When one thinks of Colorado, it is often images of idyllic snow capped mountain peaks and valleys of wildflowers that come to mind, not images of a burgeoning cocktail and distilling scene. And yet, Colorado distillers are making wildly creative products that have a deeply rooted connections to farming, agriculture, and the local bar scene.Today, Colorado is home to the 5th largest distilling industry in the United States, with nearly 50 distilleries making whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, and other liqueurs.Colorado distilling is often overshadowed by the omnipresent brewing industry that is the third largest in the United States, and the exploding recreational marijuana industry following the legalization in January of 2014. When people think of American Spirits, they often think about Bourbon made in Kentucky or craft distilling movement in New York state that has received a lot of publicity in recent years. Over the last decade, Colorado distillers have been making award winning, delicious, craft spirits that have helped propel an enthusiastic local cocktail culture within Colorado.
I recently spoke with Rob Dietrich, master distiller of Stranahan’s, Colorado’s first distillery, who said “I’m surprised Colorado didn’t have a whiskey industry [before], because it’s got that kind of feel… Colorado embodies the whiskey spirit”.Colorado has an abundance of resources at its fingertips – local farmers growing corn, grains, potatoes, apples, and peaches; snow runoff from the Rocky Mountains; and an enthusiastic community with a thirst for anything made in Colorado.“People are very proud of anything Colorado, especially now…People take a lot of pride in things that are homemade and homegrown, and that starts to affect people’s choices. They are going to spend a few extra bucks to buy Stranahan’s and enjoy it… because they want to support local”.
As Colorado distilleries have grown and found national success, their supporting communities have grown as well.This symbiotic relationship is best embodied by Stranahan’svolunteer bottling line, a model that has been copied by other Colorado distillers.Volunteers come into the distillery five times a month to help label and pack up the bottles into boxes, an event that first started as a way to save on labor costs.The programme does much more than save money for the independent distillery, it includes the community and gives the volunteers a unique experience with the brand that makes them loyal drinkers for life.Stranahan’s waiting list has grown to over 20,000 volunteers patiently waiting to participate in their bottling programme.
Colorado is a state that has many different microclimates, and can produce a wide range of agricultural products.Sunshine and snow-melt water from the mountains make Colorado an ideal growing environment for produce and grains.Historically, distilling was a method of preserving as well as a profitable venture for farmers.Peaches were distilled into Peach Brandy, Apples into Applejackand Corn and Wheat into Whiskey.
Today, some Colorado distillers have their own farms and orchards, and others source other produce from in-state farmers.Woody Creek Distillers, located outside of Aspen, Colorado, grows Rio Grande potatoes on 40 acres of the Scanlan Family Farm and distils just once a year during the harvest from September to November.The potatoes that have been grown in the Aspen Valley for over 100 years are now are transformed into award winning vodka for martinis and Moscow mules.
Since the Colorado spirits movement has grown along with the national cocktail and craft spirits movement, there has been a desire to create products that are unique yet embody the flavors of Colorado.Some distillers use all Colorado grains and produce, some Colorado water, but they are all trying to define a Colorado way of making spirits.
Jess Graber and George Stranahan founded Stranahan’s whiskey in 2004, [Graber] didn’t want to compete with the bourbons in the United States, he wanted to something entirely different from what anyone was making”, says Dietrich, “It’s very similar to a single malt scotch, but we’re doing it in a Rocky Mountain style.We’re using brand new barrels, and there are many variances that set us apart… it has to do with that independent mindset”.Leopold Bros. makes a Rocky Mountain Blackberry Whiskey, a blend of whiskey and blackberries harvested from the Rocky Mountain region, then aged in American oak barrels. Peach Street Distillers grow their own Peaches in Palisade, Colorado – a high plains microclimate that produces fruit with a higher concentration of sugars. 26 pounds of fresh peaches go into each bottle of their Peach Brandy.They also make a Jackelope Gin made from hand-picked Colorado juniper, Coriander, Angelicaand Orris root to give it a distinctive pine flavor.Leopold Bros. makes a Highland Amaro, an herbal liqueur that is made by steeping a neutral grain spirit with bitter roots, rose petals, elderflower, chamomile, and honeysuckle.Dancing Pines makes a Black Walnut Bourbon Liqueur – a bourbon aged for months with black walnuts to achieve a mellowed but bold flavor.
Another major trend in Colorado distilling is foraging.Leopold Bros. makes a Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur made from botanicals sourced from the Rocky Mountains. Dram Apothecary in the historic ghost town of Silver Plume makes teas, syrups and bitters from hand forged wild herbs also found in the mountains of Colorado. Dram is housed in an old bread shop turned tasting room, where founders Shae Whitney and Brady Becker make bitters, and locally inspired cocktails such as the Alpine Manhattan for Silver Plume locals and those passing through on their way to the mountains.
Just as the growth of distilling has exploded in Colorado, so has the interest in mixology and craft cocktails.Bars around the state of Colorado have taken notice of the unique craft spirits being created in the state, and frequently incorporate local spirits on cocktail menus. “The bars are supporting craft… and using local spirits in their drinks, which makes it even closer to home”, says Dietrich.Ace in Denver makes a cocktail called Double Happiness made with Leopold Bros. Navy Strength Gin, Campari, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and dashes of Leopold Bros. Absinthe.
Colorado is a place where people are prideful about what they do and what they make.There is an independent spirit still very much alive across the state; people have a maverick mentality that inspires independence, self-sustainability, qualityand creativity.Be warned, it is contagious.
Emily Arden Wells is the editor and co-founder of Gastronomista, a website dedicated to the culture of drink.