A bottle of Pear Brandy made by Peach Street Distilling, Paonia, CO. “To get the pear into the bottle, the distiller drops in a lit match, sets the fruit on top, and watches while the vacuum created pulls the fruit down through the neck.” — Dave Thibodeau, Peach Street Distillers
Politics has been called the world’s second-oldest profession. If this is the case, then, in this country, the third is making moonshine. Long relegated to illegal backwoods operations by draconian federal and state tax laws that favored large producers, the art of distilling spirits was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth and the activity was kept in the shadows. There was good reason not to get caught breaking the law. Adherence to federal code governing alcohol production is policed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Trades, formerly the ATF, the same people who brought you the Waco and Ruby Ridge tragedies. Some law-enforcement agencies arrest and prosecute those who violate the law; these guys are licensed to kill. A decade ago, changes in tax codes allowed small producers to begin producing liquor and turn a profit. In 2003, the American Distilling Institute was founded to help promote the nascent industry. At that time, the association recognized 69 operating craft distilleries nationwide. Today there are more than 240, with projections of this number doubling by 2015. With craft distillers currently operating in every Western state, the movement resembles the craft-brewing industry of the early 1990s, which was a period of rapidly rising consumer interest and explosive growth.
Founded in 2004, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey can lay claim to being the oldest legally operating distillery in Colorado. A partnership between Woody Creek locals Jess Graber and George Stranahan, (also component to the reawakening of this journal), the whiskey was once distilled from mashes made at another of Stranahan’s former business concerns, the Flying Dog Brewery, when it also operated in Denver. Both have since changed hands, but unlike Flying Dog, Stranahan’s Whiskey continues to be produced on Kalamath Street in the Mile High City and distributed around the state. Having recently taken delivery of new copper pot stills and fermentation tanks, they aim to triple their production over the next year, with hopes that some of their product might actually make it out of Colorado to points far and wide.
On the other side of the state, Peach Street Distillers in Palisade first put fire under its still in 2005. Taking advantage of being located in the heart of Colorado’s fruit- and wine-producing regions, they have put together an award-winning lineup of products that include Colorado Straight Bourbon, Goat Vodka, Jackalope Gin, Jack and Jenny Peach and Pear Brandies (including the Pear Brandy pictured above with the fruit grown in bottles carefully suspended from the tree branches), several styles of Grappa and other unique products. Peach Street proudly points out that theirs was the first bourbon produced in the state. According to press release, a common misunderstanding is that bourbon must be made in Kentucky, and although there are strict laws governing what a bourbon is, the spirit can technically be made anywhere in the United States. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, aged for not less than two years in new charred American oak barrels, and nothing can be added at bottling to enhance the flavor or color. As with all of Peach Street’s spirits, they use local Colorado ingredients, including the famed sweet corn of Olathe. This “commitment to excellence in creativity and quality” was cited as determining factor in Peach Street being awarded the “Distillery of the Year” award at the 9th annual Craft Distillers Conference held in Louisville, KY, in April of this year. Plans are underway to expand the tasting room, as well as to acquire several of the buildings that they currently occupy, as well as to put up over 100 barrels of bourbon in 2012.
Claiming title as “the world’s highest distillery,” Breckenridge Distillery operates their production facility and downtown tasting rooms up in Breck at an elevation of 9,600 feet above sea level. Breckenridge produces award-winning bourbon, vodka and rum. The bourbon is curious in that it contains a high amount of rye in the grain mixture that forms its base. This differentiates it from many American-style bourbons that might finish sweeter. They also produce an original line of bitters infused with alpine herbs intended to create remarkable aperitifs with flavors evoking the rare beauty found in the mountains around them.
Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO, and would love to hear about hooch made near you. Drop him a line: firstname.lastname@example.org