Spirit Hound Distillers: In Relentless Pursuit of Quality

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By: Nan McCreary

Hound dogs are famous for their amazing and relentless ability to follow a scent to the end. For head distiller Craig Engelhorn and his partners, who opened Spirit Hound Distillers  in 2012, choosing the hound dog as their namesake was only fitting for their pursuit of quality as Lyons Colorado’s first craft distillery.

Inspired by their love of whisky and their home state, the friends set out to create an all-malt, 100% Colorado whisky. Their journey began with a search for property in their hometown of Lyons. They found an ideal setting — along one of the two main routes to Rocky Mountain National Park, with heavy summer traffic — but the owner balked at their offer. Undaunted, they negotiated for a year and a half until, finally, they were able to secure the property.

  But that was just the beginning. As a former brewer at Oskar Blue Grill & Brew in their hometown, Engelhorn knew how to ferment malted barley, but he faced two challenges:  First, he needed equipment, and secondly, he needed base product. Both were in short supply, considering limited resources.

  After substantial research, Engelhorn convinced his partners to buy copper and the tools to hand-build a custom copper pot still following the traditional specifications used in Scottish whisky production. “I looked at pictures of stills, and designed an amalgam, limited only by my ability to fabricate metal,” Engelhorn told Beverage Master Magazine. “Our spirits still is a 150-gallon pot still with a tall, tapered column, and makes delicious spirits.”

  The search for product was no less daunting. “In a nod to Scottish tradition, we wanted peat-smoked malt for our grain,” Engelhorn said. “One of our tenets was to use all local products. While Colorado has many barley farms, we only found one that used peat to smoke their malt, Colorado Malting Company in Alamosa.” Spirit Hound Distillers  has been using Colorado Malting Company’s peated malt since the beginning and is now their biggest customer for the product.

  With equipment and product in hand, Spirit Hound Distillers was able to begin producing malted whiskey, but there was just one problem:  Like a lot of start-up distilleries, they could not afford to wait for the whisky to provide cash flow to keep them afloat. Again, like the spirit of the hound dog, they were relentless: In 2012, they celebrated their grand opening with an 84-proof Classic Gin infused with local, fresh-picked juniper berries, a product that is still popular today. At the same time, they picked up a decaf coffee liqueur called Richardo’s, a homemade recipe that was created years ago by a few Lyons locals. While Spirit Hound Distillers did not own the product, sales helped keep the coffers full until they could release the malt whisky. Spirit Hound Distillers also crafted a   Sambuca-style anise liquor, rum and an un-aged version of its whisky called White Dog Moonshine.

  While Spirit Hound Distillers settled in for the long haul and waited for their prized whisky to age, disaster struck the small town of Lyons: The Colorado Floods of 2013. “We were only about eight or nine months old,” Engelhorn remembered, “when monsoons in the mountains sent water ripping through our little town. I was trapped in the distillery at the time with one and a half-foot of water, but I stayed put because I was surrounded by a river and was afraid to get out.”  As a result of the flood, Spirit Hound Distillers lost raw materials, including malted barley, sugar and labels, and some product. The building was not damaged, but had to be stripped to the studs, dried and sanitized. Again, the Spirit Hound Distillers folks were undeterred: They salvaged a half-submerged barrel of 150-proof rum, labeled it Flood Rum, and sold it as a vehicle for raising funds to rebuild the District’s Lyons Fire Station #2 which was destroyed in the flood. “This was a silver lining in the storm for us,” Engelhorn reflected. “We raised $10,000 for the fire department, plus we got some good press.”

  Finally, in 2015, after years of planning and overcoming obstacles, Engelhorn and his partners released long-awaited bottles from five, 53-gallon oak barrels of Straight Malt Whisky filled prior to the historic floods. The bottles quickly sold out. At the time of release, Spirit Hound Distillers was probably one of only three makers of malt whisky in Colorado.

  Today, Straight Malt Whisky is the distillery’s flagship product. Barley is both grown and malted in Alamosa, with addition of a small amount of peated malt to give the whisky a Scottish twist. The product is double-distilled in two copper pots: In the first distillation, the wash is run through a washing or stripping still to separate the alcohol and other flavorful compounds; In the second distillation, the procedure is more refined, designed to slowly eliminate harmful impurities in the heads and tails, keeping only the middle. The whisky then ages for a minimum of two years in new-full-sized charred American oak barrels. According to Engelhorn, peat-smoked malt gives their malt whisky a smoky, earthy character, like a Highland-style scotch. “We compare well with Glenmorangie Single Malt Whisky,” he said.

