Spirits World

From 1 to 80-plus in less than a dozen years, Colorado distilleries are shaking up the booze biz.

Golden Moon Distillery in Golden features a speakeasy-style tasting room. Photo by Paul Miller.

P.T. Wood is perched at the end of the bar, his stool surrounded by exposed brick, paint-splattered plaster, scrap metal, curious sculptures and church pews upholstered in red fabric. The space, a former auto body garage in downtown Salida, was built in 1900, and in 2012, Wood, a 51-year-old hippie with a magnificent handlebar mustache, and his brother Lee bought it. Today it houses Wood’s High Mountain Distillery, a tasting room, social center and attached warehouse where they distill and bottle small-batch whiskey, gin and liqueur.

Like a lot of distillers in Colorado, Wood, whose first name is really Powell Thomas (or just “Passing Through,” as he jokes), took a circuitous route to the profession. Born in Boulder, he earned a degree in business management from Fort Lewis College in Durango, then moved to Salida in 1989 to become a river rafting guide. It was actually on the river that he first hatched the idea of distilling: He and his fellow boaters liked to celebrate the end of a multi-day paddle with a swig (or three) of whiskey, and right around the time that Stranahan’s—Colorado’s first licensed, post-prohibition distiller—released its introductory batch of 2-year-old Rocky Mountain whiskey, a guy brought along a bottle on one of the rafting trips.

“I’d decided that I was going to start making whiskey, which wasn’t much more than a drunken proclamation at the time,” he says. “But I spent years chasing after the idea of opening a distillery, and once I tasted Stranahan’s whiskey, I charged off to Kentucky to buy an 1880 German pot still, started doing tons of research and going to the American Distilling Institute conferences. Then I found this building, and I knew it was time.”

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As the proprietor of his own distillery and the president— and mouthpiece—of the Colorado Distillers Guild, a nonprofit association of licensed Colorado distilleries and distilling industry suppliers and tradespeople, Wood has witnessed a boom in Colorado craft distillers, one that’s persuaded everyone from former U.S. Army soldiers to fashion photographers to abandon their careers to make everything from whiskey and gin to absinthe and moonshine.

The popularity of Colorado craft distilleries, according to Wood, results in part from the state’s progressive and lenient laws, which have made it much more feasible for spirit creators to self-distribute. Colorado allows distilleries not only to make their own spirits, but also to sell what they produce, both in liquor stores and their own on- and off-site tasting rooms; licensed distillers also may collect the retail revenue from those sales. “Colorado laws are small-business-friendly, and because of that, the doors have opened wider and wider for craft distilleries to become viable,” Wood says.

Eric Jett works at Distillery 291 in Colorado Springs. Photo by Paul Miller.

And since Colorado already has a superior craft-beer culture, Wood adds, it stands to reason that the spirits industry would aim for similar success. Still, he’s quick to point out that distilling isn’t easy. “When everyone started brewing craft beer, there was essentially one style of beer out there—and it tasted like water—but with spirits, we were going up against a huge spectrum of amazing gins and whiskies that were already available,” he says. “So the goal was to distill something better and more adventurous than the great juice that existed before us, and that’s a challenge.”

Jake Norris, the start-up distiller of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey (now owned by Proximo Spirits) and, most recently, the head distiller of Laws Whiskey House, agrees. “Distilling spirits is a very difficult and complex process, and you can’t take shortcuts,” he says.

And opening a distillery is hardly an inexpensive— or overnight—endeavor. The cost of equipment can exceed the price of a pretty damn nice house, Wood says. A nonrefundable license application fee, plus the state manufacturer’s license fee and wholesale liquor license fee (the latter of which allows distillers to sell their products to retailers) currently amounts to $2,395. And then it can take up to a year to actually secure the state license.

Norris, who plans to open a “world-class whiskey bar” in early 2017, worries, too, that the bubble may burst. “Colorado has grown from one distiller—Stranahan’s— to more than 80 in less than a dozen years, and a lot of people have put their hats into the ring because they think this profession is romantic, neat or fun,” he says. “But you’ve got to do your homework and ensure you’re distilling spirits that are superior and unique.”

He proudly points to his current home, Laws, as a distillery that produces spirits the right way: “Laws honors its craft by making its whiskey from start to finish and employing local farmers to grow the grain for the whiskey.” The combination of those two elements, he says, “ensures that we come full circle by keeping the money in Colorado and empowering farmers to grow wheat in their home state.”

Locality, Wood echoes, counts for a lot in Colorado, which ranks second nationally for the number of licensed craft distilleries (Washington state is first). “The state is full of people who have a very keen sense of local craft culture,” he says. “Not only do they want to buy locally produced spirits, they also want to purchase those spirits from smaller, hands-on companies.”

For Wood, distilling is the culmination of a dream that spans two decades. “For all of the hard work, dedication and expense, I wake up every single day and do what I’ve wanted to accomplish for the last 20 years,” he says. “Every day is a puzzle, and I find that fascinating.”

