By Mary Anderson
Breweries have collaborated for decades, proving that working with competitors can result in a more powerful industry that consumers love.
Now, the trend has made its way into spirits. Sean Smiley, owner of State 38 Distilling and president of the Colorado Distillery Guild, has organized the first-ever Colorado Whiskey Collaboration Project, with a generous twist.
All of the distillers’ time, grain and product will be donated to charity with no financial payback.
It all started when a couple of local brewers approached Smiley asking for barrels to use in their collaboration brews.
“I thought to myself, man that’s such a cool thing that these breweries can combine efforts and work together to do something fun and unique,” he said. “But there is nothing like that happening in the distilling community. Why isn’t this happening and why shouldn’t we?”
So, he called up a few of his friends in the industry and proposed the idea of a collaboration whiskey. His friends included a few heavy hitters in the region’s spirits scene: David Matthews at Woody Creek Distillers in Basalt; Jeff Dickinson at Bear Creek Distillery in Denver; and P.T. Woods (recently elected mayor of Salida) at Wood’s High Mountain Distillery in Salida. The collaborators were instantly on board and plans were under way.
Here’s how it works: Each year, four distilleries specializing in the same type of whiskey will come together and make a batch in their respective distilleries and without the use of any specialty malts. From there, they’ll meet to weigh and ensure an equal amount of the raw, white, unaged whiskey from each distillery is mixed together to fill donated barrels. Once the whiskey has aged, the four distilleries will come back together again to divide it up for bottling. After celebrating with high fives, some laughter and a taste of the creation, each distillery will go home with about 85 bottles from the barrel.
The first offering is a 115-proof rye made completely in state with most of the ingredients being locally sourced. It will be aged at Woody Creek Distillers in a new North American white oak, toasted and charred barrel from the Independent Stave Co. A second barrel was donated by Kelvin Cooperage so the amount of the charitable donation is expected to double when the whiskey is ready.
The whiskey will sit for two years, the time needed to officially make it a straight rye whiskey, before being tapped in the summer of 2019.
But here’s the catch. Every drop or every dollar must be donated to a charity. “It’s a handshake between all of us,” Smiley said. “Those bottles we get from our portion, we absolutely have to donate to the charity that we chose. There is no holding on to bottles. It’s a full charity.”
Each distillery picks its own charity to donate funds. State 38 Distilling has chosen Minds Matter, a local charity that provides scholarship money to underprivileged high school children in rural areas. They host an annual gala in which State 38 will donate all of its whiskey to be auctioned off. With this whiskey being so incredibly rare, each bottle is anticipated to go for $100-$200 a piece. By potentially raising up to $17,000 for this cause, Smiley hopes to make a difference in the community.
“They are a fantastic organization and hard-working group. We’ve seen and spoken with students who have gone through their program and have made it through college when they probably wouldn’t have if they didn’t have Minds Matter to help support them financially to get in to college,” Smiley said.
With an eye toward helping local children, Woody Creek plans to split its charitable donations between Aspen Country Day School and the Basalt Education Foundation.
Bear Creek Distillery will donate the proceeds to a yet-to-be-named charity. The whiskey will be served in the taproom and social media will be used to
P.T. Woods listed a number of organizations that the distillery supports but he pointed out that there will be plenty of time to choose a charity before the whiskey is bottled.
As the Colorado Whiskey Collaboration Project continues each year, there will be a new combination of Colorado distillers, a new type of whiskey and four more charities. Looking forward to next year, Smiley has plans for a wheat whiskey collaboration with distilleries such as Laws Whiskey House, Bear Creek Distillery and Distillery 291 in Colorado Springs.
Each year will bring something new that supports local charities, Smiley pointed out, and it will always be in the summer or fall, the most popular times for spirit consumption.
Mary Anderson is a freelance graphic designer and writer based in Denver. When she is not designing logos or writing magazine stories, you’ll most likely find her in the mountains exploring the state.