Larimer SBDC Success Story: CopperMuse Distillery
When Jason Hevelone of Fort Collins hit a career crossroads, he figured he’d open a brewery, but then he tasted his first craft distilled spirit at a Denver distillery.
“It’s so much more flavorful and nuanced,” Hevelone said.
Hevelone, a longtime engineer, talked to his wife, Heather Trantham, also an engineer, then quit his career and opened Fort Collins’ second distillery—the first, Feisty Spirits Distillery, will close in July.
He spent two years planning and working with the Larimer SBDC to bring Copper Muse Distillery to a low traffic area of downtown in 2014—today, the distillery faces The Exchange plaza with other breweries, eateries and retail outlets culminating in a vibrant Old Town entertainment space.
“Old Town or downtown stopped at LaPorte. Not a lot of people went the extra block, so we wanted to create something to draw people and get walk-in traffic,” said Hevelone, co-owner and inspired distiller at Copper Muse Distillery, 244 N. College Ave., No. 105.
Hevelone came up with the distillery’s name by combining the word “copper,” referring to the copper stills he uses, with the inspiration of the muse.
“I think one of the big things we tried to push is we want to create a neat experience for our guests. They’re greeted in a warm way in a more upscale environment,” Hevelone said. “It’s not uppity but comfortable.”
When Hevelone first opened Copper Muse, he could only serve what was made on the premises and was limited to vodka and silver rum, since other spirits required longer aging periods.
“We created a lot of fun cocktails built on this to get the interest going,” Hevelone said.
Hevelone, with the help of his staff, developed several infused vodkas, such as currant, beef jerky and banana liquor. He slowly added other spirits like whiskey and gold rum that take two years or more to age, as well as spiced rum, gin, liquors and even absinth, a high alcohol-content spirit served over sugar cubes.
“We can fix any basic cocktail, but we’re always trying to bring different flavors together to create a new flavor experience, things you wouldn’t think of to make for yourself at home,” said Trantham, co-owner of Copper Muse, who started working for the business in 2017.
Today, Hevelone and Trantham serve more than 50 cocktails, including seasonal ones rotated in every quarter, plus sell 24 different commercial products. The staff gets involved in creating some of the cocktail recipes based on the spirits they’re assigned by the tasting room manager to help add variety to the menu.
“It allows us to go along with different drinks and drink trends,” Hevelone said. “We want to have you experience something new and unique.”
Besides the tasting room and a serving bar, there is a kitchen, which Hevelone operated since opening the distillery. He started with sandwiches, salads, appetizers and meat and cheese boards, wanting to avoid traditional greasy pub fair. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he had to narrow his offerings following the laying off of his kitchen staff, but now is growing his menu again beyond the appetizers and shareables he features.
“It’s taking time as people are getting used to going out and celebrating,” Hevelone said.
To help with that celebration, the décor at Copper Muse has an art deco aesthetic with copper hanging lights and other accents and local art on the walls, rotated out every month as part of the Fort Collins First Friday Art Walk. There’s also a great patio and a production area, which will be moved offsite in late spring to a 6,300-square foot commercial facility with space for a tasting room and event space. This will allow Hevelone to add a second still and double his production of 3,000 12-bottle cases a year and to make bourbon and canned cocktails.
“Our biggest change is in our aging program, which requires aging in barrels,” Hevelone said. “This is going to give so much more room for that.”
Hevelone distributes to other states—currently, he’s in Colorado, Kansas and Michigan and plans to add more. He says he runs three different businesses in one, a manufacturing organization that makes alcohol and spirits, a restaurant with a cocktail bar, and a wholesale distributor.
Before opening Copper Muse, Hevelone and Trantham got interested in home brewing as college students and thought it would be fun to create a brewery. The couple, married for 30 years, met while they were freshmen at Colorado State University. Hevelone earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, working in the high-tech semiconductor and solar field for 19 years. Trantham continued her schooling, earning a doctorate in civil engineering—she now consults through her LLC.
Hevelone knew he wanted to found and operate his own business, while Trantham wanted the security of her and her husband’s engineering jobs.
“When Jason came to me and said, ‘I think I want to start a business and open a distillery,’ I was like no, no,” Trantham said. “I don’t like a lot of ambiguity in my life; having a business means all the ambiguity. … I didn’t marry an entrepreneur, I married an engineer.”
Trantham, however, gave Hevelone her approval. Initially, he worked with the Larimer SBDC, meeting one-on-one with consultants and taking business classes to learn what it takes to open a business and develop a business plan.
“The whole point of doing a business plan is you want to fail on paper, test and think it out,” Hevelone said.
Hevelone worked with consultants in SEO, QuickBooks, marketing and handling business challenges, as well as participated in the SBA Emerging Leaders program.
“The great thing was it created resources and education, a foundation,” Hevelone said. “If I’m having a hard time, I go to the website and see if there is a class. Somebody out there probably has the knowledge.”
Hevelone likes the accountability that comes with working with a consultant, plus the networking opportunities the SBDC offers for business professionals.
“You have to go into it knowing you have to work really hard,” Hevelone said. “You also need to build time off in your regular work week.”
Hevelone and Trantham make sure they aren’t working evenings and weekends, giving that responsibility to the tasting room manager. If visitors want to stop by, they have to let them know, and they’ll be sure to be at Copper Muse promoting their unique experience.
“We produce a premium, handcrafted experience that pushes the taste experience beyond main street corporate producers,” Hevelone said.
Story written by Shelley Widhalm, photo by Jessie Wang.
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