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A person standing in front of wooden barrels holds a large hose
Breckenridge Distillery employee Carl Ganger III fills the barrels with bourbon in the production room, Oct. 12, 2023, in Breckenridge. Distilleries in mountain towns are finding success for local job growth and visitation. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In September, Scott Yeates, co-founder of Colorado distillery Mythology, spent 10 days rafting the Grand Canyon with friends he met in his new hometown. Naturally, he brought some of his product along for the campfire, which brought everyone even closer. 

It was exactly the kind of people he was looking to meet when he moved his award-winning distillery to Steamboat Springs from Denver this year. While the company has been successful in Denver since its founding in 2018 — it’s one of the top five craft distilleries in the state — something was missing. Turns out it was a connection to his customers.  

“Mountain towns like Steamboat are just smaller and make it easier for us to give local support and gain better connections to our customers,” said Yeates, who took over a building formerly occupied by Butcherknife Brewery, which closed during the pandemic, and added a barrel storage room and an outdoor whiskey-tasting garden. “It also gives us a deeper connection to the various groups and nonprofits we’re supporting. It’s harder to do this sort of thing when you’re not in a close-knit community.” 

A case in point: Mythology hosted five events for different local nonprofits in September. 

As well as the ski resorts many of them offer, Colorado’s mountain towns offer a lifestyle that appeals to distilleries, for their brands and owners’ sake. These small-scale liquor-makers are also becoming rural economic engines for these towns, providing jobs, tax revenues and a valuable attraction for visitors.   

A man standing near a copper distilling kettle
Scott Yeates, owner of Mythology Distillery in Steamboat Springs. (Photo provided by Mythology)

Mythology isn’t the only one making such a move. Archetype Distillers, which started in Denver, is in the process of moving to Gypsum. Small-batch aperitif-maker Atost is uprooting from its former headquarters in Denver to a small farm in California. And Denver’s Stranahan’s just announced plans to open a Stranahan’s Whiskey Lodge in Aspen this winter, marking its first outpost beyond its Front Range distillery and tasting room. 

“It’s by no means an exodus,” Yeates said. “For every one of us that leave there are two or three that enter the market. But for those of us that do leave, it’s about an experience rooted deep in the Colorado lifestyle.” 

This lifestyle goes hand-in-hand with the craft distillery industry. According to the American Craft Spirits Association, or ACSA, Colorado has 112 active craft distilleries, putting it at number six in the country behind Washington. Colorado Distillers Guild treasurer Lee Wood, who co-owns Wood’s High Mountain Distillery in Salida, puts the number more at 100 “producing” distilleries. “But if you look at it on a per capita basis, we crush everybody,” said Wood, who founded his distillery near the banks of the Arkansas River with his brother P.T. Wood in 2012. “There are a lot of them in Colorado, especially in our mountain towns.” 

Of the Guild’s 64 members, 41 are based in smaller towns, away from the Front Range, where their owners can blend their liquor creations with the lifestyle they love. “I’d say that distillers choose mountain towns because of the lifestyle it affords and the fun nature of tourism,” said Guild president Meagan Miller, who also owns Talnua Distillery in Arvada, the first single pot still distillery outside of Ireland. “And having a local distillery adds character to those towns.”  

Distilleries add character. And a lot of jobs.

It also adds to their economy. The ACSA reports the number of active craft distillers in the U.S. grew 17.4% last year to 2,687, topping $7.5 billion in sales and employing 24,255 full-time employees. While not on the same scale of their ski resorts, Colorado’s mountain towns are reaping their rewards, from revenues to giving tourists something else to do. 

Take the Roaring Fork Valley, for instance, which is home to Aspen Distillers near Basalt, Woody Creek Distillers in Basalt and Marble Distilling in Carbondale. “Their presence definitely adds to our unique character,” Aspen Chamber Resort Association president Debbie Braun said. “They’ve cultivated a dedicated following among residents and visitors alike, enhancing our reputation as a hub for artisanal craftsmanship and unique culinary experiences.” The chamber doesn’t track the specific impact of the nearby distilleries, but she said “they contribute significantly to the area’s economy by creating jobs, attracting tourists, and supporting local agriculture.” 

For the people behind the distilleries, it’s as much about blending work and life as it is bourbon. “Woody Creek is pretty slow-paced,” said local resident Jess Graber, the founder of Denver-based Tin Cup Whiskey who began distilling in the early 1970s and also co-founded single malt pioneer Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey with namesake George Stranahan, who also lived in Woody Creek before his death in 2021. “The everyday hustle and bustle of the city is replaced by feeding time for the horses. It’s why I moved here and started distilling first as a hobby and later founding Stranahan’s and Tin Cup.” 

Named after the Colorado mining town of Tin Cup, Tin Cup Whiskey and Stranahan’s parent company Proximo, recently announced plans to open a new Stranahan’s Whiskey Lodge in Aspen. “It’s coming home, where we blazed the trail for our American single malt journey nearly 20 years ago,” Graber added. “It’s a way to say thank you to those who helped start it all.”  