3 Hundred Days of Shine: Mike Girard, owner, founder, and distiller

Photo by Paul Miller

The distiller, distilled: It was during his U.S. Army deployment in Afghanistan that Mike Girard violated General Order No. 1: possessing, consuming, introducing, selling, transferring or manufacturing any alcoholic beverage. He and a buddy jury-rigged a still from an Afghan rice cooker, a couple of copper lines and a hot plate, “and before you knew it, I’d made my first run of moonshine from fermented A&W root beer,” he recalls.

After nearly 23 years in the service, Girard decided to turn his infraction into a hobby and, eventually, a full-time profession. “After a lot of trial and error, as well as a ton of research and reading, I discovered a mash flavor I liked and starting making flavored moonshine—apple pie, lemon drop, peach cobbler and others—and bottling them in jars,” he says.

At first, Girard gave his moonshine away for free, then (realizing that handing out freebies was not a path to prosperity), began accepting donations. One day, his moonshine wound up at a Denver Broncos tailgating party, and it was so popular that the guys who brought it decided to invest in Girard. Two years after he opened a deliberately ramshackle distillery and tasting room in Monument, 3 Hundred Days of Shine moonshine is now available in more than 260 liquor stores throughout the state and is the featured brand at the Colorado Springs Sky Sox baseball games.

The name of the distillery is a nod to Colorado’s unofficial slogan. “As a ploy to influence settlers to move out West, a newspaper columnist in the 1870s dubbed Colorado the state with 300 days of sunshine, and since I was trying to re-create a true Colorado moonshine, the name seemed to fit,” says Girard, who insists that Colorado moonshine is every bit as noteworthy as its Tennessee and Kentucky counterparts. “Kentucky and Tennessee may have made moonshine popular, but you don’t have to be Southern to make good moonshine; mine has a smooth, crisp cane flavor, a mellow burn and a sweet finish that doesn’t linger any longer than it should,” says Girard, who makes all nine of his moonshines from scratch. “Every drop of liquor, from grain to bottle, is produced in-house, and all the fermentation, distillation, blending of flavors, bottling, labeling and packaging happens behind the big barn doors you see in the tasting room.”

Cardinal rules of drinking: Drink moonshine often, but in moderation, Girard warns. “It can sneak up on you, and you may wake up in strange places,” he says. “That might be funny to your friends, but I usually don’t advise it.” He has a tip for first-timers, too: Sip, exhale, pause, then allow the moonshine to rest on your palate and mix with your saliva. Swallow before inhaling.

The apple of his eye: Try the 40-proof Apple Pie moonshine, scented with cinnamon and made with natural apple juice. “It’s the best apple pie ’shine on the shelf,” Girard says. He also fancies the Colorado Honey moonshine. “It’s a little stronger than the Apple Pie, but it’s blended with local honey, and it helps with allergies … or so I’m told.” All of Girard’s moonshines are distilled from 100 percent cane sugar, and the beauty of his moonshine is its drinkability. Ideal for camping, cookouts and pre-football bashes, his offerings don’t have the harsh bite of a lot of moonshines, which makes drinking it straight from the bottle as easy as … well, apple pie.

3 Hundred Days of Shine
279 Beacon Lite Road, Monument

Golden Moon Distillery: Stephen Gould, proprietor, co-founder, and distiller

Photo by Paul Miller

The distiller, distilled: Fifteen years ago, while rummaging through trinkets at a junk shop, Stephen Gould unearthed a full case of Spanish absinthe. Not long after, he uncovered another gem: a rare 1855 edition of “Encyclopedie-Roret, Manuel du Distillateur,” a distillery guide thick with absinthe recipes. After flipping through the pages, Gould thought, “I could make this stuff!” It took a while for that declaration to come true, but after years of researching the historic origins of authentic absinthes and tapping into the brains of other absinthe adherents and distillers, he knew enough to distill the complex, herb-forward and intensely potent spirit he calls REDUX Absinthe.

Made the traditional way—in the style of la fée verte—Gould’s absinthe has amassed a slew of awards, including a silver outstanding medal at the 2013 International Wine and Spirits Competition in London.

Gould, a former saucier, bartender, cook, action officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, congressional staffer and supply chain manager of Ford Motor Company (that’s the short list), says he’s known as a botanical distiller, but his first foray into producing spirits had nothing to do with botanicals.

“While I was in graduate school back in 1991, I produced a really lousy malt whiskey,” he says. It’s not so lousy now: This year, his Golden Moon Single Malt Whiskey waltzed away with a double gold medal at the Word Spirits Competition in San Francisco. His gin, which Gould describes as “herbaceous, nicely floral, slightly sweet and full bodied with a huge amount of essential oil,” triumphed with a gold medal at the 2013 American Distilling Institute’s Annual Judging of Craft American Spirits. “My gin is inspired by the medicinal gins of the 1700s and 1800s, and there’s no other gin in the world like it,” he says.

