Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Founder Al Laws has elevated his craft distillery to an enviable roost in the industry by avoiding shortcuts.
After working as an oil and gas analyst, Laws unveiled his namesake craft distillery -- which he likes to call a "whiskey church" -- in 2014. Of course, the first bottles were eight years in the making at that point, including three years of aging in barrels.
An ongoing $2 million upgrade took the distilling operation offline in January 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the project. The stills resumed production in April, about eight weeks behind schedule, and the project will be completed later in the year.
Not that the slowdown impacted the whiskey pipeline: All of the distillery's brown spirits spend a minimum of 34 months in barrels, so the product being delivered now was distilled in 2017 or before.
"We focused on building a pretty big inventory on the front end," says Laws, "so we would have this ability to put out really well-aged stuff, and not one barrel of it, but 40 barrels at a time. That's how we were designed at the beginning."
The first bottles were released to the retail market in 2014 when the distillery had 1,000 barrels on the racks. Today, it has 3,000 barrels aging, and room for another 1,000 in Denver. The long-term plan involves building rickhauses at its key suppliers' farms: Whiskey Sisters Supply in Burlington and Colorado Malting Company in Alamosa. "We're going to need it," says Laws. "If our salespeople are super successful, then it will take us longer to need it."
Those two operations provide all of the distillery's grain -- about 850,000 pounds of grain a year. "And that will double," says Laws. "Everything comes from Colorado."
About 40 percent of the grain is corn grown on Colorado's Eastern Plains from Whiskey Sisters. "All the small grains are heirloom," says Laws. "They're grown for flavor, not for yield, so there's more intense flavor in them."
Sourced from the Independent Stave Company in Missouri, the barrels are responsible for half the flavor in the whiskey, and that's amplified by the elevation and climate of Denver. "Our barrels pump like a heart," says Laws. "They get a lot more active because of being up against the Front Range. You get more flavor out of the barrel sooner, then you let that age for an appropriate amount of time, and it's a unique thing."
With the upgrade, says Laws, "We will double right out of the gate." And, by the end of 2020, "On paper, we will have the ability to quadruple our production."
That's key to the plan moving forward. "We don't want to destock. We want to continue to build inventory. Since we've been down for four months, we have a gap to fill."
The Laws catalog now includes bourbon and rye flagships, bottled-in-bond versions of each (now six years old and counting), bonded wheat and malt (now four years old) and bonded corn.
The distillery also has an "experimental finish" series of whiskeys finished in barrels formerly full of wine, brandy, and other beverages. Inventory is now 45 barrels deep and up to five years old, and accounts often reserve an entire barrel.
"We're on a three-year plan to increase our sales and to really go deep in Colorado," says Laws. "This is a great state for us. We're really well-situated right now, but we want to be everywhere basically."
Laws Whiskey House now distributes to 15 states. After Colorado, Texas, California, New York/New Jersey, and Illinois are leading markets. "We'll start to put boots on the ground in other places," says Laws, pointing to the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast as targets. "The name is known in Colorado, but it ain't anywhere else." He plans to replicate his strategy in states like Georgia and Virginia to maintain the growth trajectory the distillery has enjoyed in Colorado and other initial markets.
"We like to grow 20 to 30 percent a year," says Laws. "Beyond that, you start to create your own problems. We have the stock, we just don't want to sell to one place and lose it. We'd rather take the hill and keep the hill, and try to develop it the way we did in Colorado."
The distillery is also in the process of building a $2.7 million tasting room and education center, complete with the existing "whiskey chapel," next to the distillery in the Overland neighborhood in south Denver. Working with Jordy Construction and BOSS.architecture, Laws says he hopes to break ground by the end of 2020.
When complete, the tasting room will provide a new starting and ending point for distillery tours. "We bat way above our average on content when you go through a tour with us now, but our facility for it is awful. It doesn't meet our standards. We're going to bring that part of our business to the standards we have for the rest of the business."
Laws says it could open as soon as summer 2021, but -- like his whiskey -- he sees patience as key to the project. "Nothing happens fast, right?" he muses.
Challenges: "This is all real work," says Laws. "The challenges are the same as other businesses, then they're probably 50 percent harder when we step out of state, maybe 100 percent harder." While Colorado currently represents about 70 percent of sales, out-of-state markets have a higher growth rate, he notes.
"We're in a good position because we make it all," he says. "When you think about all the distilleries and all the whiskeys that you see, so many of them, they don't even make it. But we make it. That's a good place to be coming from."
Opportunities: "We'd like to grow," says Laws. "We certainly don't want to become Jim Beam or Jack Daniel's -- we don't have those kind of aspirations -- but we definitely want to be in half the states in the country and have a good critical mass where we're a known brand."
The path to this level of recognition, he notes, hinges on quality. "We're going to take our time doing it and try to do it right. Maybe that's not the best way to do it, but it's the only way we know how."
The goal is "more aged whiskey at the same price," says Laws of the distillery's coming course. "We always raise that bar. Every year, it gets better, not worse."
He adds, "Whiskey is about flavors, and we have very distinctive flavors. We don't need to take a knee to anything from any other part of the country. We make world-class whiskey here."
Needs: "The pandemic is dominating everything," says Laws. "For us, we need more time to execute our plans, and we need the right people."
His philosophy on talent: "We run it like a hockey team. If you're running equipment, you are the head distiller. . . . You don't hear me use the word, I, a lot. It isn't about me, it's about we."