A bartender prepares samples crafted rums in tasting room of Montanya, on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, Colorado. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Having a tasting room, like the one Stranahan’s is building and Mythology’s new whiskey garden in Steamboat, is critical, added the Guild’s Wood. “Most every successful distillery has a really active tasting room,” he said. “You have to. Otherwise, you have all the disadvantages of owning a distillery in a small town without any of the advantages. It’s crucial to surviving.” 

Crested Butte’s Montanya Distillers, which ships rum to 44 states and seven countries, knows this well. Founder Karen Hoskin, who launched the company in a stone, turn-of-the-century brothel in Silverton in 2008 (her first batch was distilled in a lobster pot), has since moved the operation to Crested Butte, including a popular tasting room on Elk Avenue downtown as well as a distillery, bottling facility and barrel house two miles outside of town. It’s won almost every major award in the spirits world and recently became the first distillery to receive investment from the Focus on Female Founders Venture Fund at Constellation Brands. 

“Rum has a long and storied connection to skiing,” said Hoskin of her base in Crested Butte, “and what better rum to use than one made in the Rocky Mountains.”  

Some distilleries were born and raised in the small mountain towns they call home. Such is the case with Vail and Gypsum’s 10th Mountain Division Whiskey & Spirit Co., named after the tough-as-nails skiers who trained outside Vail for mountain warfare in Europe during World War II. 

Founded by Ryan Thompson and Christian Avignon, whose grandfather was a medic in the 10th Mountain Division, the company pays tribute to these schussing soldiers with spirits it feels are every bit as bold. And they couldn’t see it being based anywhere else. “Not only is it a tribute to the 10th Mountain soldier, but also to those that enjoy the mountain lifestyle, living it fully, every day,” said Thompson, adding the distillery’s spirits — including bourbon, rye, cordials, vodka, moonshine and more — are all made from locally sourced ingredients, paying further homage to the valley and its early explorers.  

Breckenridge Distillery was also born and raised in the mountains. Billed as the “world’s highest distillery” at 9,600 feet, it was founded in 2008 by Bryan Nolt, a Front Range radiologist and former “scotch nerd” who saw the town as ideal for his distilling idea of making a high-rye mash, blended bourbon whiskey, that has since gone on to win four World Whiskies awards. Led by the company’s flagship Breckenridge Bourbon, the company now produces 23 barrels a day, five days a week, in a 10,000-gallon mash kettle and multiple fermentation tanks, bottling 1.5 million flagons of booze annually. The business is growing about 40% each year.  

Breckenridge Distillery operator Will Curry stack the filled barrels from the production room, Oct. 12, in Breckenridge. The bourbon is aged in the barrel for 3-4 years at the facility. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“I appreciate large cities and city living, but I’m happier spending less time and money on driving and the activities of daily living,” he said. “I prefer spending time with people or being outside. My love of the outdoors makes Breckenridge a great fit. It also forces you to improve your work-life balance. I’m wired to be a workaholic, so the constant reminders that there are great things to do outside is good for me.” 

He also said you can’t find better water for his operations. “Our water comes from snow melting off the Continental Divide, permeating through the mountains,” he said. “Its purity, high mineral and low iron content pairs great with ethanol and lends a mouthfeel I haven’t found anywhere else. And anything that doesn’t melt we get to ski on.”  

But he admitted there are drawbacks to running a distillery in a town like Breckenridge. “The downside is that living here is challenging,” he added. “The cost of living is difficult for most people and the winters are long. And from a business perspective, logistics can be difficult, especially with the current state of I-70, which can make getting materials in and out of town hard.” 

He said it’s also challenging promoting a “high-performance culture” in the workplace. “That takes a lot of finesse up here as most residents didn’t pick this extraordinary setting because they wanted to spend their time grinding out work,” he said. “We’ve managed to find the sweet spot, but it took over a decade to make that happen.” 

Breckenridge Distillery employee Clare Buckley restock bottles of whiskey in the tasting room in Breckenridge. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

From Deerhammer Distillery in Buena Vista to the Telluride Distilling Co. in the San Juans (San Miguel County’s first legal distillery, opening its doors in 2015), plenty others are finding a formula that works as well, putting up with the drawbacks of settling in a mountain town to distill spirits and life back down to the basics. 

 “Our brand was grown out of enjoying whiskey while camping,” said Mythology’s Yeates, who got the brainstorm for the distillery while on a ski trip in Alaska’s backcountry. “Steamboat is such a better, more authentic brand fit for us. Denver was a small community when I grew up there, but it’s grown and has lost some of its character. It’s great to get back to a tight community where we can have a closer connection with our customers and where we can be bigger fish in a smaller pond instead of just another fish. In Denver we were just another distiller, and one of a thousand cocktail bars. Here we’re a unique place to visit.” 

Eugene Buchanan is an award-winning author, speaker, editor and reporter based in Steamboat Springs with more than 30 years of experience in the newspaper and magazine industry. Email: Twitter: @paddlinglife