Booze

This Year's Highest-Ranking Whiskey in the World Is Made in Colorado

Spirit Hound head distiller Craig Engelhorn built the equipment used for the award-winning whisky by hand.
Spirit Hound head distiller Craig Engelhorn built the equipment used for the award-winning whisky by hand. Spirit Hound Distillers/Turn It Up Media
Attention, Colorado whiskey lovers: We have the highest-ranking whiskey in the world right here in our backyard. Spirit Hound Distillers recently won the prestigious honor of Whisky of the Year at the international London Spirits Competition for its Straight Malt Whisky. The Lyons-based distillery took home the only U.S. gold medal, receiving the highest quality rating of any U.S.-based spirit in the competition.

When Spirit Hound founder and head distiller Craig Engelhorn received the email from London regarding the victory, he thought it was spam. After a quick search to confirm the news, he was blown away. "When entering a contest like this, there’s always a little bit of excitement going in with the thought of how amazing it would be to actually win," he notes. "But in reality, it’s a hard thing to do."

The award-winning whiskey (Spirit Hound uses the "whisky" spelling) is made with all-Colorado ingredients and distilled on equipment that Engelhorn built himself by hand. “We’ve been proud of the whisky for years,” he adds. “I think it shows our excruciating attention to detail."
click to enlarge SPIRIT HOUND DISTILLERS/TURN IT UP MEDIA
Spirit Hound Distillers/Turn It Up Media

The spirit received an astounding 96 points out of a possible 100. “It was three accolades in one, which doesn’t happen very much,” Engelhorn says, speaking of Spirit Hound's product being named Best of Show in the U.S., the highest-rated spirit out of the U.S., and, of course, Whisky of the Year. The 2022 competition saw 160 entries from the United States, 447 entries from the United Kingdom and 323 from Australia.

There is a strong emphasis on opting for local ingredients whenever possible at Spirit Hound Distillers. “It’s one of pillars of the brand," Engelhorn explains. All of the malted barley and grains used in the Straight Malt Whisky is sourced from Colorado farms. Engelhorn, who himself is originally from a Nebraska farming community, points out that whiskey is really an agricultural product. Buying local gives him the chance to help support Colorado agriculture while utilizing a quality product.

For the Straight Malt version, the barley is grown and malted in Alamosa, and there is a small amount of peated malt and crystal malt. “The addition of those two brings some character to the finished product that leans toward a Highland Scotch flavor,” Engelhorn says. The whiskey is then aged in a charred American oak barrel.

Engelhorn describes the finished product as subtle. “The fact that our whisky is as delicate as it is and still maintains that awesome flavor and balance is part of the reason we rose to the top in this one,” he notes.

The Straight Malt Whisky isn’t a stranger to accolades. It has also nabbed honors at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival and the Rocky Mountain Craft Spirits Festival, among others.
click to enlarge SPIRIT HOUND DISTILLERS/TURN IT UP MEDIA
Spirit Hound Distillers/Turn It Up Media

Unlike the Straight Malt Whisky, Spirit Hound's Cask-Strength Malt Whisky is not cut with water, so instead of being 90 proof, it can be anywhere from 125 to 127 proof. Spirit Hound also produces a Colorado Honey Whisky with local honey producer Bee Squared along with gin, rum, vodka, moonshine, sambuca (an Italian anise-flavored liqueur), crème de cacao and a decaf coffee liqueur.

Engelhorn’s passion for high-quality whiskey and spirits is evident. He loves listening to the (sometimes heated) conversations friends have while enjoying a whiskey flight and trying to agree on which of the four barrels is the best. The distillery and tasting room are located in Lyons, which Engelhorn has called home since 1996. From 1998 to 2002, he was the original brewer at Oskar Blues.

The eclectic cocktail menu at the tasting room has something for everyone and changes seasonally. “We tend to do the classics and take twists from there,” Engelhorn says. Options include the Aviation, a classic combination of gin and fresh lemon juice with locally grown lavender simple syrup and Bordeaux cherry syrup. For something sweet, the Sweet Ricky combines the decaf coffee liqueur, vodka, oat milk and a splash of coke. The Robert Burns cocktail, a mix of Cask-Strength Whisky, housemade vermouth, cherry infusion, simple syrup, cacao bitters, walnut extract and an orange twist, is so high in alcohol, it's limited to one per guest, but Engelhorn describes it as "ridiculously delicious.”

Spirit Hound Distillers is located at 4196 Ute Highway in Lyons. For more information, visit spirithounds.com.
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Kristen Kuchar is a Colorado writer covering craft beer, food and travel. For Westword, she explores vegan dining and the state's artisan beverages, such as cider and mead.