Golden Moon produces 18 spirits and liqueurs, all of which, Gould says, march to a beat of their own: “My approach to distilling is a little different. I tend to research how each spirit was historically produced and, rather than copying or re-creating a spirit, I use the techniques and ingredients in my research to create spirits that are uniquely mine.”

Cocktail hour: Though the distillery features a small tasting room, Gould’s speakeasy, in a back alley in downtown Golden, is where his spirits and liqueurs steal the spotlight. The gorgeous space, painted a dark navy, is bedecked with strands of white lights across the ceiling. A centerpiece butcher’s block, propped on the pedestal of an antique sewing machine, showcases more than 60 cocktails, all made from spirits produced at the distillery. Gould is notably proud of the place: “I don’t know of any other distillery that produces a product line with the depth and breadth to run a world-class cocktail program without bringing in other spirits from the outside.”

Everything’s golden: Gould plans to add more spirits and liqueurs to his collection. Look for a couple of amaros in the near future, including Golden Moon Amaro Vespetro, his take on a “very old Southern European spirit” once called “the golden elixir of the angels.” He’s also finishing a second still house in Golden, which will produce 100 percent Louisiana Black Strap Molasses rum. “We’re working in partnership with a 160-year-old, family-owned sugar factory in Louisiana, and we’ll be producing a silver rum, a gold rum and an extra-dark rum, all incredibly tasty,” he says.

Golden Moon Distillery
412 Violet St., Golden

Distillery 291: Michael Myers, owner, founder, and distiller

Photo by Paul Miller

The distiller, distilled: While most of us stared in disbelief at our TVs on the morning of September 11, 2001, Michael Myers and his youngest son were just blocks from the World Trade Center, on their way to school. An accomplished fashion photographer who shot for Vanity Fair, GQ and Glamour, Myers fled to Colorado with his family after the terrorist attacks, seeking refuge in Monument. But he continued to fly to New York for photo assignments, and, on one trip, flipped open The New York Times and saw an article about the creators of Hendrick’s gin and Sailor Jerry rum. “I read the story, and thought, hey, I can do that,” Meyers remembers.

But instead of gin or rum, Myers found his muse distilling whiskey, originally in a 339-square-foot basement, where he traded product shots for beers. “I also had a little capital from an ad campaign I’d created, and things got off to a smooth start,” he says. But there were hurdles, too. Whiskey, unlike gin, vodka and liqueurs, requires barrel aging, so it demands patience.

“As a photographer, I was a trained problem solver, so I see things that need to be solved and go about fixing them,” says Myers, who resigned himself to grueling 18-hour shifts, every day, for three years. “I want to make the best spirits possible, and while I don’t have a formal education in distilling, I knew I wanted to do it my own way and experiment.”

Myers isn’t afraid to be “unconventional.” For proof, consider his distilling process, which involves an original 45-gallon still made of seven photogravure copper plates whose surfaces are chemically etched with inked photographic images; another etching in the kettle’s interior column “gives more surface area for the distillate,” which cleans his whiskey, thereby coaxing out more flavor. His mash-in technique—he dubs it the “El Paso County Process”—is equally unorthodox. “We take a finished IPA beer and boil the alcohol off and then take a percentage of the stillage and mash it back into our whiskey bill,” Myers says.

The result: “a unique depth and character.” If that weren’t enough, this is the only distiller in the world to finish its whiskey on toasted aspen leaves. Distillery 291’s spirits—small-batch whiskey, bourbon and a spectacular liqueur called “the Decc”—have captured the attention of serious spirit hounds, including whiskey scholar Jim Murray, whose book, “The Whiskey Bible,” gave its Colorado Rye whiskey Liquid Gold status, meaning it scored 94 points or higher. The Decc also received a gold medal from the International Review of Spirits.

All decked out: On a snowy morning in 2011, Myers was attending a tasting in Breckenridge where he planned to make margaritas with his 291 Fresh white whiskey, an un-aged corn whiskey mellowed with Aspen charcoal. But a blanket of fresh powder gave him pause. “I couldn’t make a whiskarita on a snowy day, so I bought some Everclear, clove powder, lemons and sugar, went back to my hotel room, busted out the Mr. Coffee machine and made a clove liqueur and a citrus liqueur and mixed them with my white whiskey,” he recalls. Turns out, the liqueur is a perfect sip when Jack Frost is nipping at your nose. “You can drink it on a snowy deck, but if you drink too much, you’ll hit the deck,” warns Myers, who offered it at the Breckenridge tasting. (It was a hit.)

Be bad—be very bad: In October, Myers unleashed his 291 Bad Guy bourbon—a special release, and the second in a series—in an extremely limited supply. The four-grain spirit had been introduced in 2013, and Murray awarded the 2013 Bad Guy bourbon 95.5 points, saying that despite the spirit’s youth—it was just a year old—it was “arguably the best for its age worldwide.” Murray also called it “obscene,” as in obscenely good.

Distillery 291
1647 S. Tejon St., Colorado Springs