A Taste For Whiskey, Cocktail Culture And Home Grown Hooch Goose Colorado Hard Liquor Sales

· Sep. 19, 2018, 10:00 am
Photo: Whiskey Bottles - AP PhotoAP
This July 9, 2018, photo shows a man adjusting prices under bottles of Jim Beam bourbon whiskey displayed at Rossi's Deli in San Francisco. 

Mark Twain was reputed to have said “too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Colorado seems to agree.

State tax records show spirit sales up 35 percent since 2010, meaning hard liquor sales have grown three times faster than beer in that time. That’s not a knock against the state’s love affair with craft beer. Beer sales, which grew 9 percent, are weighed down by weak domestic brand sales.

Colorado doesn’t break out how much of each spirit type is selling, but ask around and people say, right now, whiskey is what’s hot.

American whiskey alone accounted for $3.4 billion in U.S. sales in 2017, and that helped drive record exports, prompting the Distilled Spirits Council to proclaim American whiskey “the toast of the global cocktail scene.”

“You know vodka crushed the entire ‘80’s and ‘90’s, they destroyed it,” said Ryan Negley, a representative for Vapor Distillery, and president of the Denver Whiskey Club. “It’s somebody else’s turn now, that’s what it comes down to.”

Liquor tastes cycle somewhat dramatically. What’s big now probably won’t be king of the mountain 10 years from now. But it’s more than just a trend. For the whiskey connoisseur, there is a dazzling array of brands to choose from now.

“Whiskey is a really big adventure, and it’s, ‘I’ve had that one, now, I gotta have that one, and that one, and that one,’” Negley said.

Whiskey’s renaissance comes at a time when customers want a variety of artisanal and local brands generally — the same impulses that drive demand for small local beer.

Photo: Ron Vaughn Argonaut Wine and LiquorBen Markus/CPR News
Ron Vaughn, the co-owner and COO of Argonaut Wine and Liquor, stands by racks of liquor in the store.

Negley’s an unabashed whiskey evangelist. But Ron Vaughn, the co-owner and COO of Argonaut Wine and Liquor in Denver, takes a more sober view. Whiskey is big in Colorado right now “because we have so many distilleries,” he said.

There are now more than 90 distilleries in Colorado, big growth since Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey was founded in 2004. Vaughn’s been in the liquor business for a long time and says the shift to whiskey has been dramatic.

“Ten, 12 years ago you couldn’t give brown spirits away, and then people started tasting them, and understanding the uniqueness," Vaughn said.

He credits the explosion of restaurants in Denver, many offering cocktails that people want to recreate. So, Vaughn started packaging whole drink kits for classics like the Manhattan or an Old Fashioned.

Whiskey’s had a run, but given the cyclical nature of liquor tastes, could it be on the downswing soon? As the president of the Denver Whiskey Club, Ryan Negley doesn’t see it that way.

“Whiskey’s still on the rise, so we’re a ways from even hitting the peak.”

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