CARBONDALE — There’s a dream-busting chasm in liquor making that has confounded distillers for centuries.
But Connie Baker and Carey Shanks have found a way to bridge that budget-breaking stretch between barreling liquor for several years of aging and finally selling bottles. The couple added luxury rooms above their distillery and tasting room, creating what could be the world’s first inn atop a distillery.
So as those pricey barrels of whiskey age in a cellar near the farm that provides all their rye and triticale grains, the entrepreneurs are able to keep their Marble Distilling Co. humming by hosting guests in the space’s five-room Distillery Inn.
“A distillery downtown with mack-daddy rooms that is a destination … That’s why we are able to not sell our whiskey yet,” said Baker, the energetic distiller who, after several years of backyard bootlegging, turned from a successful career in pharmaceutical marketing to attend distillery school in Washington.
A distillery hotel wasn’t an easy sell in 2013. Lenders, still skittish from the recession, weren’t keen on outside-the-box business plans.
Whiskeymakers have to innovate to compete. Fledgling distillers open tasting rooms and sell moonshine or other less labor-intensive elixirs like gin or vodka. Some, like High West Distillery in Park City, Utah, blend different varieties to create their own spirits. A few serve high-end food, like Montanya Distillers in Crested Butte.
A few — too many, some would argue — even buy their liquor from far-away factories and cut it with local water for the appearance of being locally crafted.
Baker and Shanks planned on taking the hard road: distilling each drop by hand in all American-made equipment. They had some innovative ideas, like offering 10-liter casks of custom-finished rye and triticale whiskey for $1,450 to private buyers who can then sip and entertain in the distillery’s whiskey club room.
But the hotel component was a one-of-a-kind approach.
“Our lenders, they said, ‘We don’t like this plan.’ But we said, ‘You aren’t getting it, this is why it works and it’s going to pay the bills,’ ” Baker said as offered a tour of the distillery. “Lots of lenders said we had too many spokes in the wheel, whatever that means. But it’s worked beautifully.”
The distillery and the inn are making waves. Baker’s Marble Vodka, distilled in a Kentucky-made copper still named Hazel and filtered through snow-white Yule marble gathered from around her home and then gravity filtered through coconut husks, has harvested several gold medals. So have her Gingercello and Moonlight EXpresso liqueurs, the latter made with a coffee roasted locally. Three whiskeys are aging in barrels but not bottled: a rye wheat whiskey, a four-grain bourbon and a triticale grain whiskey.
The marble doesn’t just filter, Baker said. Like the limestone aquifer water that helps gives Tennessee and Kentucky whiskey its distinctive taste, the Yule marble “is adding mineralization,” she said.
She’s one of a growing number of female distillers, a position pioneered by Karen Hoskin at Montanya Distillers and carried on by distillers such as Amy Eckstein at Buena Vista’s Deerhammer Distilling Co. and Elizabeth Serage at Peach Street Distillers in Palisade.
“This business needs some more women,” Baker said.
It’s a cozy operation behind the Marble Distilling tasting room, with every space utilized between Hazel and mash tuns and fermenters made by Ridgway blacksmith Tom Bennett. But perhaps the most unusual component of the distillery is behind the scenes.
Baker and Shanks point to a small computer monitor tucked between the stainless steel vats and wooden fermenters. Baker touches the screen and a list of scales and graphs detailing temperatures and gallons charts the distillery’s work at reclaiming every drop of water it uses.
When the couple first started touring distilleries to get ideas for their marble-filtered dream hooch, they were shocked to see distillers pumping hundreds of gallons of hot water down the drain every day.
So Shanks, who spent seven years living on a Hopi reservation in Arizona, helping residents live more sustainably, designed a system that uses 14 heat exchangers to capture the energy used in the distilling process. The first-of-its-kind Water Energy Thermal System captures hot water from distilling, harvests the heat and uses it to heat the entire building and water for domestic use. The cold water is then routed through condensers that cool the building and chill the whiskey mash. The entire process sends zero water down the drain. Last year the system saved 4 million gallons of water and harvested 1.8 billion BTU’s of energy, enough to power 20 homes for a year.
Earlier this year the U.K.-based Global Distillery Masters awarded the Marble Distillery a Masters Medal for Green Initiatives, its highest honor. Judges said “the figures for water savings are astonishing.”
“Nobody else does this,” Baker said.
“Her passion is spirits, and mine has been to fuse sustainability with a business model so when the big boys see when we take their market share that they need to do this too,” said Shanks, whose sister and brother-in-law, Dorian and Rob DiPangrazio, are partners in the family-owned distillery. “We are not doing this for accolades. We are showing that a business with an ethos can derive an income and people are voting more and more with their pocketbooks and they are buying into that ethos and saying ‘I’m going to choose this product or this company because they are doing it right.’ ”
More than 20 other distillers have toured their operation, paying special attention to the maze of pipes, condensers and heat exchangers Shanks built with stuff from the local hardware store.
The couple are playing well with the growing distillery tribe in Colorado, just as they are locally. They work with a local farmer for their grains and the farmer gets their stillage for his hogs. They host events and offer tours. The roof of the distillery, above the collection of high-end, sustainably built $250-a-night rooms, hosts beehives tended by the local beekeeper. The rooms are offered with packages that include local meals or spa treatments in downtown Carbondale.
Last year, Carbondale saw its lodging tax revenue spike, more than doubling from 2011 and climbing 17 percent over 2015. The Distillery Inn helped that surge, filling a niche for high-end rooms that are more typical up the road in Aspen.
“They are definitely filling a need that wasn’t here before. I think they have helped put Carbondale on the map for overnight stays,” said Andrea Steward, the executive director of the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce. “They are an amazing addition to the community.”