2016 was nothing short of a challenging year for Ryan Negley. He left his bartending job at Tooey’s Off Colfax for another job that didn’t pan out, leaving him in the lurch. With a new wife and a one-year-old at home in Congress Park, he was uncertain about his immediate future. Luckily, Negley was still involved with Peach Street Distillers, where, for the past five years he has handled social media, created cocktail menus for events and become known as the face of the distillery along the Front Range. That role came to an end recently, too — but at least it was for a positive reason: on December 1, Negley was hired by Buena Vista's Deerhammer Distilling Company as sales director.
“It was a big transition year for me.” Negley says. “I quit Tooey’s after seven and a half years. Basically, I took a sabbatical.” In his mid-thirties and with a little bit of money saved, he intended to spend the summer of 2016 at home with his family. But that didn’t work out as planned, either. He found himself busy with projects for Peach Street and spent weeks preparing the cocktail program for Taste of Colorado. There were also a few events with the Denver Whiskey Club, an organization he founded seven years ago. “I still ended up working my ass off,” he says.
Then the call came that would turn his luck around. Lenny Eckstein, owner of Deerhammer Distilling Company, called Negley to inquire if he knew anyone who could manage sales for the five-year-old distillery. “I was like, ‘I don’t know, let me ask around,’” Negley says. “The thought of taking the position didn’t even cross my mind.” After thinking of some good candidates for the job, Negley realized that, with all his experience at Peach Street, Tooey’s and the Denver Whiskey Club, he could easily step into the position at Deerhammer. “I’d been doing it, essentially, for so many years,” he says. “Taking the position was just another moment in 2016 where I pulled the trigger and did some life-changing shit.” There were some loose conversations with Eckstein over the next few months, which eventually turned more serious. The two came to an agreement, and Negley decided to step away amicably from Peach Street and into his new role at Deerhammer.
“I’ve been seeing Lenny and Amy [Eckstein's wife and business partner] around the distilling world for the last three or four years,” Negley says. “We got to know each other. They’re just really good people. Their business is a baby — it’s tiny. That’s why they want someone like me. They need to grow. They need somebody familiar with the Front Range, and that’s where I fill those shoes.”
Negley sees his opportunity to work with Deerhammer as a promising one, and not only because he loves whiskey. “It is essentially a mirror image of my lifestyle. Lenny and Amy are just this awesome couple. They went out on a limb and started their business. They have a two-year-old son. This is what they do. They just gave it up to be distillers. It’s cool.”
Deerhammer produces four spirits: a single-malt whiskey, an unoaked (“white dog”) version of the single-malt, a Dutch-style gin and a seasonal brandy made from Colorado-grown grapes. New bourbon and rye whiskeys are aging now and are slated to be released in 2018. Lenny Eckstein built the distillery himself out of used dairy equipment. Whiskey is the distillery’s main focus, however, and is what attracted Negley.
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“I love everything about whiskey,” he says. “I think Colorado whiskey is finally coming into what we’ve been shooting for for the past ten or eleven years. Right now, there’s some whiskey in this state that’s really fucking good. About five years ago, there was some good whiskey, but nothing like what’s going on right now.”
Looking back, it all makes sense. Negley was drawn to the spirits world during Peach Street’s early origins in Palisade, helping owner Rory Donovan. “He was selling vodka out of the back of his truck,” Negley says. “Several years later, after being part of the extended family, I got invited in and got to have a role in the sales and marketing team. It was super-awesome, but it was just time for me to grow more on a personal note.”
“There’s no jumping ship,” Negley adds. “It’s not anything like that. It’s me seizing an opportunity.”