Spirited venture: Alamosa water bottler sets sights on whiskey.
"We want to be a part of whiskey history," Clark says.
Lewis and Clark believe Colorado's San Luis Valley is just the place to produce a whiskey "slightly above the Jack Daniels/Jim Beam level," as Clark puts it.
Why Alamosa? Clark, 50, who previously worked in the microbrewery business, sized up the San Luis Valley's water and abundance of barley, and deemed it ideal for a distillery. He also knew there was no Colorado or Western brand of whiskey. He partnered with Lewis, a native of Scotland and an expert in the field of single-malt Scotch whiskey (spelled "whisky" only if produced in Scotland).
After two years of searching for land on which to build their distillery, they settled on a 90-acre farm just west of Alamosa. "There is no equivalent," Clark says of the location. "Colorado has terrific water, great barley... and no one has ever made whiskey here."
About 85 percent of the barley grown in Colorado comes from the San Luis Valley, according to Clark. They plan to purchase about 2,600 tons of barley annually from area farmers.
"Colorado and the West are already a great brand," says the 37-year-old Lewis. "And it's got everything you need for whiskey."
Colorado Water Co. has been operating since June, bottling up to 20,000 half-liter bottles a day in a 3,750 square-foot plant. The company produces two bottling labels of water -- one for promotional purposes for the San Luis Valley called "San Luis Valley Premium Rocky Mountain Water," and the other called "Colorado H2O: The Natural State of Water." Lewis and Clark say the water will be distributed in retail outlets and restaurants statewide, as well as to other Western states.
The two men expect the $500,000 water plant to begin turning a profit early this year and provide cash flow for the whiskey project. Construction on the distillery which will be a separate building from the water plant, is scheduled to begin in April.
Just getting the distillery to this point on the drawing board has taken some doing. Last April Gov. Bill Owens signed Senate Bill 01-156, legalizing the distillery for the sale of whiskey on the premises. The bill was supported by Rep. Jim Snook, R-Alamosa; former Sen. Gigi Dennis, R-Pueblo West; and Sen. Lewis Entz, R-Hooper.
The bill also approves a tasting room in the new facility. Previously, Colorado law permitted tasting rooms in breweries, but excluded spirits. The approval of this bill will allow the Lewis and Clark's facility to have on-site production, sales, and tasting -- which they plan on implementing along with a visitor center.
"We wanted to remove the roadblock for them," Snook says. "We want to support a viable business, and we're always trying to recruit new businesses to the Valley that will offer people jobs."
When the distillery is ready, the company expects to hire 50 employees. Currently, Colorado Water Co. employs 11. Lewis says the distillery could be in operation as early as September. They plan to produce 1 million liters of whiskey a year.
"We're putting our mark on the industry," Lewis says. "It's exciting to do something nobody else has done."
Lewis and Clark's distillery will make a premium single malt whiskey, which means the whiskey will be made using only malted barley and will be produced at a single distillery.
"Our goal is to make a great whiskey," Clark says. "Then all the other aspects will fall into place."
Whiskey takes a minimum of three years to age before it is bottled and sold. Thus, if Lewis and Clark make their first batch of whiskey this fall, it will not be ready for consumption until 2005, at the earliest.
"For investors, there's no immediate return," Clark says. Which is why, in addition to producing whiskey, Lewis and Clark will also initially produce potato vodka.
"You can make whiskey in a week, but it must age for a minimum of three years. Vodka you can make and sell in one week," Clark said. "San Luis Valley is quite famous for its potatoes as well, so it seemed another natural fit for us."
Potato vodka is an old-style, traditional vodka. The sugar derived from potatoes combined with yeast eventually makes vodka, after it is distilled.
"In the long-term, this can be revenue boosting. It can be enormously successful," said Clark, who plans to sell their vodka for $17 to $18 a bottle. But the whiskey, which they plan to sell for $28 to $30 a bottle, is what stirs the Alamosa beverage visionaries.
"There are no premium single malts made in America," Lewis says. "Because there are no similar products, we feel there is an opportunity." The two have traveled to Kentucky, Scotland and Ireland, touring legendary distilleries to gain an understanding of the operations. "We want to mesh the best of what we've seen. We're not restricted to doing certain things," Lewis says. "Because there's no precedent (in Colorado), we have a blank sheet to start with."
RELATED ARTICLE: WHISKEY BUSINESS
Whiskey sales worldwide are increasing at a rate of two percent each year, and single malt is the fastest growing market in the whiskey industry. Currently more than 300 single malts are sold in the United States, and the distilled spirits industry generates $95 billion in U.S. economic activity annually.
OTHER WHISKEY FACTS
* More than 1.3 million people are employed in the U.S. through the manufacture, distribution and sale of distilled spirits. Kentucky has the highest concentration of distilleries in the United States.
* Denver ranked eighth among metropolitan areas for consumption of straight whiskey in 1998, with 174.4 thousand cases of whiskey sold in the Denver-metro area.
* In 2000, Colorado harvested 105,000 acres of barley. Malted barley varieties accounted for 92 percent of the barley sown for the 2001 crop.
* Alamosa County ranked third in production of Colorado's barley, harvesting 14,000 acres in 2000.
* 70 percent of whiskey characteristics come from wood (the barrels it matures in).
* Jack Daniel Distillery became the first distillery registered in the U.S. in 1866.
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|Title Annotation:||Colorado Water Co.|
|Author:||Cantarano, Dana L.|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2002|
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