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Posted: March 19, 2014

Spirited disruption

DSTILL draws national craft crowd

Gigi Sukin

The American craft distilling industry is experiencing profound growth, and Colorado is one of its spirited success stories.

In the past 10 years, the number of active U.S. artisanal distilleries has spiked from 60 to about 400; Colorado went from zero to 46 in just a few years.

“Colorado has probably set the gold standard for support of craft in the U.S.,” said Penn Jensen, executive director for the newly formed trade organization, the American Craft Distillers Association.

The ACDA brought its inaugural conference to Denver March 13, coinciding with the second annual DSTILL. The weeklong spirit celebration, running from March 10-16, featured a series of workshops, presentations and sipping socials, including the trademark showcase with 45 craft distillers pouring their potions for the sold-out 1,200-person event at the McNichols Building.

“DSTILL is the rising tide that lifts all ships. It puts Colorado’s distilling at the forefront,” said Chuck Sullivan, co-founder of Something Independent. “When you start to peel back the layers of distilling, you’ve got the doers, the small business people, the entrepreneurs, people willing to put their lives on the line and say, ‘Let’s do this!’”

The week kicked off with a “First Pour” at the Green Russell Monday evening and followed up with a moderated panel at Wynkoop Brewing Co. Tuesday to unpack the relationship between craft distillers and bartenders. By midweek, a trifecta of “Meet the Makers” workshops focusing on rum, whiskey and gin scattered thirsty fans around Denver.

“Cheers to the American dream!” said Jake Norris, former head distiller at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, as he raised a glass at Ste. Ellie with a roomful of craft connoisseurs. Norris revealed a beaker-full of his new A.D. Laws Four-Grain Bourbon — set for public release late this summer — out of his new Laws Whiskey House project.

Though not quite on par with the size and scope of the Great American Beer Festival, the development of the craft distilling movement, driven mainly by small businesses, seems apt in a state known for its microbrew scene.

“I think the ‘go local’ movement has a lot to do with it,” said Rob Masters, president of the Colorado Distillers Guild and head distiller at Spring44 in Loveland.

The state also maintains a lenient legal framework compared with others, particularly for the distribution of alcoholic beverages, when it comes to self-distribution to bars, restaurants and consumers. 

“Colorado has a very favorable climate for legislative and legal allowances,” Sullivan said. “It allows for distillers to be viewed as licensed manufacturers.”

Another reason for Colorado’s success in the craft distilling game, according to Masters, is the ability to establish tasting rooms. He says that many have garnered sizable followings as small-town tourist hubs statewide, benefiting the business behind the booze along with local communities.

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Gigi Sukin is an Associate Editor at ColoradoBiz. She can be reached at

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