Aaron explores a hot-bed of US gin
By: Aaron Knoll
“Pure Rocky Mountain spring water,” the billboards read. The Coors Brewing Company of Golden, Colorado, nestled in the rolling foothills of the Rockies, set against a backdrop of layered ascendant snowcapped peaks, didn’t need to say much. In Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, Maureen Ogle wrote that Coors caught on because, “Many had discovered Colorado’s mountains and rugged, earthy lifestyle.” In 2007 she elaborated to the Denver Post, “It was this mystique that had to do with Rocky Mountain pure water.”
Gins the world around have been embracing the concept of terroir. It came to spirits from the world of wine and the idea is that a location’s unique environmental features – weather, soil, altitude, geology – contribute to the character of that which is grown there. When we talk about terroir in gin, this can refer to how a region affects the grains that go into the base spirit, the botanicals grown there, or water used during distilling.
The Coors story illustrates the evocative power of Colorado. Whether by sourcing their water high in the peaks, their grain from the vast plains in the east of the state or their juniper from the river valleys and foothills, the “mystique” and flavour of Colorado is a recurring theme among the over one hundred distilleries in the state making over forty gins.
The success of Colorado distilling began with the success of Colorado brewing. Ian Lee and Nick Lee, founders of Colorado Springs based Lee Spirits Co., cited the social capital in place for their distillery in 2013: the knowledge, the laws, the way Coloradans support their local business – all contributed to the meteoric rise of Colorado distilling.
The Colorado Story
In 1916, four years before the nation banned alcohol, Colorado did. Colorado’s ban on alcohol production and consumption devastated a booming downtown whiskey industry. Even though the state would repeal their alcohol ban law in 1932 and the federal government would in 1933, many laws remained on the books that would keep the industry underground.
In the 1970’s, the national prohibition on home brewing was repealed. Shortly after, Coloradoan Charlie Papazian founded the American Homebrewers and hosted the first Great American Beer Festival in 1982.
Colorado was a leader among states in amending old laws. In 1988, John Hickenlooper worked to help overturn a state ban on “brewpubs,” bars and/or restaurants which sell beer made on the premises. In the early 1990’s, Hickenlooper’s brewpub was the biggest in America.
Buoyed by brewers’ success in affecting legislation, the American Distilling Institute called Colorado among four with the “most favorable laws” for distilleries and tasting rooms in 2017. Distillers can sell directly to consumers at their distillery, sell directly to liquor stores and other retailers. Further, they can sell bottles, samples and cocktails right out of the distillery or one of two permitted satellite tasting rooms.
A final big cultural advantage is that Coloradans are proud to buy and support local. Among craft beer aficionados, the “Colorado-made” sticker is associated with high quality products and the sticker inspired its own following. Distillers were able to tap into that already existing goodwill. The passion for supporting local has fed into bar program managers, who prominently feature Colorado spirits both on the back bar and cocktail list.
I lived in New York City for ten years, and while there’s a number of high-quality gins being distilled in both the city and state, you’d be less likely to see them featured in the same way as in Colorado. If you order a gin and tonic without asking for one by name – don’t be surprised if the house pour is a CapRock Gin or Spring 44 Gin.
What’s next for Colorado?
Other states and countries have caught up, and 19th century restrictions on distillers are slowly, but surely being removed legislatively. There’s over one hundred distilleries and it’s not enough to just be the “first distillery in ____ since prohibition” to get on a store shelf or behind the bar. Blue Fish Distillery and Dancing Pines Distillery (who made a pretty good gin by the way) both recently closed down.
What we do expect to see more of is emphasis on Colorado and local.
Though there are a lot of distillers, one thing hasn’t changed: every time you look at the Rocky Mountains you still see that mystique and a reminder that Colorado isn’t just any ordinary place.
TEN GINS TO KNOW
From Breckenridge Distillery
Being the world’s highest distillery – 9,600 feet – gives you a leg up (pun intended) on the competition. All of their spirits (gin included) are blended with water from Rocky Mountain snow melt. Although founder, Bryan Nolt, is a self-described “whiskey nerd,” Breckenridge Distillery makes an excellent contemporary style gin, that has an exceptional balance of floral, citrus and spice notes. In the UK, gin lovers can get their hands on the gin through Amazon and The Whisky Exchange.
From Jack Rabbit Hill Farm
CapRock was launched in 2008, and is distilled from a base spirit of local apples and winter wheat. Lance Henson was also ambitious in his botanical choice and his gin is an early example of American contemporary style gin. CapRock Gin features lavender and rosebuds and has a generally floral flavour profile. Finally, the gin is cut with water filtered through volcanic rock high in the Rockies. Again, The Whisky Exchange have stocked CapRock Gin in the UK.
Denver Dry Gin
From Mile High Spirits
Classic gin fans will enjoy Denver Dry Gin. It was designed in the spirit of Bombay Sapphire. Bold and juniper led, it features a handful of other classic gin botanicals including lemon, orange, coriander, and grains of paradise. The botanicals are macerated before the gin is distilled in a glass still.
If you stop by their expansive distillery and tasting space, right by the Colorado Rockies’ stadium in downtown Denver, I recommend trying one of their house infusions that span the shelf behind the bar. Denver Dry Gin infused with black pepper is a wonder served simply with tonic.
Dry Town Gin
From Old Elk Distillery
The gin starts with a base spirit consisting of four grains blended together into one mash: corn, rye, wheat and malted barley. The botanicals are macerated for eighteen hours, before being distilled and diluted with Rocky Mountain water.
“It took us 64 runs before we dialed in… we really wanted a gin that could stand up in any cocktail,” head distiller Kate Douglas says. The result is a citrus-forward gin with a camphoraceous sage finish ideal for fans of contemporary style Martinis.
