Craft in Colorado

CO Spirits Trail Highlights a New Whiskey Hotbed

Article by Jake Emen

Colorado is home to some of the country’s earliest craft whiskey producers—Stranahan‘s was founded in 2004, for instance, while Leopold Bros. was actually founded way back in 1999, though the distillery didn’t move to Colorado until 2008—so perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s now home to one of the largest craft scenes anywhere in the United States. According to 2018 data from the ACSA’s Craft Spirits Data Project, Colorado ranked 5th in the nation with 99 active craft distilleries within its borders.

Three of the states ahead of it in that pecking order dwarf Colorado in terms of population—California, New York, and Texas—while even Washington state has an extra two million or so thirsty residents. All to say, craft in Colorado is soaring as high as its famed mountain ranges. That’s exemplified in part by the Colorado Spirits Trail, now entering its second year of operation with over 61 distillery members. At least 40 of those are making whiskey, and while there’s plenty of single malt to go around, bourbon has staked a strong claim as well.

The list of distilleries producing Colorado bourbon includes some names you’re sure to recognize, such as the aforementioned Leopold Bros., along with Breckenridge Distillery and Laws Whiskey House. One of the biggest names though may be more familiar to those who were watching the abundance of whiskey coming out of Indiana, feeding the many upstarts who were sourcing bourbon and rye from the state. That’s Greg Metze, former MGP master distiller, and now serving in the same capacity at Old Elk Distillery. Uniquely, Old Elk were themselves sourcing Metze-made whiskey from MGP, and now they have the full-time, in-house services of the distiller.

“Joining up with Old Elk Distillery has rejuvenated my career and given me the opportunity to craft and produce custom mash bills, as well as learn a side of the business that I was never a part of,” Metze says. “Although I have produced many products for many brands over the years, I have never been part of building a brand from the ground up.”

In Colorado, Metze has enjoyed working within what he calls both a progressive atmosphere and a frontier feel to the state’s craft scene. While his view around the stillhouse is a bit different at a craft producer versus the mega-sized MGP, he’s already made his mark with production methodologies such as Old Elk’s proprietary “Slow Cut” proofing profess.

Exercising patience in bringing a spirit down to bottling proof is a crucial, though little-discussed, aspect of production, not to mention a step where many craft distilleries miss the mark. “Our process takes significantly longer—weeks instead of days—and enhances the smooth and rich characteristics of our distillates,” Metze says.

The next time you’re hiking one of Colorado’s peaks, consider toting along a bottle of Colorado bourbon in your pack. In addition to the names above, keep an eye out for the likes of 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Co., Bear Creek Distillery, Boathouse Distillery, Broken Arrow Spirits, Deerhammer Distilling, Distillery 291, Mad Rabbit Distillery, Peach Street Distillers, and Vapor Distillery and assuredly, many, many others.

The next time you're hiking one of Colorado's peaks, consider toting along a bottle of Colorado bourbon in your pack.

Michael Eman
Official Contributor
Kevin Gibson is a free-lance writer who writes for numerous publications, including Bourbon+ magazine, Thrillist, and Alcohol Professor. He also is author of Louisville Beer, Secret Louisville, and several other books. In his three decades as a professional writer, he has won numerous awards but doesn’t know where most of them are now (they’re probably in the basement). He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his dog, Atticus.