Top Dog 

04 Oct 2023

With a fetching selection of handcrafted liquors, Spirit Hound remains leader of the pack

By Kalene McCort

Craig Engelhorn first earned the admiration and trust of beer drinkers with the creation of Oskar Blues’ Dale’s Pale Ale, a local favorite that got its start as a homebrewing recipe in the ‘90s. “I was paying attention to detail and lo and behold our test beer turns into a national brand,” says Engelhorn. 

Eventually, the engineer and self-proclaimed “science dork” felt the call to make something stronger. He—along with Wayne Anderson, Matt Rooney and Neil Sullivan—formed Spirit Hound Distillers in 2011 and established a tasting room in a former motorcycle repair shop in 2012. 

The beloved Lyons locale—at 4196 Ute Highway—has remained open through phases of a recent state-of-the-art expansion. While the square footage has changed, the dedication to producing handcrafted gins, vodkas and single-malt Colorado whiskies remains the same. In August, Spirit Hound opened a second tasting room in Denver, at 3622 Tejon St.

Spirit Hound’s online sales have taken off, too, with folks in 40 U.S. states being able to log on and fill their carts with the Colorado brand’s finest creations for delivery. 

The journey from a small mountain-town distillery to one that turns out over a dozen award-winning and internationally recognized products hasn’t been without its setbacks.

After just ten months in business, the devastating flood of September 2013 left Spirit Hound literally under water. Resiliently, Engelhorn and crew jumped into action. “We were back to normal in about six months, but we were operating within two months and producing basically as soon as the power came on,” Engelhorn says.

Engelhorn credits the exceptional taste of Spirit Hound’s liquors with the fact that each is made using water sourced from Rocky Mountain National Park. 

“We don’t mess with the mineral content at all,” Engelhorn says. “We just let nature do its thing. All of our spirits have kind of a soft and sweet finish, and the water is the reason.”

Local coriander, raw honey, fennel and even harebell petals have been known to give certain Spirit Hound liquors their distinct flavor.

Many patrons visit with bags of locally foraged juniper in tow, the fragrant berries responsible for taking Spirit Hound’s gins to another level. Depending on the haul visitors deliver, they may end up getting a cocktail on the house or a full bottle to take home. 

“It’s a barter system,” Engelhorn says. “I’ve never bought a juniper berry in my life, which is really fun to say.”

Canines are known to frequent the tasting rooms’ outdoor spaces and can even enjoy the offerings of a “dog library,” composed of various sticks of all shapes and sizes. 

While Engelhorn has a passion for making mouthwatering spirits, he is equally enthused about live music and creating community. 

Spirit Hound is a sponsor for Planet Bluegrass events like RockyGrass, Folks Fest and Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Engelhorn and his pack can be found serving up hundreds of samples and even leading attendees in a collective howl. “It’s been a huge boom to our business because a lot of people get exposed to our brand,” Engelhorn says. 

A rotating selection of bands also take the stage at Spirit Hound throughout the year.

“Some of my closest friends are musicians,” Engelhorn says. “Having a spot for music was part of the plan from the very beginning.”

From barn-burning bluegrass to mellow folk, a diverse soundtrack always pairs well with sensational sippers—like the Jam Jar, a crowd-favorite made with strawberry basil-infused gin and lemonade.

From manufacturing hand sanitizer during the beginning stages of the pandemic to supporting organizations that provide service dogs to veterans, Spirit Hound remains dedicated to giving back. 

“We have spent a lot of time over the last couple of years looking inward and trying to say who are we,” Engelhorn says. “It’s important to get that defined so we can spread that and share it with a bigger, growing business.”

For Engelhorn, much of Spirit Hound’s triumph comes down to “giving a damn.”

“We really do care about making really good product,” Engelhorn says. “We’re not just in it because distilling has taken off like a rocket. It’s not, ‘I think I’m going to jump in and make some money.’ We have good people with passion for what they are doing, with that you can be very successful.” 

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