Roaming 50,000 square feet of expo floor in the massive Colorado Convention Center feels like a workout. But such a workout in the distilling industry means sipping experimental spirits from fellow distillers, shopping for stills and bottle labels or connecting with craft industry colleagues from as far away as Israel or Australia.

The 16th annual American Distilling Institute Craft Spirits Conference and Expo was held in Denver, Colorado, on March 18–20, 2019. This year’s conference drew in around 1,800 attendees, 80 speakers and 180 exhibitors. Over 50 educational sessions covered the gamut from beginner to expert-level classes. Eleven workshops were held on-site at local distilleries, giving attendees hands-on practice, an education feature ADI has long invested in. There were more than enough options for an action-packed week.

But the action began even before the conference. March 16th saw gin producers and industry members from England to Germany, Georgia to California, gather for ADI’s 3rd annual Gin Summit (https://distilling.com/events/2019-gin-summit) held all day at Denver’s Archetype Distillery. The event’s keynote speaker, Stephen Gould, of Golden Moon Distillery in the nearby town of Golden, talked about the state of distilling in Colorado. This was also tasted directly that afternoon in a Colorado Gin showcase, while an Introductory Gin Workshop was held Sunday at Golden Moon Distillery.

Gin Summit speakers included Matthew S. V. Pauley of Heriot-Watt University in the United Kingdom; International Spirits Consultant Julia Nourney from Germany; Lauren Patz, distiller at Spirit Works in Sebastopol, CA; food/spirits/cocktail writer, Virginia Miller; Nicholas Cook, director of The Gin Guild; Keli Rivers, gin expert and Sipsmith Gin brand representative; Natasha Bahrami, founder of The Gin Room; gin expert and writer Aaron J. Knoll; gin expert and writer from the UK, David T. Smith; and a panel that included a few of the above as well as Brad Plummer of Farallon Gin Works and Ben Capdevielle of Captive Spirits. The day ended on a rousing note with Bahrami and Rivers’ Martini vs. Negroni showdown—debating which is the ultimate gin cocktail—with rounds of both cocktails for all.

After all that gin, the conference officially kicked off Monday, March 18, with another day of hands-on distilling classes, followed by a Colorado Distillers Guild welcome reception and tasting of local spirits that night, attended by no less than 1,000 people.

Tuesday morning was the official start to two days of classes, seminars, panels and shopping the expo floor at the convention center for products crucial to would-be and current distillers. During his kickoff speech, ADI Vice President Erik Owens confirmed that the conference had doubled in size since it was held in Denver six years prior, while his father and ADI President and founder Bill Owens shared stories of what led him into the industry nearly two decades ago.

In addition to Bill Owens, there were three keynote speakers, starting with the Honorable John Hickenlooper, former Colorado governor (2011–2019), Denver mayor (2003–2011) and current Democratic presidential candidate. He also happened to launch Colorado’s first brewpub, Wynkoop Brewing Co., in Denver in 1988. Hickenlooper famously helped build the “LoDo” (lower downtown) neighborhood of Denver from its run-down early days to the thriving ‘hood it is now by working together with local businesses to support each other and the area. He provided inspiration on collaboration and what cooperation versus merely competition can do for an industry and region. He riled the crowd up as he closed with, “I am officially running for president. Vote for Hick!”

Chris Swonger, CEO of Distilled Spirits Council and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility from D.C., talked about his 15 years in the industry, his priority to grow spirits advocates in the government and to increase responsible drinking but reducing underage drinking. He discussed the details of the Federal Excise Tax (FET), encouraging distillers to fight with him to get that crucial tax cut extended for small distillers. This tax was temporarily lowered in 2017 from the large distiller rate of $13.00/proof-gallon to $2.70/proof-gallon for small spirit producers. The reduction expires December 31, 2019, and is a deep area of concern for small distillers. The tax disparagement between distilling and craft brewing and wineries is sharp: US craft distillers pay 5.4 times more FET tax than craft brewers and 16.4 times more than small wineries. Small distillers are planning a D.C. gathering in July targeting congressional representatives to extend the tax reduction for craft distillers.

