It may be hard to fathom, but there really was a point in time in Colorado when small, local breweries weren't all the rage. That point in time was relatively short lived, of course, but it did endure just long enough for Abate -- along with his original partners Andy and Matt Causey -- to choose distilled spirits over amber-colored ale.
"We were homebrewers," Abate says. "But this ended up being the next logical step for us because back in 2008 and 2009 there actually weren't a lot of breweries doing real well. Some were going out of business and so on. It wasn't like it is today, so we decided instead of a brewery, we were going to do a distillery."
That may have been the official beginning of Downslope Distilling, but the planning and preparation had actually gotten underway much earlier. "I really started doing the research in 1992," Abate remembers. "I went to all the distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee at the time, and brought a lot of ideas and information back."
When the decision was made to produce whiskey, vodka, and rum, Abate knew one of the first things they needed was a still, and based on his observations down South -- and what he was trying to accomplish up here in the Rockies -- he had a pretty good notion of the kind he wanted.
"Our still was designed by myself and Colonel Wilson at Copper Moonshine Stills down in Arkansas," Abate says. "It's based on Prohibition-type stills, so it's very simple. We intentionally designed it to produce an artisanal spirit with really low-tech stuff, because I believe that produces a better flavor profile than more modern column stills."
Countless fans of Downslope's Double Diamond Whiskey, cane vodka, spiced rum, and other labels seem to agree -- and are certainly happy that Abate didn't take a chance on a craft brewery all those years ago.
Challenges: Marketing. "Our equipment is pretty much set for the production that we do," Abate says. "But the marketing is really important because the situation now is that we're going against not only the big guys, but there are other, smaller distilleries opening up like crazy. When we set up shop we were the 16th license in Colorado. There are close to 60 now. So it's all about marketing and brand recognition and just trying to get our product out there."
Opportunities: Appealing to a more wide-ranging taste demographic, and to tipplers beyond the Colorado border. "Our whiskey and our peppered-flavored vodka have taken off pretty good," Abate says. "A lot of bars and restaurants are picking those up, and we're getting a lot of positive feedback from local and national press."
It won't be long until additional in-the-know lounges and eateries have even more choices of products to pick up. "We're working on expanding our whiskey line and selling to additional states," Abate continues. "We're focusing right now on the single malt, the rye, the bourbon, and our regular Double Diamond . . . they're aging while we're speaking."
Needs: Nationwide ambassadors. Downslope can already be found in a handful of states across the country, from Massachusetts to California and Illinois to Louisiana. "So it's kind of spreading out," Abate says. Still, breaking into new markets is an uphill battle.
"The challenge with out-of-state business is that if you don't have an ambassador going to bars and actually selling your product, you have a big problem," he explains. "You start by going through a broker, and the broker finds a distributor. But all a distributor does is distribute. If they're not selling it, it doesn't move. So we need to get various ambassadors in different states."
Read more manufacturing profiles from this week's edition: