The new year brings new whiskey and new bottles for State 38 Distilling in Golden, something owners Don Hammond and Sean Smiley have been working on during the slow months of the pandemic.
"Our philosophy will always be to tweak things. We are adventurers, tinkers and doers; we aren't happy with the status quo," says Smiley, adding that the pandemic has given the team plenty of time to think about where the distillery is going and how to make it better.
The bottle change happened for one simple reason: Bartenders found the previous rectangular bottles awkward when grabbing off the shelf while mixing cocktails. While the handsome rectangular bottle sure looked nice on the shelf, being able to quickly grip and pour a product is important, says Smiley. "The last thing we want to do is discourage a bartender from using our products because of ergonomics," he adds.
The whiskey lineup has changed, too. Two of the recipes have been updated — the bourbon and the peat-smoked whiskey, which were being sold under the name Loveday, a tip of the hat to Smiley's family. The previous bourbon had a strong coffee essence and was richer and heavier. The new bourbon, now solely under the State 38 Distilling moniker, has more traditional notes of cherry and caramel and a smoother finish. The peated whiskey now gets aged in used oak barrels instead of new ones — something Smiley says helps maintain the smoky essence. The peat-smoked rendition is the distillery's take on a classic Islay Scotch, something that has gotten harder to source and more expensive thanks to the new tariffs on imported booze.
"Now I like all four of the whiskeys a lot better," says Smiley.
Head distiller Joel Randall also added to the list of offerings by releasing a rye and straight wheat whiskey, each with its own nuances. Because all of these spirits were packaged in the new, less-expensive bottle, the distillery was able to lower the price of its whiskey. The bourbon and peat-smoked spirits now cost $40, and the rye and wheat whiskey are $45 each. Since the launch of the new products and packaging, Hammond and Smiley are putting their efforts into getting more people to try the new lineup.
"With the tasting room closed, we lost the face-to-face interactions, which is critical for a business this size," says Smiley.
Like many tasting rooms around Colorado, State 38 also had to shut down during parts of the pandemic. Now only a few people are allowed inside at a time, a far cry from the busy nights slinging cocktails and pouring flights.
The owners began looking for new ways to attract customers. Instead of relying on bars and restaurants to promote the product, as they had been, Smiley started looking at how to sell the booze through retail means and social media, and how to get the State 38 name into the minds of drinkers at home.
The team wanted to give customers a taste of "normal life" and bring a sense of the distillery into their private lives. So Smiley started shooting videos where he talked to the screen as if it was a customer, describing what the space smelled like and how it felt.
"What does a distillery on the offense look like?" says Smiley. "We started to go toward technology like YouTube and did a couple of Facebook Live events; it was a jump from a passive marketing strategy to an aggressive one."
Another thing that worked at getting people to shop and sample spirits was selling cocktail kits cheap. For example, a Moscow Mule kit came with a full bottle of Damn Good Vodka, two cans of ginger beer and a lime for $20. Smiley also guided viewers through online cocktail classes. Gift boxes have also been a good way to spread the State 38 name. For Valentine's Day, the distillery just launched a WhiskeyGram, which lets a customer send someone a bottle of whiskey and two cupcakes. The recipient gets a notification, after which they can head to the distillery and choose their bottle and cupcakes from the tasting room, which is now open again, though at a lower capacity.
All of the new whiskey bottles are available, too, and the distillery also produces the budget-friendly Damn Good line of vodka, gin and absinthe, as well as a line of agave spirits that serve as a locally made version of tequila. The latter will also get a revamp and new branding later this year, but for now they're still in the original bottle.
For a taste of what the team is creating, you can sip cocktails or take a few bottles to go at State 38's distillery tasting room at 400 Corporate Circle, suite B, in Golden. Hours are currently limited to 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 720-242-7219 or visit the distillery's website for details.