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Photos Jerry McBride

Durango Craft Spirits

by Chris Meehan on June 16, 2019, 01:30 pm MDT

www.durangospirits.com

Durango, Colorado

Founded: 2015

Privately owned

Employees: 4

Industry: Brewing & Distilling

Products: Spirits

Using the Four Corners' heritage names and grains, this mom-and-pop distillery is racking up awards.

"All of our spirits are tied to stories of Durango's history, and despite Durango being so small, it's still a very well-known town across the country," says co-owner Michael McCardell. Most days he and his wife, Amy, run the tasting room, even while he puts in 100-hour weeks distilling, distributing, and selling.

His passion is palpable. "I'm okay with it because I absolutely love my job. And I can't think of a job better than this," McCardell says.

Though it opened its doors in 2015, the idea behind the distillery stretched back over a decade, according to McCardell. Some friends with a distillery let him compare their craft gin with a big brand name. "I was just completely blown away how much superior their gin was," he says. "I saw what craft spirits could be, so that's when I first started thinking about getting into craft spirits."  

Durango Craft Spirits released Cinder Dick Bourbon (railroad detectives were known as cinder dicks) in December 2017 and took silver medals in the 2018 North American Bourbon Whiskey Competition and the American Distilling Institute's subsequent Craft Spirit Awards. "I love bourbon and really just wanted to make the best tasting bourbon I could," McCardell says.

In 2017, the distillery's Mayday Moonshine -- named after the nearby Mayday Mine -- swept the ADI's moonshine category, recognized as Best of Category, Best of Class, and winning the gold medal in the category. Soiled Dove took gold in the New York International Spirits competition in 2016.

McCardell says he's looking to introduce more spirits. "I'm hoping this year to begin production on a single-malt whiskey. My grain supplier is helping me develop a specific malt just for us. So I'd like to get that going this year and then down the line I'd like to introduce a blue corn bourbon possibly as well as a rye whiskey."

Durango Craft Spirits sources grains locally. "I get my corn from the Ute Mountain Tribe's Bow and Arrow farm in Towaoc, Colorado, an hour west of Durango," McCardell explains. "All my other grains come from the Colorado Malting Company, the Cody family. They have been doing this for over 100 years in Alamosa, Colorado."

The distillery is continuing to grow. It produced about 10,000 cases of spirits last year and put away about 20 barrels of bourbon to age in 2018. "We're just very conservative and trying to build this slowly. We've been growing at steady average rate of about 20 percent per year," McCardell says. "Over the next few years we'd like to steadily increase."

"This year, I hope to put away 40 barrels and I could put away about 60 barrels," McCardell states. The distillery's capacity is about 20,000 cases, he estimates. He's already expanded in the building, which was Durango's first Safeway when it opened in 1939, allowing for more barrel storage.

Beyond distilling and doing tastings at the distillery, McCardell also self-distributes his whiskey across the state. He makes runs to the Front Range once a month.

Durango Craft Spirits is getting into more stores and local restaurants and bars. Notes McCardell: "It's always a goal to not only get your spirits in the restaurants and bars but to try and get yourself placed on the top-shelf menu. That just really promotes your brand so much better."

But the spirits really shine in tastings. "It's so much easier to sell that spirit when people actually taste it and then I'm able to tell the story," McCardell explains. "You build that brand recognition and basically try to get them hooked on your brand and that's where we've seen our continued growth is with return customers mostly." That includes tourists coming out from places like Arizona, California, Oklahoma, and Texas.

"It's funny," he laughs. "When I when I originally started this I told my wife that I envisioned a couple old boys talking down in Dallas, one telling the others he's coming up to Durango and instead of them saying, 'Are you going to ride the train?' they'd say, 'Can you bring me back a case of that bourbon?' And it's actually happened a few times. I'm feeling good about that."

Challenges: "Our biggest challenge is always keeping the cash flow at a steady rate, which is why we've been very cautious on growth. It's pretty easy to get yourself in a pickle," McCardell says. "Not only getting shelf space, but building a relationship with these stores so that they believe in your spirit that will help get that new brand moving."

Opportunities: McCardell says, "We will continue to keep growing into the retail market and the end consumers will continue to recognize that we're about quality, we're about local, we make it, we don't fake it, and really push that message across. The more that the public does get educated in the craft industry, that folks like us are going grain to glass, they're definitely more interested, which I think is going to also help to boost sales in the long run."

There's a big target market to the south. "Eventually we'd love to get distribution going into New Mexico because we get such great support from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and the Four Corners area," says McCardell. "It makes sense because it's only half the distance [to Denver]."

The distillery is also in talks with a distributor in the Midwest. "But at this point, it's such a hit to your bottom line on the spirits getting it out that far," he notes.

Needs: "If we can just continue to build this brand recognition . . . we definitely hope to employ more folks to get these spirits out," says McCardell.

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