Here’s a feel-good Friday story for you; how a Colorado craft distillery bounced back from a potentially business-ending flood and stayed on track to release their first aged whiskey. For all our friends on the East Coast today, batten down the hatches and stay dry!
Craig Engelhorn will readily admit that it takes a special kind of crazy to open a whisky distillery, given that the act is committed with the certain knowledge that it will be years before your product is ready to sell. Even so, Engelhorn and his four partners had no idea what kind of chaos awaited Spirit Hound Distillers a mere nine months after they finally got their whisky distillery up and running. Like, over two feet of water sort of chaos.
Lyons, Colorado’s first distillery, Spirit Hound was first conceived by Engelhorn back in 1999, when he was working at the local Oskar Blues Brewery and imagining what might result were the company’s Old Chub Scotch Ale to be run through a still. Over a decade later, having left the brewery, he and his former co-worker Wayne Anderson hatched a plan to open a business of their own together. Anderson favored a brewery; Engelhorn wanted to make whisky.
Whisky won and over the next two years the duo assembled their partners, secured a location and began building their still. It was ready at the end of 2012, and even though they then had to have their wash produced under contract at a Colorado craft brewery, by the start of 2013 the distillery was up and running.
Head distiller Engelhorn was able to get six barrels of whisky made in those early months of 2013, along with a coffee liqueur and a variety of clear spirits that allowed the company to stay afloat while the whisky matured. Then September arrived and with it the rains that wreaked destruction on much of northern and eastern Colorado.
Faced with a dead battery in his truck, Engelhorn had elected to spend the night on the second floor of distillery on September 11, aware of the rain but oblivious to the fact that its overnight intensity would cause the close-by St. Vrain River to swell to banks-bursting volume.
“The next morning I woke up to some gurgling sounds,” he says, “It put me right in a bad mood because I thought we had plumbing problems.”
The problems were decidedly larger than mere plumbing. The main floor of the distillery had been submerged in flood water, ruining inventory and supplies and causing major damage to the walls of the building. The bright spot? “The tanks were fine, just had to be cleaned out and made functional again,” Engelhorn says.
Another bright spot: By a quirk of fate, the company had recently invested in flood insurance after their mortgage holder had happened to notice that the property overlapped a flood plain. As a result, Spirit Hound was able to decline all offers of assistance and direct those funds towards other, harder hit members of the community. Their own reparations they financed themselves.
When the town was functionally restored two months later and water and sewage services returned, Spirit Hound Distillers was, in Engelhorn’s words, “ready to press the button and get started again.”
The next chapter of the distillery’s rebirth took place just a few weeks ago, when Spirit Hound threw a party to celebrate the release of their Straight Malt whisky, the bottling of five of those initial six pre-flood barrels. The other barrel, the very first, remains in the warehouse for an as yet undetermined time because, as Engelhorn says, “you’re only ever going to have one barrel no. 1.”
The whisky release was seen by the Spirit Hound partners as less a simple product launch and more an elaborate block party for the town, since to a great extent all of Lyons has been through the recovery together. As Engelhorn says, “We’re happy to just be here. The fact that the community is here and we are here and the whiskey is here – that’s cause for celebration!”