By Justin Biel, trends editor at Grow Wire
⏰ 5-minute read
Former beverage industry colleagues founded Denver-based Mile High Spirits after creating 50 private label brands for other clients.
The brand’s diverse product portfolio, locally-centered sales strategy and new-wave distillery concept helped it grow quickly.
The company now sells in 12 states and is focused on solidifying its identity as a Denver music venue.
Wyn Ferrell, Joe Von Feldt and Chase Campbell started Mile High Spirits, a Denver, Colorado-based craft distillery, in 2011. The company produces five separate spirits from an innovative, 14,000-square-foot facility that is equal parts distillery, tasting room and live music venue.
With a one-of-a-kind distillery model and a fresh approach to community-building, Mile High Spirits has built a loyal following in Colorado and beyond. Ferrell and his comrades successfully entered the hyper-competitive liquor industry, expanded into 11 other states and grew to become one of Denver’s favorite homegrown brands.
Fiftieth time’s a charm
Before launching Mile High Spirits, Ferrell and Von Feldt worked for another distillery in Colorado. It eventually folded with no money left to pay them, so they received distilling equipment as payment instead.
“At the time, I had no business going into a multibillion-dollar industry and acting like I could take market share,” said Ferrell of starting his first company shortly thereafter.
Instead of launching a full-blown brand, Ferrell and Von Feldt opened a business that developed private label spirits. For a reasonable price, the team handled all aspects of distilling, branding and packaging for any client looking to create their own spirit. It was a crucial period of learning, explained Ferrell, which resulted in crafting over 50 private label brands.
After three years, Ferrell and Von Feldt were ready to launch their own brand. To complete the founding team, they recruited Campbell, and the trio opened Mile High Spirits in 2011.
Mile High Spirits sells its craft spirits from its tasting room in Denver. Bars and restaurants also count as customers.
The game plan
When Mile High Spirits opened, the team aimed to create a dialogue around it in their local community. To accomplish this, they pegged three major objectives:
A spirit for every major category
Most craft distilleries focus on developing a single spirit, but Mile High Spirits makes a variety: whiskey, vodka, gin, tequila and rum. Some of its spirit brands pay homage to the company’s Colorado roots with names like Fireside Whiskey, Elevate Vodka and Denver Dry (i.e. gin). The others, Cuidado Tequila and Peg Leg Rum, take a more traditional, heritage-infused approach.
Mile High Spirits produces five spirits, each with distinct brand names.
Producing an array of spirits is no small feat, but the experience of creating some 50 private label brands gave the team knowledge across categories. Mile High Spirits’ assortment sets it apart from other craft distilleries and gives accounts more opportunities to purchase.
“I want to be the first craft distillery to be respected by the masses for multiple spirits,” said Ferrell.
The team is also behind Punching Mule, the self-proclaimed first canned Moscow mule drink in America. The drink’s ingredients include Elevate Vodka, beet sugar and natural lime flavoring.
Building sales neighborhood by neighborhood
Mile High Spirits employed a local-first sales approach. The team focused on Colorado sales from 2011-18, prior to opening in an additional 11 states in 2019.
The company has continued to grow locally, with volume of cases sold increasing from zero to 3,000 annually between 2011-14. In 2018, Mile High Spirits sold over 15,000 cases in its home state. Now, with distribution in markets including Texas and California, the brand is positioned to sell over 20,000 cases nationwide in 2019.
A number of factors made this growth possible:
Mile High Spirits appealed to sales reps in the beverage industry with realistic pricing: A bottle of its whiskey costs around $25. This is significantly less than other distillery brands from Colorado such as Stranahan's, whose bottle sets you back around $45.
“Sales reps and accounts must take a known brand off the shelf to introduce something new,” said Ferrell. “A good product and a realistic, long-term pricing strategy helped us compete with the big brands.”
For its first seven years, Mile High Spirits intentionally focused on building a solid distribution pipeline exclusively in the state of Colorado. Today, the company has over 1,300 accounts in the state, including music venues like the Pepsi Center and nightlife hotspots like ViewHouse and Temple Night Club.
“You don’t spread yourself a mile wide and an inch deep,” said Ferrell of starting a brand. “You spread yourself an inch wide and a mile deep.”
Mile High Spirits supports its accounts by training staff on the product, visiting at least once every three months and participating in events and activations. It even holds contests among staff from its partner accounts, offering trips to Colorado to visit the distillery as prizes.
“Building a brand is really embracing other brands,” said Ferrell.
The people’s distillery
A physical tasting room in the Mile High City was another essential component of Mile High Spirits’ growth plan. But it wanted to iterate the distillery model and provide the community with something different.
The first location it opened was a 5,000-square-foot facility with plush leather couches, a pool table and an outdoor patio with yard games. It was a space in which customers could feel comfortable, like they were hanging out in their best friend’s living room, explained Ferrell.
“We wanted to play off the idea of a brewery but make it more immersive,” he said.
However, with growing distribution and a number of distillery regulars, Mile High Spirits quickly outgrew the space. In 2013, it moved into a new, larger facility that took its distillery concept to another level.
The current space, in Denver’s Ballpark neighborhood, includes a full distillery, a tasting room and a music venue that operates much like a typical bar or club, except for the fact that Mile High Spirits are the only spirits on the menu. It hosts public and private distillery tours and dinners, and it’s also an event space for weddings and more.
The brand's Denver tasting room is a self-described "weekday speakeasy" and "weekend party."
Most consumers visit distilleries to taste spirits and understand the distilling process, Ferrell said. They come to Mile High Spirits to do that too, but most of the brand's loyal followers come to let loose and have a good time.
“Most distilleries are overly focused on showcasing their spirits,” said Ferrell. “We wanted to develop a tasting room for the people.”
On weekdays, the distillery has the feel of a downtown speakeasy. On weekends, it turns into a full-blown nightlife venue with dancing during musical acts and events. The distillery has a reputation as a key player in the Denver music scene, displaying both local and internationally-known talent like Coolio, CeeLo Green and Big Head Todd and the Monsters. This year alone, the brand has spent over $80,000 booking talent, said Ferrell.
It also hosts the Mile High Spirits Block Party, a one-night concert on the streets of Downtown Denver with musical acts like Ludacris and Dillon Frances alongside brand activations that spotlight the spirits.
“We make alcohol because it’s meant to be fun,” Ferrell said. “Our tasting room has the purpose of facilitating fun for people in Denver.”
The annual Mile High Spirits Block Party brings multiple musical acts to the streets of Denver.
🌱 The bottom line
Mile High Spirits survived the early years of startup-hood and grew into a major player in the craft distillery industry. It did so with strategy and outside-the-box thinking that helped it create a brand that stands out from its competition.
The big thinking and lofty goals that influenced the company’s early years will undoubtedly influence Mile High Spirits’ future.
“I would like to be the largest privately held craft distillery in the country,” said Ferrell.
Cheers to that.