A family business, from rock to rum
On a summer afternoon, Rob Hubler and Jim Kelly of California take the Gypsum exit off Interstate 70 seeking relief from the heat. After a break along the Eagle River, they’re on their way down U.S. 6 at Dotsero when they spot a sign for Stoneyard Distillery. Curious, they make their way past stacks of cut stone to sample some Colorado rum.
Co-owner and self trained distiller Max Vogelman is there to meet them.
“Everybody else is doing whiskey,” he tells the men as he pours samples of their signature product and walks them through the steps for making it, “But you can do anything with this – put it in anything.”
Indeed, local Calvin Graham enters a moment later with his order already on his lips: Pirate Lemonade, “a great summer drink,” and one of several mixed options on the menu. There’s also some variety in the rum itself, with aged, cinnamon and horchata versions, and a coffee flavor in the works. Many appreciative exclamations later, Hubler and Kelly buy a bottle on their way out.
That’s pretty much an average day for Vogelman, who runs the tasting room from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The rest of the time, he’s usually perfecting the latest batch or coming up with ideas for the future.
The 35-acre property just upstream from the Eagle River confluence with the Colorado River has already seen its fair share of change over the years.
It was a sawmill for Satterwhite Log Homes before Vogelman’s uncle, Kurt, bought it in the 1990s and made it into the stoneyard that gives the spirit its name.
“We did a lot of masonry and sold a lot of stone in Aspen and Vail. It was a nice central location,” Kurt Vogelman said.
The stone business happened to be winding down around the time the idea for a distillery began to gain steam. Although he still owns the land and occasionally sells some stone, Kurt has mostly turned it over to his nephew.
“It’s a really good feeling to see the property alive and operating,” he said. “It needed to be used, and they’re using it.”
The other part of the equation is Jim Benson, who brings years of experience and business acumen to Max Vogelman’s hands-on presence. The pair got acquainted when Vogelman was working for Benson’s foam insulation business during the recession.
“We figured out we work well together,” Vogelman recalled.
“We both enjoy making something from nothing,” Benson agreed.
One day on the way to work, Vogelman mentioned that he’d begun experimenting with home distilling. That caught Benson’s interest.
“It was exciting, it was new, it was different,” he said.
Moreover, it was an opportunity.
“I had something I liked that I couldn’t just go to the store and buy off the shelf,” Vogelman said. “It didn’t taste like Bacardi.”
TRUE TO COLORADO
Once they had the space, things began to fall into place.
“You never have enough space, and water is always a challenge, too,” Vogelman added. “Neither of those were issues here.”
The equipment is mostly second hand or custom made, including some ‘60s vintage dairy tanks and “Twinkie,” a boiler salvaged from a former Hostess factory and hauled up from Atlanta by Vogelman himself. As with distilling, his engineering knowhow is self taught. He spent the first three years after high school putting together a heavily customized kit plane with his dad.
“I kind of looked at building that plane as my college education,” he said. “A lot of what I do here I learned there: fluids, heat transfer, electrical …”
For the most part, it was just a matter of scaling up what he was already doing at home. It starts with Colorado beet sugar instead of cane sugar or molasses and filtered water right out of the Eagle River, plus a few additions along the way.
“We use really simple stuff,” Vogelman said.
“Straight ethanol has no flavor, so anything else in there you’re going to taste right away.”
“We were trying to make a product that is really true to Colorado,” Benson added. “It may not be what you think of as rum, but it’s still pretty darn good. Try it before you knock it.”
Initially, the pair imagined the facility as production only.
“Being here has opened up things we didn’t even think about when we got into the business,” Vogelman said. “It’s turned into something pretty cool.”
There’s the tasting room, complete with a Pennsylvania flagstone bar that was already cut and onsite from some past order.
“It’s one of those things that just kind of worked out,” Vogelman said. “Whatever we could reuse we did.”
That includes the former sawmill building, which has been transformed into a stage with the help of some lights and a backdrop wall that was also already on site. With a big fire pit and plenty of room for camping, the distillery has hosted a number of public and private events with up to 150 people. Primal J and the Neanderthals will play beginning at 8 p.m. today. It’s a $5 cover with drinks and cocktails available for the 21 and up crowd. On Aug. 12, the Harris and Lee band starts at 7 p.m..
It’s a chance for more people to discover Stoneyard.
“Dotsero is not a place where people hang out,” Benson said. “If we put venues there, people will come visit.”
“The best way for us to sell this is for people to be here and see what we’re doing,” Vogelman agreed.
Stoneyard products are also available at more than 100 stores and restaurants, including Cooper Wine and Spirits and The Pullman.
While he enjoys the events and has contemplated branching into making brandy, Vogelman’s focus remains his core product.
“I want to make one thing really, really well before I branch out,” he said. “At the end of the day, I want to be known for rum.”
With 11 acres, a 2 million gallon annual water right, and both I-70 and the railroad nearby, there’s plenty of room to grow.
“This building could handle quite a bit more production,” Vogelman said. “If I can make it work, I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.”
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