Relentlessly Colorado, distillers have nose for quality spirits

Spirit Hound Distillers

By Kyle Kirves  Photos by Angie Wright

The most frequent photo stop along the vacationers’ corridor between I-25 and Rocky Mountain National Park is the flagstone sign that reads simply ESTES PARK. I would argue that coming in a close second is a unique take on the state’s lodgepole signs along our major highways. This one, in Lyons, reads WHISKY FROM COLORFUL COLORADO and it stands not far from a 1930’s Buick, the kind you’d see running moonshine in the hills of Tennessee during Prohibition. Behind it, a red building with a corrugated roof houses Spirit Hound Distillery. These self-described “rustic digs” create a place where people come to share a love of great spirits and socialize, a welcoming respite to technological and electronic overload, and a waystation for visitors from near and far. 

All of that imagery shows up on the label art of Spirit Hound products – the sign, the Buick, the mountain landscape. The uniting image, though, is the ghostly dog rendered in a pen-and-ink style that appears on every bottle, barrel, and product Spirit Hound either owns or produces. 

Wayne Anderson, one of the founders of Spirit Hound, explains the evolution of their branding is part of their homegrown, artisan approach. “The Spirit Hound logo is something I had in my head,” he says. “And then I worked with a local artist to make that notion come together.” It is a tribute, Wayne says, to his own departed dog, Buck. Simplicity allows for both ease-of-recognition and the ability for patrons to see their own dog in the logo’s lines. 

Craig Engelhorn, head distiller, suggests that “spirit hounds” are the ones capable of sniffing out the good stuff and that plays into some of the branding choices as well. “The hound dog is relentless,” Craig says. “You put the hound on the path and the hound does not give up. We are spirit hounds.”

As most whisky drinkers know, creating quality product takes time. In addition to distilling, it must age in barrels in order to take on some of the flavor. So how is a privately financed, new-kid-on-the-block supposed to generate revenue while waiting for whisky to mature?

Easy: you make gin, vodka or other grain spirits which you can sell “young,” and you work on refining your branding in the meantime. That branding continues to evolve. 

“We heard about printing on wood, and we originally didn’t have access to that,” Wayne says. “So we incorporated a wood-like background as part of our artwork and make it look more like a barrel.” After selling the current whisky labels for over a year, the Spirit Hound team has decided to redesign the labels in an effort to have the identity and message stand out more clearly.

But now, with five medals at the World Spirits Competition and the world-wide recognition the small distillery is receiving (Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible ranked Spirit Hound’s Straight Malt as a 93 or “Brilliant” – take that, Glenfiddich), the goal is to make a splashier statement. The new labels are dapper and elegant reflecting both the quality of what is in the bottle while still recognizing a frontier legacy. The new labels are parchment-colored, with copper-colored accents and black font. The image is equal parts Scottish highland and swinging-door saloon; they are simple and readable, tasteful but rustic. Each bottle is numbered by batch, just another indicator that what is inside is a unique, one-of-a-kind offering. 

As much locally sourced ingredients as possible go into every batch. It’s something Spirit Hound takes great pride in. Sure, the water’s local, of course. But the malt for their whisky is single-sourced out of Alamosa, Colorado. And the gin? “We’ve cut a deal with some of our customers that, if they bring in a bag of local juniper berries, we’ll trade them a gin drink,” Craig says. 

When vacationers come through en route to the gateway to the Rocky Mountains, Spirit Hound will be there. Stop in and you will find spirits and liqueurs that are familiar by style, but hand-made on the Front Range. Moreover, from what I saw at the distillery, you may walk in a stranger, but everyone leaves a friend. Many go home with bottles under their arm or in their suitcase, taking a little local flavor back to Kansas City, or New York, or County Cork or Glasgow – people who know what good whisky tastes like. You don’t have to have a snout like a coonhound to know where the good stuff’s made, just follow your nose to Spirit Hound and you won’t be barking up the wrong tree. 

Kyle Kirves is a solid dude who believes drinking beer should be a ‘five senses’ experience.