Partners Jay Johnson, Jeff Dickinson, and "dbo" Baker are making award-winning craft spirits at their startup distillery in south Denver.
Dickinson, who managed a warehouse in his previous career, enlisted Johnson, a friend since middle school, and co-worker Baker. "Everyone was tired of being grown-up and wanted to try something different and exciting," says Johnson, who formerly worked in pest control.
They bought a building in an industrial area that looked like something out of a Western movie in 2013 and started converting it into a distillery. The task proved a bit tougher than expected.
"We essentially gutted the building," says Dickinson. "We did all-new plumbing and all-new electrical." But construction and infrastructure was just one side of opening a distillery. "The biggest hurdle was the financial burden. There were all kinds of regulatory issues."
He says that it's especially difficult because new distilleries need to finish construction before they can qualify for a federal permit. "We were just waiting and waiting and waiting."
Once the operation was up and running in fall 2014, the crew was working "long days of 24 hours," says Dickinson as the distillery launched with a wheat vodka, a rye vodka, and a silver rum.
"Unless you have very, very deep pockets, you need some income coming in," says Dickinson. "The easiest way to do that is clear spirits." People are taking notice. Bear Creek won three medals at the 2015 Denver International Spirits Competition for its vodkas and rum.
And the slow start had a silver lining: It allowed the founders to really polish the business plan, Johnson notes. "Our first bar was going to be a portable convention bar," he says. That evolved into a slick tasting room that's popular for events and accounts for about three-quarters of Bear Creek's sales. "dbo's taken it upon himself to make it something special."
The distillery offers an ever-changing menu of craft cocktails, hosts multiple monthly music events, and has played host to more than 30 special and corporate events since opening the doors. They're in turn using the tasting room's cocktails as a sales tool by teaching the recipes to bar staff at accounts. "It's a win-win," says Baker.
In summer 2015, Bear Creek released a single batch of cask strength rum that split time between Wild Turkey and Breckenridge Distillery barrels. The founders are targeting fall 2015 for the first whiskey release, a rye, with bourbon aging for release in 2016 and beyond.
The brand represents "where we're from and where we are now, considering the confluence of the Platte River and Bear Creek is right down the road," says Johnson, who attended Denver's Bear Creek High School with Dickinson.
Challenges: "Educating the consumer on what we're doing and other distilleries who are buying spirits and slapping their label on the bottles," says Dickinson. "There's a lot of people who do that."
Bear Creek's spirits are made by the distillery "grain to glass," adds Johnson."It's important to actually read the label."
Another issue: "With our distilling friends, we joke that it's one thing after another," Dickinson says. "Something breaks, you fix that, and then something else breaks." But there are no longer regular overnights as the speed of distilling has doubled since launch. "Now it's eight-hour days," says Dickinson, who credits a visit to Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. in Galena, Illinois. "That really helped me."
Opportunities: To help satisfy the craving for all things local. "It's burgeoning and growing," says Baker of the craft spirits market. He also says the distillery's location a block off South Broadway in an industrial area offers "a unique experience."
Noting the marketing budget is "zero," he adds "We're letting this grow organically. We're not paying a guy $15 an hour to flip a sign on Broadway. We're letting people find it one their own through word of mouth."
Needs: "Storage and barrels," says Dickinson. On the latter, he notes, "If you're not in with someone already, you're not getting in." He says it comes down to a dearth of lumberjacks and cured wood, but there's an end to the barrel bottleneck in sight -- analysts say the market should catch up with itself by 2016, give or take.