Vine Arts & Entertainment: Spirit in small batches

In 2002, brothers Scott and Todd Leopold launched an in-house distillery at their eponymous microbrewery in Ann Arbor, Mich. — making everything from vodka and gin to vermouth and triple sec — because of Wolverine State laws requiring brew pubs to make every alcoholic beverage sold on premise.

Their Leopold Bros. spirits emerged as a focal point of the business, and in 2008, Todd and Scott stopped brewing beer and closed the pub to return home to Colorado and focus strictly on small-batch spirits.

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Todd & Scott of Leopold Bros.

An environmental engineer, Scott handles the business side of the distillery. Todd is the mad distiller. An enthusiastic and creative craftsman, he uses plenty of fresh fruit — in the case of his blackberry liqueur, four pounds of berries per 750-milliliter bottle.

“I’m trying to make sure I don’t spoil Mother Nature — I want to be as gentle as possible with the fruit,” Todd says. “I strain it — I don’t filter it. It makes it much more flavorful.” Fruit grown in Palisade is showcased in a peach liqueur and a peach-flavored whiskey.

Todd went to brewing school in Munich and later studied distilling in Kentucky. He cut his teeth distilling professionally in the Austrian and Swiss Alps, where every resort town has its own distillery. They brought that tradition back to Colorado with them in the form of Three Pins Herbal Liqueur, a spicy, citrusy après-ski delicacy.

Scott’s background as an environmental engineer meant that the brothers’ Ann Arbor operation was the planet’s first environmentally sustainable brewery — a tradition he has carried on in Denver.

OTHER COLORADO DISTILLERIES
Leopold Bros. began distilling in 2002, making it the most wizened liquor-maker operating in the state — followed closely by Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey — but the micro-distillery movement is thriving statewide. While a few states have more micro-distilleries operating, such as Oregon and Vermont, Colorado is definitely ahead of the national curve with more than 10 in the trade.

Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, Denver: whiskey; www.stranahans.com
Mystic Mountain Distillery, Larkspur: vodka and sugar beet moonshine; www.mysticmtnspirits.com
Peach Street Distillers, Palisade: vodka and peach vodka; www.peachstreetdistillers.com
Peak Spirits, Hotchkiss: vodka, gin, brandy, eau de viex, and grappa; www.eauxdevie.com
Colorado Gold Distillery, Cedaredge: vodka, gin, and bourbon; www.coloradogolddistillery.com
Mancos Valley Distillery, Mancos: rum; (970) 946-0229
Montanya Distillers, Silverton: rum; www.montanyadistillers.com
Colorado Pure Distilling, Denver: vodka; www.coloradopuredistilling.com
Roundhouse Spirits, Boulder: vodka and coffee liqueur; www.roundhousespirits.com
Syntax Spirits: vodka and gin; www.syntaxspirits.com

While vermouth and triple sec are no longer among the offerings, Denver-based Leopold Bros. is unlike many micro-distilleries in that it makes 14 different labels — vodka, gin, whiskey, numerous liqueurs and a very traditional — and critically adored — absinthe verte.

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Leopold Bros. Absinthe Verte is made with an old-world style recipe, based on a grape liquor and flavored and colored with fennel, anise and of course wormwood. “This is the way absinthe was produced 100 years ago,” Scott says.

Todd describes perfecting the flavor as a “challenge,” but nonetheless “a lot of fun,” noting, “There’s so much history behind the spirit. I was respectful to the people who are really serious about it.”

Absinthe, only re-legalized in the U.S. in 2007 after a 95-year federal ban, has long had a mystique of being psychoactive because of the wormwood-derived chemical, thujon. “In reality, there’s as much thujon in basil,” says Scott, dispelling the notion. “That would make spaghetti dinners much more interesting.”

Next up at Leopold Bros. are bourbon and rye whiskey, batches of which were recently distilled in a bigger and better Kentucky-made still that the brothers installed this spring. The first bottles of Leopold Bros. whiskey won’t hit the market until 2011 — after two years of barrel-aging. Todd says that Colorado’s low humidity is proving an unexpected tool. “It’s going to age differently than it does in Kentucky, and that’s just fascinating to me.”

Batches of the distillery‘s spirits are small, ranging from about 150 to 250 bottles. Todd hand-labels each bottle. The company’s distribution map has expanded by leaps and bounds since the move to Colorado to include more than 10 states and several countries.

After garnering numerous awards at the San Francisco Spirits Challenge — including besting perennial winners Grand Marnier and Cointreau in the fruit liqueur category with their cranberry liqueur — and a superlative gin review in the Wall Street Journal, the micro-distillery’s sales took off in the first half of 2009. Local bartenders have embraced the spirits. Rioja on Larimer Square in Denver even has a list of Colorado-inspired cocktails that is dominated by Leopold Bros. spirits and liqueurs.

“It’s been fantastic,” Scott says. “Our sales have pretty much doubled this year. This is one of the few industries that is flourishing right now.”

A 750-milliliter bottle of Leopold Bros. spirits retails for $30 to $40; the absinthe verte runs about $70. On the web: www.leopoldbros.com.

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