Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Products: Spirits and liqueurs
Owner Dawn Nudell Richardson brings a culinary flair to craft spirits and liqueurs while serving as an ambassador for Colorado's growing distilling industry.
"Everything we do has a culinary perspective on it," says Nudell Richardson of her distillery's line of spirits and liqueurs. "I've cooked my whole life and I love the creative element: coming up with cocktail menus; tasting, checking, making adaptations, and figuring out where to get ingredients for each product."
When Rising Sun Distillery launched, Nudell Richardson developed the recipes, while her husband, Sol, did the distilling. (He now works as a software developer.) The Rising Sun name partially reflects that her first name is Dawn and Sol is Latin for sun.
Nudell Richardson had an unconventional childhood while growing up in Utah: She was raised in a school bus by a mother who operated bulldozers and other heavy equipment throughout the state. Later, Nudell Richardson spent over two years teaching English in Japan, while furthering her culinary appreciation.
Then, back in the United States, she taught history and social studies. As far as starting a distillery goes, she says, "I joke that it's my Breaking Bad story, because I was a high school teacher for 15 years."
Nudell Richardson says her passion for social studies and history is reflected within Rising Sun's Silk Road Organic Gin, made with fennel, cardamom, dried orange rind, and juniper, "plus trade secrets," she says. "I have always had a fascination and interest in the history of people and ideas moving across Asia. My gin has a lot of Indian spices, so I thought the spice routes were a good name for the gin."
The gin opens up in the mouth like a flower. "I think gin is underappreciated in the United States, especially in the microdistillery world," says Nudell Richardson. "[Gins] go really well with food." As a separate product, the distillery offers its gin finished on oak staves.
Nudell Richardson's culinary passions are also reflected by the company's hire in 2015 for its head distiller position: Kim Cavallaro studied at Johnson & Wales University before interning at Downslope Distilling in Centennial.
"She's fantastic," Nudell Richardson says of Cavallaro. "She also has a really good palate. And she and I have a lot of synergy, so when we're building recipes and when we're deciding whether something is ready or not, we're very much in lockstep." Furthermore, a newly hired assistant distiller, Steffany Landers, started off as a pastry chef.
Judges at local competitions are liking Rising Sun's entries. Its Organic Vodka, with its smooth mouthfeel and sweet tingle on the tip of the tongue, won a silver medal at the Denver International Spirits Competition in 2016. "It's a very soft vodka," Nudell Richardson says. "There isn't much bite."
There's also no genetically modified or non-organic corn used, she adds, which leads to "a really clean product." (All but one of Rising Sun's products are certified USDA Organic.) "It's a really beautiful blank canvas for cocktails, but that little hint of sweetness makes it soft enough that you can drink it on its own."
At the 2017 Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival, the distillery's Lavender Hibiscus Liqueur won a gold medal and the Colorado Peach Brandy won a silver. The "summery" liqueur has been the distillery's biggest seller this year. "The hibiscus has citrusy notes, so it balances the floral of the lavender," says Nudell Richardson. "Bartenders love it."
It's a Cavallaro creation: "That's her baby," says Nudell Richardson, noting that lavender and hibiscus are part of the mash, and dried lavender and hibiscus are also added, in addition to honey. "It's like seasoning as you're cooking -- you want to season, every stage."
For the Peach Brandy, she says they worked hard "to get that peach through" and make it detectable to trained palates. "It's almost like a whisky with peach through it," she says of the barrel-aged creation.
In 2016, the Colorado Chili Liqueur won silver medal at the same competition. It's made using Mirasol chile peppers grown in in Pueblo, and sweetened with agave. Dried Hatch chiles from New Mexico are added after the distilling for added flavor.
On the menu board in the colorful tasting room, one cocktail is dubbed "Dawn's Favorite," consisting of Rising Sun's white Colorado Chili Spirit, citrus from lemon, lime, and orange, and a splash of soda. "I don't like fussy drinks," Nudell Richardson says. "I tend to drink mostly straight." It also reflects her passion for fiery foods: "I'm from the Southwest and, so, chilies taste like home."
The distillery and tasting room occupy 1,700 square feet ("and we're bursting at the seams right now") in an industrial neighborhood near I-25 in Denver at West 13th Avenue and Zuni Street. "Everything we do here is from grain to glass," says Nudell Richardson. It's a "small operation," consisting of a mash tun, three fermentation tanks (one around 300 gallons and two at 250) and a "tiny" 27-gallon still. "We could probably use one three times as big," she says. "We've probably doubled our production in the last six months, but there's still a long way to go."
In addition to cooking up recipes, Nudell Richardson enjoys interacting with the people behind her ingredients. "I love working with small, independent farmers," she says. "I think there's something really special about that."
And, just like ingredients for a craft spirit, she works at bringing together Colorado's varied distilleries into a cohesive whole by way of a project highlighting spirits tourism throughout the state: Nudell Richardson was recently named Colorado Spirits Trail Ambassador by the Colorado Distillers Guild.
"I love community building and working with various stakeholder to bring them together on a big project," she says. "And having a big vision -- not just for myself, but for my industry."
Challenges: First off, there's spreading word about the distillery. Nudell Richardson says, "There's almost no budget for marketing -- and if you have a budget for marketing it helps your sales."
As far as other challenges, there's . . . well, everything else you need to do to run a distillery: "As a distillery you're a bar, you're a manufacturer, you're a distributor, and then also you do a lot of events. So you really have like four companies all in one. There's a lot of moving parts."
Opportunities: Growing the state's distilling industry, says Nudell Richardson, as she grows her own business beyond metro Denver. "Right now, because I'm working with the [Colorado] Distillers Guild on a statewide tourism initiative, it's been a great opportunity to be able to become more of a leader in my industry, and talk about what I do and what we do as an industry. And I feel like if we're all better, it helps all of us."
Needs: A tasting room in a human-friendlier location, away from the industrial area where the distillery is currently located. "We need more space," says Nudell Richardson. "And what I'd really like to do is open an off-site tasting room."