Michael Kinstlick, CEO of Coppersea Distilling in New York, shared his annual report on craft distilling, confirming that in the US there are now over 3,600 spirit products from 1,700 producers. At the end of 2018, roughly 1,250 of these distilleries were in full operation, with 250 “estimated” to open, and another 200 as non-distiller producers (blenders, infusers, rectifiers). The rate of new distillery applications is about one per day, while due to closures or mergers, closing rate is about one distillery per week. Of note is that including large-volume producers, merely 42 U.S. distilleries produce 96% of the country’s spirits, while smaller distilleries collectively produced roughly 13 million proof-gallons in 2018. Another fascinating fact is that the country’s distilled spirits consumption has increased to 37% of the alcohol market, mirroring craft beer’s rise 20 years ago.


March 19th and 20th presentations ran the gamut from social media to packaging, biotechnology to financing. There were deep dives into spirits categories, from gin to whiskey, while Nancy Fraley and Julia Nourney led “Nosing for Faults,” and celebrated distillers like Chip Tate of Texas’ Tate & Co. Distillery talked on “Stills and Whiskey, Ways and Means.” Over 80 oral presentations, 50 educational sessions and 11 hands-on workshops culminated Wednesday night at Denver’s Mile High Spirits for a closing session where a cash-only bar benefitted the tax-exempt Colorado Distillers Guild with its current membership of 64 Colorado distilleries.

On the final day, ADI’s fourth annual Women Distillers Summit was held in roundtable format with multiple tables helmed by key women in distilling, from media to distributors. A good 70 female distillers and other women in the industry attended, allowed roughly 15 minutes at each table for breakout group discussions on an array of subjects before switching to the next table. It was one of the most lively sessions of the week, a time of networking and rousing discussion.

Book signings happened throughout the week from White Mule Press authors, namely Gabe Toth, Craft Floor Malting: A Practical Guide; David T. Smith, The Craft of Gin, and Forgotten Spirits and Long Lost Liqueurs; Aaron Knoll, The Craft of Gin; Bill Owens’ The Art of Distilling Whiskey, Modern Moonshine Techniques, How to Build a Small Brewery, 99 Pot Stills and Craft of Whiskey Distilling; Alan Dikty, The Art of Distilling Whiskey; Karen Locke, High-Proof PDX; Ian Smiley, The Distiller’s Guide to Rum; Dave Thomas, The Craft Maltsters Handbook; and Eric Zandona, The Bourbon Bible.

Tuesday night played host to the 2019 ADI Craft Spirits Judging Awards Gala Dinner. Awards were announced in every category of spirits, blind-judged by ADI’s international panels of expert judges earlier in the year. Bill Owens handed out his Whimsy Awards in categories like Best Farm Distillery, Best Distillery Website, Best Zero Waste Distillery, Best Nano Distillery and Best Distillery Tour and Tasting Room.

Best of Class Awards are the leading awards in the broader spirits categories announced after Double Gold, Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in all spirits categories and sub-categories, in addition to Best of Category awards. (For a complete list of 2019 award winners see ADI’s Judging Results on page 62.)

A total of 768 medals were awarded this year, with the Gold, Double Gold, Best of Category and Best of Class awards announced during the ADI awards gala dinner. Some distilleries won multiple awards—again, all blind-judged by numerous judging panels—with Gig Harbor, Washington’s Heritage Distilling winning a total of 65 medals.

The night closed with Erik Owens presenting the major award of the night, the Bubble Cap Award for 2019 Distillery of the Year to Stephen Gould and Golden Moon Distillery in Golden. As a board member of the Colorado Distillers Guild, small distillery member of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) and a member of the American Craft Spirits Association, Gould was a pioneer in Colorado’s craft-distilling scene, opening Golden Moon with his wife, Karen Knight, in 2008. Their focus for over a decade has been quality ingredients in a historic, 1800s distilling style. Gould keeps a research library filled with rare books on distillation and related subjects, dating back to the 1500s. Beloved for their gin, absinthe and creme de violette, Golden Moon has also made waves producing and reviving rare spirits like amer dit picon, kummel (caraway liqueur) or Ex Gratia, a style of Génépi.

Announced at the end of the awards ceremony was ADI’s conference city for next year: New Orleans. The Big Easy will be home to ADI’s 17th Annual American Distilling Institute Craft Spirits Conference and Expo in March 2020. See you all in NOLA!