  Spirit Hound Distillers Single Malt Whisky goes into barrel at 125 proof and, because of Colorado’s high altitude, water evaporates faster than alcohol, so the whisky comes out at 127 to 130 proof. “I appreciate the high proof,” Engelhorn told Beverage Master Magazine, “because you get enhanced esters and aldehydes, which add flavor to the whisky.”  All whiskeys are cut to 90 proof before bottling, except for their Cask Strength Malt Whisky, which is only available in 375mL bottles in the tasting room.

  As an added distinction, Spirit Hound Distillers does not blend barrels: All whiskeys or whiskies are bottled as single barrel batches, with each bottle marked with a barrel and bottle number. According to Engelhorn, this allows consumers to experience the many nuances that make each barrel unique. “We offer flights from four different barrels in our tasting room so customers can experience these nuances. Rather than make a standardized product, we embrace the differences, and because we’re a small distillery we can have more variation coming from small malt houses than the large guys can have.”

  Spirit Hound Distillers also produces — as a special release — a bottled in bond malt whiskey; a designation created in 1897 to protect the industry from unscrupulous producers of poor alcohol. With this designation, whisky (of any grain) must be aged at least four years, not altered by any means other than filtration, reduced in proof to exactly 100 proof and produced by one distiller at a single distillery in one season. “Bottled in bond whiskeys or whiskies  are kind of rare,” Engelhorn said, “so for a small distillery, this makes an important statement. Unless you know what to look for on the label, you may not know the source of what you are drinking. With a bottled-in-bond label, you know exactly where it comes from.”

  In addition to its Straight Malt Whisky and its Cask Strength Malt Whisky, Spirit Hound Distillers also creates a Colorado Honey Whisky. In partnership with a local apiary, Bee Squared, the distillery provides the apiary with spent malt whisky barrels, and the apiary uses them to age raw honey, rotating the barrel once a day. When the apiary empties the honey, they give the barrels back to Spirit Hound Distillers, who then age their malt whisky in the honey barrel for an additional 90 days. According to Engelhorn, the whisky compliments the natural honey in the barrel, and adds a touch of sweetness. The Colorado Honey Whisky is a limited production because honey is not always available. It is easily the distillery’s best seller, Engelhorn said.

  Spirit Hound Distillers also produces rum, vodka, liquors and three styles of gin. The distillery uses fresh Rocky Mountain water to cut the proof. “The water makes a difference,” Engelhorn told Beverage Master Magazine. “We’re in the St. Vrain Watershed, and the water is naturally delicious. We use it right as it comes in: We do not have to chemically adjust it or filter it. It’s low in minerals and gives our spirits a soft mouthfeel and some sweetness.” The distillery also uses locally sourced juniper for their gins, and has a deal with locals that if they bring in fresh berries, they will receive a free drinks or bottle depending on how much they bring in.

  After 10 years, the folks at Spirit Hound Distillers have clearly succeeded in their mission to produce high-quality hand-crafted spirits. Average production is seven barrels, or 53 gallons a month, with an annual case production of 6,000-7000 bottles. With 14 employees, the distillery has distribution in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas. “We’re in the business of fun,” Engelhorn said. “If we’re not having fun doing our jobs, we’re missing something.”

  While Engelhorn can take pride in his accomplishments, he is not resting on his laurels, and, in true hound dog fashion, is always ready to overcome whatever challenge comes his way. In fact, such a challenge hit in 2020 when the state shut down the distillery (among other facilities) because of COVID. But once again, Engelhorn and crew turned lemon into lemonade: they converted vodka-like spirits into disinfectant sanitizer and distributed it to first responders, healthcare workers, public servants, and local businesses. “Again, this was a silver lining for us,” Engelhorn said. “The tasting room was closed, but if they came in here to pick up hand sanitizer— one customer at a time — they would often buy whiskey while they were here.”

In the meantime, Engelhorn hopes to expand regional distribution, as he would like Spirit Hound Distillers to be known as one of the most premium products coming out of Colorado. Judging by the past— and the relentless spirit of the hound dog— odds are likely that he will achieve that goal.

For more information on Spirit Hound Distillers, visit… www.spirithound.com

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