Blithe Spirits in Colorado – NYTimes.com
Jeffries Blackerby wrote this wonderful piece for the New York Times back in November 2011 about distilleries in Colorado.
On a recent Saturday night in Boulder, Col., a warehouse in an industrial park on the city’s southeast side was humming with live music, food trucks and people who’d dropped by on bicycles for a martini. Which may seem customary in the People’s Republic of Boulder — except that the warehouse isn’t a new cocktail bar exactly but rather Boulder Distillery, one of the many small spirit producers that are multiplying all over the state.
Steve and Terri Viezbicke started this one in 2008 with 303 Vodka, made from Steve’s Polish grandfather’s recipe, then branched out into potato whiskey (the first of its kind). Because Colorado law allows distilleries to sell what they make right from their plant, the tasting room — a bar in a corner of the distilling floor strung with lights and lined with potato sacks — slings pickletinis and bloody Marys and sells bottles of its spirits all weekend long.
The state’s lenient laws allowing distilleries to self-distribute, combined with a controversial ordinance that mostly bans supermarkets and convenience stores from selling liquor or full-strength beer, are one reason that the number of craft spirit makers in Colorado has grown from two in 2004 to more than 20 at last count. The Rockies’ history of beer brewing is another: both whiskey and beer start out with a mash.
Yet despite the boom, the majority of the newcomers are microdistillers that are content to remain small, selling only to bars and stores in Colorado, or in two or three states at most, and selling only a few thousand bottles a year. Their mission is in essence part of the larger nationwide sweep toward the preservation of American craft and the nostalgia for an agrarian past. Not coincidentally, there are now more than 300 small distilleries around the country, up from about 40 in 2003.
“What we do is very much agriculture,” says Todd Leopold, who with his brother Scott founded Leopold Brothers in Michigan in 1999 and moved to Denver in 2007. Leopold is among the best known and most successful distillers in the state, selling about 100,000 bottles a year of its 18 spirits. Leopold uses regional produce for its fruit whiskeys, and like many distillers around Denver and Boulder, it sends its stillage — castoff, alcohol-free grain — to nearby farmers to feed their cows and pigs.
“Instead of outsourcing, we’re insourcing,” says Moose Koons, the sales manager at Peach Street Distillers, a small outfit based in the tiny town of Palisade, near Utah, that made its name with a peach brandy using overripe local fruit that farmers would otherwise have thrown out. “Spirits in colonial times were about utilizing everything around you,” Koons says, mentioning the waste-not farming principles of Thomas Jefferson and adding that the company aims to work with ingredients within a 40-mile radius. “We have a whole D.I.Y. mentality. We’ve done everything the hard way even though people thought we were nuts.”
Pre-industrial and pre-Prohibition ideas are big in distilling circles. Todd Leopold explains that for most spirit makers, everything went downhill after Prohibition: stills went from copper to steel, and technique lost out to automation. “We’re doing it the same way as Mount Vernon,” he says.
At distilleries in Colorado you’ll see all manner of custom-made copper stills, some of them jerry-built with vintage accessories and repurposed doodads. At Downslope Distilling on the outskirts of Denver, the co-owner Andy Causey came up with a tubalike contraption he calls the Lichtenstein that slows the distillate down to a slow drip to increase the depth of his vodkas. Distillery 291’s Michael Myers, a photographer turned distiller who lived in New York until 9/11, had one of his old copper photogravure plates welded into his still in Colorado Springs — etched side facing in — in order to leach out more flavor for his whiskey.
Indeed, mass-produced, standardized spirits — the tasteless, odorless vodka of the cosmo — are an abomination in these parts and the common foe among the state’s distillers. “We’re not competing with each other,” says Rob Masters, maker of Rob’s Mountain Gin and the president of the Colorado Distillers Guild. “We’re competing against the big guys.”
Around the nuances of old-school distillation and its horse-sense methodology has coalesced a tightknit community, happy to taste what the other guy is doing and offer pointers. Masters, for example, makes his gin on the premises of Boulder Distillery, where he has a loose and friendly knowledge-sharing (but not profit-splitting) relationship with Steve and Terri Viezbicke. “People tell you what didn’t work for them, where to get barrels, how to figure out paperwork,” says Myers, who got his license in the spring and says he’s had his own share of assistance from colleagues. “Everyone is always helpful. You don’t always expect that.”
Ask a distiller how he really made his mark and he’ll likely say it’s because of a mixologist. (“We make the paint” is a popular expression of humility.) There’s no doubt that without robust cocktail scenes in Denver and Boulder, customers might still be sipping Stoli. Or could it be that the distilleries gave birth to the bars? “A chicken/egg thing” is how Masters describes it. But on Saturday night no one at Boulder Distillery seemed to give it much thought, although they probably would have agreed with Todd Leopold’s statement that “bartenders are making cities better places.”
Leopold Brothers: Todd and Scott Leopold turn out 18 spirits, including rye, bourbon, gin, vodka and a host of fruit liqueurs. There’s no tasting room, but virtually every cocktail bar in the area uses Leopold’s spirits..
Boulder Distillery: Steve and Terri Viezbicke’s three-year-old operation makes 303 Vodka and 303 Whiskey (out of potatoes!). Rob Masters also produces Rob’s Mountain Gin on the premises, and the plant turns into a lively bar scene on weekends. 2500 47th Street, Boulder.
Downslope Distilling: This mad scientist’s lab with a tasting counter distills rye whiskey, rum, sugar-cane vodka and a wine-barrel-aged rum that tastes a bit like tequila. 6770 South Dawson Circle, Centennial; (303) 693-4300.
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey: The one that kicked off the Colorado distilling craze in 2004 with Rocky Mountain Straight Whiskey, a designation it invented. (The company was bought recently by the conglomerate Proximo.) The whiskey is available in a few states outside Colorado, or you can pick up a bottle on one of the tours. 200 South Kalamath Street, Denver.
Roundhouse Spirits:. Ted Palmer works alone in Boulder, making a coffee liqueur, an agave spirit called Tatanka and a barrel-aged gin merging savory Dutch, floral French and citrus American styles. He offers weekend tours, too. 5311 Western Avenue, Suite 180, Boulder.
Distillery 291: Michael Myers, a photographer who moved to Colorado Springs from New York after 9/11, makes aged whiskey and “white dog” whiskey — a fresher, unaged version — in a copper still welded with one of his old photogravure plates. Taste his products at the Blue Star in Colorado Springs, 1645 South Tejon Street (719-632-1086).
The Bitter Bar: Visit the master mixer Mark Stoddard for revelatory cocktails like the Grassy Knoll, made with gin, verjus, white vermouth, sauvignon blanc and celery bitters. 835 Walnut Street, Boulder; (303) 442-3050.
Williams & Graham: Behind the bar is Sean Kenyon, serving a near-definitive selection of Colorado spirits. 3160 Tejon Street, Denver.
The Green Russell: A speakeasy serving Colorado-centric cocktails, like one made with Peach Street’s peach brandy. 1422 Larimer Street, Denver; (303) 893-6505.
Mateo: Cocktails include the Bear Paw Palmer, made with Rob’s Mountain Gin, cardamom and Irish tea. 1837 Pearl Street, Boulder; (303) 443-7766.
Root Down: Justin Cucci’s restaurant complements its local-centric menu with drinks like a Blackberry Smash, using Leopold’s blackberry whiskey. 1600 West 33rd Avenue, Denver; (303) 993-4200.