After six years and hundreds of hours distilling vodka, gin, bourbon and brandy, Rory Donovan finally feels comfortable calling Palisade-based Peach Street Distillers a successful business. Donovan founded the business with Ska Brewing Co. co-owners Dave Thibodeau and Bill Graham in 2005 with $150,000 of investor money. Now, the company is getting close to the $1 million mark, and it has expanded its distributing statewide and beyond.
Slowly but surely, distilling around the state is growing into its own and carving out a niche on liquor-store shelves. But local distillers freely admit their path to success hasnt been a solo effort. The industry has been amply helped by other movements before it, including Colorados craft-beer industry and the growing popularity of buying local that has boosted small-batch producers and small farmers nationwide.
People really want to support local business, and for some, its becoming a necessity to find locally made products, even spirits, said JoAnne Carilli-Stevenson, executive director of the Colorado Distillers Guild. Since 2004, the number of craft distilleries in the state has grown from two to 23, with several others in the planning stages.
One level is people wanting to know how things are made and where they are made, and the second element is people having an affection for products that use things closer to home, said Karen Hoskin, owner of Montanya Distillers, which started in Silverton in 2008 and moved to Crested Butte this summer.
The distillery has expanded its distribution from five states to 30 in about a year and saw its sales to Colorado restaurants and bars climb 248 percent compared with last year.
Even though the main ingredient in Montanyas rum is sugarcane from Hawaii, people gravitate toward craft spirits because they want to be able to say I met the people who make this or I bought this right in the distillery, Hoskin said. People love to talk about those experiences.
As it embraces the use of local raw materials for its spirits, Peach Street Distillers has received continuous support from customers wanting to support its work, said Donovan. Located in the heart of the orchard country on the Western Slope, all the fruit for Peach Streets brandies comes from less than five miles away. Their local connections not only gives the distillery access to some of the tastiest fruit in the state but also supports the local economy, Donovan said.
The concept of taking a product from someone you know, somebody who is in your backyard and making something out of it you can sell to other people you know in a slightly larger backyard, it goes in line with sustainability and with the grass-roots concept keeping money close to home, he said. Its the best way to keep it righteous.
Colorados local-friendly laws, already amended for craft breweries, have made it easier for distilleries to start here and expand, Carilli-Stevenson said. Distilleries can sell their wares directly and operate tasting rooms, a combination that isnt allowed in many other states.
Ian James, owner of Mancos Valley Distillery, said the local gathering spot the distillerys tasting room provides has proved to be a boon to business. James estimated that 30 percent of his sales come from the tasting room, which is usually open once a week. Donovan said the tasting room accounts for 50 percent of business at Peach Street.
When it comes to getting their bottles into stores, wine and microbrewed beer have paved the way for us, Hoskin said. Laws already have been amended to accommodate those industries, and liquor stores have become savvy to Colorado-made products, she said.
Though in the early days it was still a struggle to raise awareness about locally made spirits, now its a lot easier for local guys to get their product on liquor-store shelves every store has a Colorado shelf, Donovan said.
James of Mancos Valley said hes discovered the most effective form of marketing is a grass-roots approach of getting his product into customers hands and changing opinions one drink at a time, he said.
People are so used to the only thing available being from big companies, James said. Something small and unique is what people want thats what it always used to be.