The craft distillery business is booming; nationwide, there were more than 1,900 distilleries as of December 2019, according to the American Distilling Institute, 96 of those in Colorado alone. But for Devil's Head Distillery, 2020 marks the end of the line.
The tiny neighborhood production facility and tasting room at 3296 South Acoma Street in Englewood is closing up shop because of a rent increase, according to founder Ryan White."It's about a 35 percent increase, which isn't really comparable with anything else in the area," he explains.
White says he had been in negotiations with the landlord since last summer, but eventually decided to close rather than commit to the increase. "I also considered relocating, but the federal and state approval process just takes so long," he explains. "It took four years the first time; I think it would be shorter now, but it would probably be at least a year."
So White is inviting his regulars for one last celebration on Saturday, February 29, before winding down sales. He's not quite sure when the doors will close for good; it depends on when he's able to sell his distilling equipment and his remaining inventory, but the lease ends on April 12, so he knows it will be before then.
When Devil's Head opened in 2015, it emphasized gin and vodka, but it quickly earned a reputation for aquavit, a Scandinavian spirit flavored primarily with caraway seed. White started with a clear aquavit with a unique profile from other background botanicals, and soon added an oak-aged version, something he says is extremely rare in the U.S. Devil's Head was the first distillery in the state to produce aquavit, he says, and the product was even featured in a 2017 NPR story about increased interest in the spirit nationwide.
There's still one batch of oak-aged aquavit in barrels at the Englewood distillery, and White will be bottling it for sale before the distillery closes. He distributes his other products to local bars, restaurants and liquor stores, but the oak-aged spirit has always sold well enough from the tasting room that it's the only place you can get your hands on a bottle of Devil's Head aquavit.
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Devil's Head has become a local favorite in downtown Englewood, where it's just a block off busy South Broadway; the tasting room also attracts people of Scandinavian heritage from near and far. "I was always extremely taken aback by...the outpouring of support we got from regulars and neighbors," White says. "It was just pretty incredible."
While White doesn't think the closing of Devil's Head reflects the start of a trend, he says that the skyrocketing cost of real estate might make it difficult for new distilleries to open. "It's just one of many barriers to entry," he explains, pointing to such hurdles as the cost of equipment, the skill level needed to go pro, and the complexity of meeting state and federal regulations in order to become fully licensed.
Back in 2015, White was all in, never considering the possibility of closing. He'd built standard rent increases into his business model, but never thought rent would go up so much, so quickly. "The one thing I didn't do was build an exit strategy — and I never thought I'd have to close because of the rent," he says. But rising rent is a problem facing many Denver food and beverage establishments in a growing city — and one that's beginning to affect Englewood, too.
Devil's Head Distillery will be open Thurdays, Fridays and Saturdays through at least the end of February. Visit devilsheaddistillery.com for more details.