By John Lehndorff
Photography by Chad Chisholm
A FEISTY LITTLE DISTILLERY brings home big awards for its authentic Colorado-grown whiskey
Owner, Duston Evans
IF YOU DIDN’T KNOW he was the founder, owner and boss man behind Rocker Whiskey and Spirits, you might guess that the burly, bearded guy walking across the tasting room’s patio was just another jean-clad local stopping in for an after-work cocktail.
Duston Evans looks the part, but as he sits and talks about the spark that launched the small
distillery in Old Town Littleton, he analytically sips a cocktail calling out the flavor and aroma
components. The bar crew is testing a new concoction fusing Rocker bourbon, smoked pineapple, poblano chiles, brown sugar and lime. He approves.
Evans opened his micro-distillery seven years ago, inspired partly by an item he found at one of his favorite haunts, a junkyard.
“I saw this oil can from the 1930s. It was a rusty can that tilted on its side with ‘Rocker’ on the label that had that vintage Americana look and feel to it that I wanted,” Evans says. The find sparked the distillery name—Rocker Whiskey and Spirits—and the distinctive round bottle its products come in.
“I didn’t want to have just another square whiskey bottle on the shelf,” Evans says. The resulting round, tilted bottle received an award from an international packaging design competition.
The distillery building had been used mainly as a warehouse before Evans bought it to open up shop. “I wanted it to be connected to a community. That’s why it’s in Littleton,” he says. A bootstrapped, hands-on renovation gave the site a vintage rough-hewn personality, not unlike the one that Evans displays.
Collectibles and memorabilia he has amassed over the years line the shelves behind the Rocker bar. “We Americans don’t make cool stuff like we did back in the day. Everything looks alike now,” he says. The tasting room looks into the space where most of Rocker’s spirits are aging in 400 oak barrels.
The first product Rocker made was vodka, distilled from Colorado-grown corn. In fact, 100 percent of the grain the distillery uses is grown on a 116-year-old family farm near Burlington, Colorado, along I-70 in the far eastern edge of the state.
“They grind the grain on Monday, deliver it on Tuesday, and we use it immediately. It doesn’t sit in bins for months,” Evans says.
With head distiller Nick Hutch, Evans produces Rocker’s signature bourbon whiskey, using 70 percent corn balanced with 30 percent wheat. One of the smoothest pours is the bourbon finished for 18 months in port barrels imported from Portugal.
Rocker’s five-year-old rye whiskey is a revelation. The harshness of many straight rye whiskeys “will blow your face off,” he says, a grin spreading across his face. “Ours is a softer rye. We want it to be more approachable.”
Unlike some distilleries, Evans says Rocker never imports tanker cars of grain spirits produced by mega-distilleries in the Midwest. The only spirit not made in-house is its rum imported from the Caribbean. “We are using the extra rum barrels to make rum-finished rye that should be ready around the holidays,” he says.
Each batch of Rocker tastes slightly different. “We only bottle as needed,” Evans says. “Otherwise, we leave it in the barrel, and the flavor develops.”
This maverick approach has earned Rocker a loyal following in the bourbon-loving metaverse and a slew of major awards. Rocker’s bourbon whiskey finished in port wine barrels won the Best of Show award over global competitors at the 2023 Denver International Spirits Competition as well as Double Gold kudos for its bourbon whiskey at the 2023 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Despite its award-winning prowess, Rocker may be a minor player in the spirits world, but Evans swears that will change. “We have big aspirations to spread the word about Rocker to bourbon lovers everywhere, but we’re never going to change the way we make it.”
Rocker Whiskey & Spirits
5587 S. Hill St.