by Keith Hemeon, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Woody Creek Distillers
It’s a challenging task to truly lock down a specific date for when Bourbon whiskey was first being produced commercially in Colorado. First, let's take a look at the history of whiskey in the United States. In 1783, The Samuels Family began making Bourbon in Samuel's Depot, Kentucky, which is now called Maker’s Mark, and Evan Williams founded the first commercial distillery in Louisville, KY. A few years later, Elijah Craig started aging his corn whiskey in charred oak barrels. Stories vary on the reasoning - some claim the sterilization of previously used sugar, fish, and pickle barrels leads to this tradition as the barrels made their way back down the Ohio River, eventually to the Mississippi and New Orleans, giving the whiskey a more flavor as it made its 2-month journey.
Beer came first to Colorado, arriving with the 1858 Gold Rush - whiskey is made from beer, so this is an important milestone in the history of whiskey in Colorado. By then, the Whiskey Rebellion had come and gone, sour mash had been developed, and American whiskey came to be known as bourbon. The Rocky Mountain Brewery opened in 1859 to serve Denver’s thirsty miners, while in Golden Adolph Coors founded the Coors Brewery in 1873.
Adolph Coors is an important character in the story of Colorado whiskey. Adolph was born in Prussia in 1847 and orphaned at the age of 15 in 1862 after his family had moved to Dortmund, Westphalia. During this hardship in his life, he was an apprentice at the Wenker Brewery in Dortmund, which is now a part of modern Germany. This apprenticeship consequently lead him to other brewery positions in Berlin and Kassel until 1868, when he came to the New York City as an undocumented stowaway. From there, he made his way to Chicago where he worked as a lead foreman at the Stenger’s Brewery from 1869-1872 before moving to Colorado. The rest is fermented history.
"Beer was the natural evolution for a lot of the distilleries,” says Sean Kenyon, National Brand Ambassador for Woody Creek Distillers in Basalt, CO. and bartender-proprietor of Denver bars Williams and Graham, Occidental and American Bonded. "Grain grows abundantly in the state and is fermented to make the base of both beer and whiskey," Kenyon notes. "In classic frontier spirit, the state has embraced both."
This timeline of Bourbon whiskey production now brings us to the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, when whiskey was used to treat soldiers’ wounds and disease. Bourbon production hit a snag during Prohibition from 1920-1933 - Colorado had prohibited alcohol in the state five years before 18th amendment had been ratified, dealing a crushing blow to beer producers in the state. After Prohibition, in 1964, Congress declared Bourbon as "America's Native Spirit" and the country's official distilled spirit. This was also when the current regulations defining Bourbon Whiskey were established. Beer production in Colorado was rebounding nicely after Prohibition, and in the 1970s, home brewing was legalized, paving the ground for the microbrew revolution and eventually whiskey production in the state.
So, when did Colorado start producing Bourbon? There are a few pre-Prohibition tax records indicating that there were a handful of distilleries throughout the state, but they fell by the wayside during Prohibition and little evidence of those distilleries persists to this day.
From winemag.com article by Kara Newman
As of 2019, Colorado was home to 102 distilleries, according to the American Craft Spirits Association, most of which produce world class Bourbon whiskey. Colorado has become a leader in the craft spirits revolution and a sought-after category throughout the United States for all sprits consumers.