How Spirit Hound Distillers is helping drive that craft spirit feeling
The love of whisky. Their state. Friendship. If you ask Craig Engelhorn why he and several of his friends conceived the idea to make an all-malt, 100% Colorado whisky, that’s the best place to start. And if they were going to do it, why not do it from scratch, using the best of the best the state of Colorado has to offer.
In 2012, their plan became a reality when they opened Spirit Hound Distillers in Lyons, which is located north of Boulder. In the true passion of the product, the Spirit Hound team do everything themselves: brewing, fermenting, distilling, aging and bottling. Using custom copper stills built by hand, the traditional shapes and dimensions that define Scottish whisky production help them ensure all purity and flavor gets into every bottle.
Hence, three years after they set their plan in motion, the first whisky release was in August 2015. The five barrels sold out immediately. To date, they have bottled nearly 300 barrels, including five bottled-in-bond barrels. Of that, six barrels were bourbon, 20 honey whisky and 5 rye whisky.
We sat down with Engelhorn, founder and head distiller, to see where the Spirit Hound brand is heading moving forward.
Tell us a little about your brand.
We are a growing spirits distiller, focused on producing high-quality, hand-crafted spirits in Lyons, Colorado. We are literally and figuratively a Colorado brand. We use Colorado grain, water, climate and environs to shape our products as much as we can, creating a 100% grain to glass Colorado spirit experience. We’re coming up on our 10 year anniversary, and as such are one of the older distillers in the state.
Our brand is grass-roots and we pride ourselves on being built by hand. We build our own equipment, design our own recipes, pick our own juniper berries, and cultivate a community-oriented and enjoyable environment for both our customers and our staff. We genuinely enjoy making high-quality, local products.
What kind of conversations are you having with your customers today?
We are always engaged with our customers, and we find that there’s a wide appeal for folks wanting a quality experience with knowledgeable staff while drinking high-par spirits. Most of our conversations are explanatory—teaching people about our approach to making the best stuff we can. Some of the conversations we have with customers helps our research. We can tease out the details of what flavors or even spirits themselves that people enjoy to imbibe.
Give us a snapshot of today’s craft spirits market from your perspective.
The craft spirits market is similar to the craft beer world of a few years ago, but I think craft spirits are operating on an accelerated timeline and taking a bite into the mainstream product lines at a faster rate than early craft beer was able to do.
A lot of our old favorite craft beer brands have now gone Supernova (a trend that has not quite impacted craft spirits yet, but I feel will). We’re in Colorado, a state whose customers were early adopters of buying local and supporting small, community-centered companies, and that value has driven our success. I’m seeing an increase in the quality of true craft spirits and the level of knowledge of spirits among drinkers, which is great. That is always a positive for an authentic and genuine spirits maker.
What’s likely to happen next?
For Spirit Hound, we’re focused on leveraging our brand and capitalizing on the fact that we’re 10 years old with year-over-year success. We plan to grow aggressively and take our high-quality products into more markets. We just did a large capital infusion; we have serious expansion plans, and we’ve just hired Brad Stevenson, who was previously the COO at Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids. He has real world experience growing a company successfully, as our new CEO. We’re very excited for our next steps.
What trends are defining the space?
There’s a large trend toward ready to drink beverages in spirits right now, and with breweries hopping on the “hard seltzer” bandwagon to bolster their recently waning sales numbers, there’s a lot of competition in that RTD space. What is exciting to us is seeing the super-premium space continuing to grow. We’re still seeing brown spirits gaining momentum. Currently, a lot of whisky is getting parked in barrels all over the country, so we’ll likely see another oak barrel shortage coming soon.
What’s your story from a brand perspective?
We stumbled at the start to create a brand story. We had our original name and logo, but just kept tweaking exactly how we looked here and there. A few years ago, we hired Colorado-based marketing company, Turn It Up Media, to help us understand who we are.
Our brand is inspired by our love for community, passion for spirits and the hard-working, can-do attitude of the hound. In the spirit of creating a truly craft product, we do everything ourselves at the distillery: brewing, fermenting, distilling, aging and bottling.
We are Coloradans that value the outdoors and use only Colorado ingredients to produce the finest spirits—something worthy of our Rocky Mountain home. Hound dogs are relentless. When you put a hound dog on the trail, it doesn’t give up. We’re relentless, too, in our pursuit of quality.
Walk us through your branding strategy.
We want the unique ingredients, experiences and inspirations we draw from the Colorado Rocky Mountains, our genuine love for the authenticity of our do-it-ourselves approach and the quality of our spirits to shine through everything we do.
To guide our brand and help inform every decision we make, we developed a brand book that explains who we are, highlights the distillery’s values, and defines our audiences. From the tasting room to the retail shelf, we use those guidelines to make sure every experience and every spirit from Spirit Hound leaves an impression of the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado community.
What’s the biggest issue today related to marketing and selling?
How to create a brand that captivates a consumer who is confronted with a gigantic barrage of craft products that are quite honestly all over the map in terms of actual quality or the authenticity of production.
What’s the secret to creating a branding story that consumers can buy into?
For us, it’s to continue to do what we love. We are passionate about the entire process of distilling. From the Colorado-grown ingredients, the handmade stills and bottling by hand, to creating challenging cocktails in our tasting room, we truly love what we do day in and day out. I personally believe people want a story that feels real, that they can relate to.
What’s the one thing every craft beverage/spirits brand should be doing in the way of marketing?
From my personal perspective, we see a strong impact when we sample our product. Whether that’s at events or at retail, if we can engage the drinker, sample the product and tell them our story, we make them a Spirit Hound fan for life. It’s important for the craft spirits industry to have that personal experience with the drinker. We’re not a faceless corporation.
What do you see as some of your biggest opportunities moving ahead?
We continue to invest in our sales team, as we have the opportunity to grow right here in our home market of Colorado. As we scale production, we’re looking forward to expanding distribution and creating additional focus for our brand beyond our home state.
What’s the biggest item on your to-do list right now?
Getting a pour of whisky and sitting back from my keyboard. But seriously, we’re continuing to put whisky in barrels to meet demand and are investing in new projects to accommodate our growth. We’re in the planning stages for a new building that will increase both our production space and our tasting room seating, that is certainly a priority right now.
Sitting down with… Spirit Hound Distillers’ Craig Engelhorn
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The people. I feel fortunate to be in a great business where we have fun and people are excited to visit. It helps that we’re on the path to Rocky Mountain National park. I see friends, new and old, often as they pass through.
What was the best advice you ever received?
What’s the best thing a customer ever said to you?
“Wow, I don’t like gin, but I like Spirit Hound’s.” I love to hear this, and I hear it every day.
What’s your favorite brand story?
Liquid Death. Terrible sounding, but they’re killing it. Ahem.