of spirits too quickly. "We've kind of expanded the line slowly over the years," he says. "We might introduce a new flavor every other year or that type of thing, but nothing too crazy too fast."
One of the ideas Honey House has bandied about is introducing a straight bourbon or straight American whiskey, according to Kevin. "There's a handful of people who don't like the bourbon with the sweet part of the bourbon with the honey in it," he notes.
Honey House launched its whiskey line with bourbon from Kentucky. "We'd find good batches of it and mix it with our honey, and then our plan was always to start distilling on our own, which we've done," Kevin says. "We've got some barrels coming up on three years here in the next six months and plan to start weaning ourselves off of that imported bourbon. That was kind of the business plan to start doing that."
The company uses local grain when possible. "We use a non-GMO corn and it's grown and harvested by the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in over in Towaoc, Colorado, just over the mountain from us here. It's really good stuff," Kevin says. However, he hasn't been able to source malted barley locally as Colorado producers are inundated with orders.
The distillery is currently putting out about 28 barrels of whiskey a year as well as distilling rum and other spirits on its 250-gallon still. However, it could produce more whiskey. "We've just got a small barrel room and we can't grow too big too fast. If we can get that barrel storage warehouse out some point that would really speed things up and help us out," Kevin says. He hopes to build a barrel house at Honeyville, "but we're getting pretty tight on our piece of land."
Kevin expects to take over Honeyville when his father retires. "I'd split both evenly," he says. "The two are in the same building and I'm involved in both, and I definitely would continue that."
Co-housing the two businesses has benefits for both. The distillery can use Honeyville equipment to bottle its spirits -- and source honey. Meanwhile, the honey company will have access to spent barrels for aging it products and perhaps access to the spirits to help flavor some products.
Challenges: "We're located in southwest Colorado and some of the challenges are getting glass and supplies," Kevin says. "There's not a whole lot of manufacturing down here and there's not a lot of opportunities to have two companies go in and buy glass together."
Opportunities: Kevin points to new markets and products: "Jumping into some new states, coming out with new flavors and coming out with some things that are unique and different. We've had way better luck with products that are more unique."
Needs: "We always need more whiskey," says Kevin.
He adds, "We need local support, and I love all of our local support. We have a lot of local support and Durango's great for that."