The Spirit of the Rocky Mountain West
Distilling in beer country
When you think of Colorado’s flavor industry, beer likely comes to mind, and for good reason, too. Micro-breweries scattered around the state have the range and multiplicity of Galápagos finches. But here in this biodiverse ecosystem of bubbles and hops is a community of world-class distillers who aren’t turned off by beer; instead, they thrive because of it.
Distilling is a long, painstaking process. While most distillers study the science at the university-level and apprentice under master distillers, the real test comes while flying solo. Sometimes, it can take years before distillers get to taste their final product.
Colorado is home to a population of detail-oriented craftspeople. With the fourth most distilleries per capita, it’s no surprise Colorado is among the states at the forefront of the nation’s expanding distilling industry.
If you ask Todd Leopold of Leopold Bros. – off 51st and Havana streets – what it’s like distilling spirits in beer country, he’ll tell you, “It’s wonderful, is what it is.” Brothers Todd and Scott Leopold started manufacturing spirits in the late 1990s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before relocating the operation back to their home state in 2008. When the Leopolds returned to Colorado, Todd – who studied beer production at Chicago’s famous Siebel Institute and later with old-world fermentation experts in Germany – says he was received by “one of the best customer bases in the country, [if] not the world.”
This is a similar sentiment to that of Al Laws, the founder of A.D. Laws and Laws Whiskey House, in Denver’s Platt Park.
“The customer … is much more educated in beer country,” he says.
Laws grew up in Alberta, Canada and received his whiskey training from a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. But with locally sourced grains and water from Eldorado Springs, his award-winning whiskey is 100 percent Colorado-made.
“It’s not just made in Colorado, it’s made from Colorado,” Laws says, referencing the unique terroir that influences his whiskey. “It tastes like Colorado.”
Like most local distillers, Laws speaks fondly of his neighbors.
“We have that esprit de corps with a lot of the breweries,” Laws says.
Kraig and Kameron Weaver of The Block Distilling Co., experienced this kinship first-hand, even before they opened their doors to the public this summer on the corner of 31st and Larimer streets.
“When our equipment got delivered, our forklift went on the fritz,” Kraig Weaver recalls. The brothers went to a nearby brewery and got the keys to their neighbor’s forklift, no questions asked.
The Block Distilling Co., is a good fit for the Colorado scene. The team sources grains in-state, feeds used mash to local cows and refuses to cut corners. Because whiskey takes years to age, many young spirit brands buy whiskey from wholesalers and sell it under their labels until their liquid gold is ready. For The Block, that was not an option. Above the door that separates the cocktail bar from their distillery, there is a digital clock with big, red numbers counting down production time. But with a seductive menu, whiskey is hardly missed.
For Jay Johnson of Bear Creek Distillery, just a few blocks south of A.D. Laws, the aging process is well worth the wait. Johnson explains that the low moisture in Colorado’s climate allows distillers to extract flavors in two years, while closer to sea level, distillers must wait as long as five years. As for the clientele, he says making drinks for an adventurous audience allows Bear Creek to “go anywhere and do anything with [their] cocktails.”
The future is bright for Colorado distillers. With its Coors family history and its 15-year surge of neighborhood breweries along the Front Range and well beyond, locals and tourists alike flock to spirits for an exploration of the taste and appreciation for the craft. Now is the perfect time to be distilling in beer country.
Josh Klasco is a Denver-based writer and multi-instrumentalist. He is a founding member of the klezmer band Hadgaba. His humorous writings, critiques, food reviews, and more can me found at The Nosher or on his Medium page @jklasco.