Colorado has made its mark (a big one) in the beer market, but not far behind are hand-crafted rums, vodkas, whiskeys, gins and liqueurs that boast farm-fresh ingredients and crisp snow-melt water.
It’s similar to the chicken or the egg dilemma: Is it Colorado’s hunger for local ingredients and artisan products and an adventurous attitude that prompted this niche market? Or was it the quality-obsessed distillers that fostered the thirst for smooth spirits? Either way, Coloradans love what’s happening to the local spirits and have full-heartedly supported the small-batch movement.
Get the inside scoop form the head distillers themselves when you stop by one of 26 distilleries (and counting!) in Colorado or look for these brands before you shake, strain and garnish your next Colorado-inspired cocktail.
Master distiller Steve Viezbicke’s passion oozes out of Boulder Distillery’s garage operation just outside of Boulder. His potato-distilled 303 Vodka is as smooth as they come, and the distillery’s vibrant bartenders will gladly whip up a creative cocktail to give you a taste (we recommend the Vootbeer).
Ride your bike, bring your dog to the patio or just sit at the bar and enjoy the laid-back, Caribbean-like atmosphere that was born out of a Polish vodka recipe hidden Steve’s grandfather’s trunk.
Leopold Bros. in Denver
Known for exquisite-tasting gin (without the harsh, piney aftertaste) and flavorful liqueurs, the Leopold brothers are downright serious about the art of crafting — and many of those in the know think they’re the smartest, most innovative distillers in the state.
Peruse leopoldbros.com to get Leopold Bros.’-inspired cocktail recipes made from an impressive collection of award-winning spirits including a 19th-century inspired Absinthe Verte. The brothers pay homage to Colorado with the complex Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur (three pins is slang for telemark skiers) — a bartender’s dream liqueur for a sophisticated and earthy cocktail.
Montanya Rum in Crested Butte
The distillery scene is by and large a man’s world, but Karen Oskin, co-owner, president and in-house rum fanatic at Montanya Rum begs to differ as she pushes Colorado into the international rum market.
Rum you say? Although it seems like a stretch for Crested Butte’s cozy mountain town, rum has been around these parts for more than 120 years. Caribbean mariners brought it to Colorado during the Gold Rush for use as currency and water purification. Visit Montanya’s restored saloon with other après adventurous locals for a cocktail before dinner in town.
Stranahan’s Whiskey in Denver
Colorado’s beloved Stranahan’s had a dramatic beginning when firefighter Jess Graber responded to George Stranahan’s barn blaze. As the flames died down, their mutual love for “a good pour of fine whisky” lit up, and now Coloradans are saying “Cheers!” to this finely aged whiskey.
Tours are giving daily, and visitors enjoy whisky-inspired fare at the adjoining restaurant. For a real good time, sign up for a bottling party or camp at Stranahan’s the night before a release of the enormously popular wine-barrel-aged Snowflake series each winter.
DownSlope in Centennial
Just outside the Denver Tech Center, friends Mitch Ababte and Andy Causey are single-handedly running a mad-science laboratory that produces some of the highest quality spirits in the region. The secret: Use the best ingredients in the world and distill them with nothing less than absolute perfection by carefully monitoring every step of the process. Case in point is the zesty New Mexican dried red chilies and Indonesian black pepper distilled Pepper Vodka that took much experimentation to perfect.
The duo is so dedicated to high-quality spirits that they even teach their hard-earned knowledge at the Distillery School on site to spread the wealth of quality to the region’s other up and comers.
Other Distilleries Worth Checking Out
Known for its International Wine and Spirits Competition gold-medal-winning bourbon whisky, Breckenridge Distillery is the highest-altitude registered distillery in the world at 9,600 feet.
Peak Spirits in the North Fork Valley
When traveling in the Gunnison and North Fork Valley region, call up Peak Spirits for a tour of their quaint organic and biodynamic farm-to-still operation.
Trail Town Still in Ridgway
“We make spirits the old-fashioned way. Handmade still. Local produce,” says the team at Trail Town Still that will use any excuse to throw a party at the distillery — a community softball game, Friday the 13th or the harvest season for a local crop (Palisade Peach daiquiri anyone?).
Spring 44 in Loveland
It’s impossible to put into words how magnificent the Spring 44’s Honey Vodka tastes, so instead of trying, we suggest you give it a whirl at one of many Colorado restaurants and cocktail hot spots rapidly creating drinks made of this delicately sweet concoction.
Peach Street Distillers in Palisade
Next time you’re in Palisade touring wineries or snatching up juicy peaches, stop by Peach Street Distillers for a quick sip. Friends and self-entitled artists Rory, Bill and Dave meticulously craft spirits with Palisade peaches and sweet corn from nearby Olathe.
Photos: All photos courtesy of Tod Kapke/Miles.