Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Products: Spirits and liqueurs
Co-founder and Head Distiller Connie Baker is rethinking craft distilling with a laser focus on sustainability.
Baker likes to joke that she moved from "drugs to booze" after a previous career in pharmaceutical sales and consulting. The work was lucrative, she was good at it, but it wasn't feeding her soul.
So she thought about her true passions, and one came to mind. "I love vodka," she says.
That love led her on a multiyear journey. "In 2010, I went to distilling school [at Dry Fly Distilling] in Spokane on a whim," says Baker. "When I walked into the distillery, I just fell in love."
After school, she spent "three years working on recipes and a business plan, and shopping it to banks, which was difficult," says Baker. "The craft spirits movement is really full-throttle. In 2013, it wasn't in its infancy, but it was like a toddler."
Baker knew she wanted to build in a secondary revenue stream. "Great, you're making fabulous liquid, but it's going to take some time getting it out to the world," she says of startup distilleries. "The big guys are fighting you, because they saw what happened in the craft brewing world."
So she needed a differentiator. "I came up with an idea: We'd put an inn above our distillery and create a destination," says Baker. "I tried to explain it to eight banks and finally one listened."
Once the slick five-room Distillery Inn opened in 2015, and Baker was proven right: It had an impressive occupancy rate of 70 percent in 2017. "That's with zero marketing," she says. "We're feeling really good about that."
Baker also feels good about her distillery's sustainable design. "When I came out of school, my husband, Carey [Shanks], and I toured about 30 distilleries," says Baker. "He's a huge sustainability guy. We were shocked by how much went down the drain, not just water, but energy. Why would you send clean, hot water down the drain?"
So Shanks and Baker decided to design a better distillery. The resulting thermal storage system transfers the heat to tanks of water that in turn provide heat for the distillery. "We harvest the heat from all of that water," says Baker. "What we're left with is cold water. It's basically a closed loop system that goes round and round."
And it's not just a drop in the ocean: Marble Distilling harvested 1.8 billion BTUs in 2017. "That's enough to power 20 homes," says Baker. "We use it in the rooms upstairs and the tasting room." It's almost too efficient. "The only problem is it's sometimes too much heat," she says. "If we do have too much heat, we throw it outside."
Baker hopes the industry follows her lead, and notes that the system isn't patented and she's happy to share its secrets. Marble recently hosted representatives from Fort Collins' Old Elk and Hollow Spirits of Albuquerque.
And large distilleries could retrofit and replace the water tanks with ponds to accommodate more heat. "We say, #LiquidChange, or 'Drink Sustainably,'" says Baker. "If we as a small distillery can do that much, imagine if everybody was doing it."
The lineup includes vodka, gingercello, and Moonlight EXpresso Coffee Liqueur, made with Baker's grandmother's recipe. The vodka is 80 percent wheat, 20 percent barley, with most of the grain sourced from Nieslanik Ranch. That's also where they send their spent stillage as animal feed.
"It's a third-generation ranching family a half-mile from our distillery," says Baker. "Now they've gone into the hog business because we have so much stillage for them. It's a beautiful working relationship."
Marble is expanding into brown spirits. "All of our browns are going to be single-cask," says Baker. "We have an innovative cask program. We're using second- and third-generation casks."
The first whiskey, Hoover's Revenge Ragged Mountain Rye Whiskey was released in December 2017. Distilled from all-Colorado grain from Nieslanik, it's named for Baker and Shank's beloved dog, Hoover, a late coonhound who lost his eye during a run-in with a mountain lion and forever sought retribution. "His mission in life was to put giant cats up in trees," laughs Baker. "He continued to that for the rest of his live, much to out chagrin."
For the rye's last two weeks in the barrel, Baker made sure to take advantage of the local elevation and the warm days and cold nights of autumn in Colorado. "It just makes for a beautiful finish," she says. "The notes are insane."
In cask since June 2015, bourbon is coming soon. "I've been tasting it," says Baker. "It's just not ready yet. Hopefully soon."
After self-distributing initially, Marble signed with Breakthru Beverage in 2016. Volume doubled to about 4,000 cases in 2017, and Baker expects similar growth in 2018. "We hope to double our Colorado distribution," she says.
Challenges: "Because we're in a downtown location, we don't have that much space," says Baker. "Space, the final frontier -- that's us."
That's been mitigated by a separate barrel-aging facility, she adds. "Our barrel storage is not onsite. We actually modified an old potato cellar." Polycarbonate panels make for a greenhouse effect during the day, a plus for aging.
Opportunities: Whiskey is a big and barely tapped opportunity, but it is just one of many potential growth drivers for Marble.
"We just opened our second tasting room in Aspen," says Baker. The slick Marble Bar Aspen is located at the Hyatt Residence Club. "That's a challenge for us, because it's something new, but we're hoping it really broadens our audience."
She also sees plenty of room for growth beyond Colorado: Marble is selling in Texas and Illinois, and the distillery will soon open a few other new markets: "We're working on where we'll go next." California is one possible target. "We're really focused on sustainability," says Baker. "We're looking for markets where that's important."
"We're looking at international markets, especially with our gingercello and Moonlight EXpresso," says Baker. "They're unique products. The big guys can't do that because they're focused on one giant product that sells 200,000 cases a year."
She also sees "very craft-centric" opportunities like aging Moonlight EXpresso in rye barrels.
Needs: "Human capital," says Baker. "We have a great team and we don't ever want to sacrifice. If we can't find the right people, we'll run a little lean for a while." It can be especially difficult in the limited labor pool of the Roaring Fork Valley. "It's very difficult to find qualified people who didn't move here to be a ski bum," she adds, while noting she's bullish on a new hire. "It's the first time I've had help in the distillery, which is awesome."