Lucas Hohl didn't start out with the idea of becoming a distiller. After a stint in the military, Hohl and his wife moved back to Hugo to take over her family's grocery store, Osborne's Supermarket. They're the third generation to run the business.
While managing the store took up most of his time, Hohl started tinkering with the idea of opening a craft brewery. After a bad batch of beer and some Googling, Hohl tried distilling the bad batch. "It was even worse," Hohl says. But it started a knowledge quest. "I can't just do something a little bit," he says. "After about 3,000 hours of research and going to classes and seminars, I was like, 'This distilling thing is pretty cool.'"
A trip to Deerhammer Distilling Company in Buena Vista sealed the deal. "Just seeing the process, I knew that was the way I wanted to go," Hohl says.
So he acquired a still from Copper Moonshine Stills of Arkansas and set to work. After a lot of fine tuning, Hohl finally found the right mix. "My first 70 barrels, I was tweaking things and just now I'm getting into bottling stuff that I'm still doing it that exact same way," he says. "I got all the bugs worked out so everything should be really consistent going forward."
Sand Creek Distillery currently produces a single malt whisky. There may be other products in the future but Hohl is focused on making the best single malt whisky he can. "I just gotta take it one step at a time," he says. "I really enjoyed how I've done it because I've been able to learn incredibly organically how the process works." Doing things right is more important to Hohl than doing things quickly.
Sand Creek Single Malt Whisky is aged for 13 months in five-gallon oak barrels from The Barrel Mill out of Minnesota. "The big reason I go with five-gallon barrels is they do age faster," Hohl says. "You get more color and more flavor faster."
Five-gallon barrels have another advantage: "The number one reason I use five-gallon barrels is I can lift them."
The smaller barrels aren't without their drawbacks, though. "The angel's share is a lot bigger," Hohl says. "It's about 25 percent in the first year. A typical 53-gallon barrel that first year is about 10 percent loss."
Sand Creek Distillery recently purchased a building in downtown Hugo after starting off in a shipping container Hohl modified when he was still planning to start a microbrewery. He simply moved the container inside the building, and it also graces his bottles' labels. Currently, Sand Creek's whisky is only available in the tasting room in Hugo, open on Wednesdays from 7 to 9 p.m.
Challenges: "My biggest challenge is just time," Hohl says.
Regulatory issues pose additional hurdles: Hohl uses his barrels twice, but he can't sell the second batch by the same name. "I have to call it 'whiskey distilled from malt mash,' which is super sexy and marketable," Hohl jokes. "That's just the codification in the federal register."
That's something he'd like to see change. "A lot of those regulations predate Prohibition," Hohl says. "In Scotland, they're making arguably the best whisky in the world and they're doing it in once-used American bourbon barrels."
Opportunities: Growth. Recent equipment upgrades have increased capacity and Hohl expects to double production to meet brisk sales. "I have a good problem right now, which is local demand," he says. "I've had a contract for almost a year now with Colorado Craft Distributors. However, I have not been able to get product to them because local demand has been so high."
Needs: Hohl says he would like to use local barley. "I do eventually want to be an all-Colorado product," he says. "I'm trying to get some farmers on board."