Jackalope and Jenny
From Peach Street Distillers
Jackalope Gin uses a variety of locally picked juniper berries in their dry gin. Then their pear eau de vie uses fresh picked Palisade pears from Western Colorado’s vast fruit orchards. The two spirits are then combined and rested for a minimum of nine months in barrels which formerly held Colorado straight Bourbon.
Leopold Brothers Navy Strength Gin
From Leopold Bros. Distillery
In 2008, Scott and Todd Leopold moved their Ann Arbor, Michigan based distillery to their home region of Denver, Colorado. In the early 2010’s the American cocktail revival was booming, but there were no Navy Strength gins on the American market. After being approached by a distributor behind a well-known cocktail bar, Leopold Brothers began developing their Navy Strength Gin. They doubled the juniper from their regular gin, amped up the citrus and even added bergamot. Released in 2012, their Navy Strength Gin is powerfully herbal with a citrus-forward core. Master of Malt currently has Leopold’s Gin available for fans in the UK.
Pink Bear Gin
From Bouck Brothers Distilling
While the gin is certainly pink, Bouck Brothers’ Hibiscus Infused Gin is as far from a cloying or sweetened gin as you can get. Their mission statement is to look for things, “No one has tasted before.” Pink Bear Gin was inspired by a peek at a chef’s spice cabinet and a serendipitous Colorado forest hike, where distiller Matt Wyant found the perfect, ripe juniper berries.
The hibiscus is infused after distillation and the resulting gin is fiery with cinnamon notes and chamomile tea with hibiscus and foraged Colorado juniper overtones.
From Syntax Spirits
Head distiller Heather Bean, harnesses her background in science to distil a completely grain-to-glass gin. Syntax Spirits source all of their wheat from within 100 miles of their Greely, Colorado-based distillery and their water is sourced from the Cache la Poudre River (which, as you might expect, its headwaters are in the Rocky Mountains).
Heather uses a combination of maceration and gin basket to get the flavour of her floral-forward botanical selection including rose petals, lavender flower and three kinds of citrus.
Spirit Hound Gin
From Spirit Hound Distillers
Just outside Lyons, Colorado is St. Vrain Creek. In the summer months, you’re apt to find tubing, fishing and kayaks navigating class five rapids.
You’ll also find the team behind Spirit Hound Gin picking their juniper berries from plants that grow on the banks of the river.
Spirit Hound uses a gin basket which holds the local juniper and a few other spices like cinnamon and clove, to create a slightly spicy contemporary style gin, that has a bit of Colorado terroir in every bottle.
Spring 44 Old Tom Gin
From Spring 44 Distilling
Oh, the things you’ll do for love – Spring 44 began by a passion for pure Rocky Mountain water so great that they’d drive miles down a four-wheel drive trail and haul it back to the distillery themselves.
Their Old Tom is rested in American Oak and has a juniper, flamed orange peel notes with only a subtle sweetness to it.
DISTILLERY TASTING ROOMS
In 2017, The American Distilling Institute called Colorado one of the “most favorable” of the United States for distilleries who want to take their products direct to consumers.
Because of that fact, some of the best places to try local gins in Colorado are at the distilleries themselves. You just might even step up to the bar and either sit down next to a member of the distillery team, or meet one of the distillers behind the bar.
BOOZ hall RiNo
(tasting room for Rising Sun Distillery, State 38 Distilling and Woods High Mountain Distillery)
2845 Walnut St. Denver, CO 80205
Local Gin Tip: Tour the world of Colorado barrel-rested gin. Three gin distillers have tasting rooms and cocktail bars under one roof. Start with State 38 Distilling’s Agave based barrel reserve gin. Move on to try Rising Sun Distillery’s Organic Oaked Gin. Then finish the tour with a Barrel Aged Old Fashioned at Wood’s High Mountain Distillery tasting room.
Brooklyn’s on Boulder St.
(the Lee Spirits Co. Speakeasy)
110 E. Boulder St.Colorado Springs, CO 80903
Local Gin Tip: Get the Aviation. It’s made with the excellent Lee Spirits Co. Gin, but when paired with their orris root heavy Crème de Violette, it has a beautiful sky blue colour that stands apart from the purple and mauve hues imparted by other available violet liqueurs.
Golden Moon Speakeasy
(The Golden Moon Distillery speakeasy)
1111 Washington Street Golden, CO 80401
Local Gin Tip: Distiller and founder, Stephen Gould, is perhaps at his most passionate when talking about his absinthe.
That’s why the Reverse Corpse Reviver, although a touch heavier on absinthe than the original, is a beautiful showcase of not just this gin as well, but also Golden Moon’s Curacao which is a beautiful and incredibly complex bitter orange spirit that will quickly make you forget that the blue version ever existed.
Idlewild Spirits Brewpub and Restaurant
78737 US Highway 40 Winter Park, CO 80482
Local Gin Tip: Idlewild Spirits is pretty adventurous with their gin. At last
check they featured four. There’s an Alpine Gin, a Hibiscus Gin, a barrel Aged Gin and a violet infused Purple Daze Gin. Their Hibiscus Gin is a tad spicy and warming, with complexity that makes it not-your-usual-pink gin. Try it in their French 75, made all the more rich by using honey instead of simple syrup.
5311 Western Avenue Boulder, Colorado 80301
Local Gin Tip: Bartenders around the world seem to have been reluctant to experiment with aged gin cocktails, but the Vapor Distillery tasting room is not one of them. Their Ginskey was one of the earlier aged gins on the market and they’ve had plenty of time to experiment. But their Boulder Gin Basil Gimlet is a real standout, especially on a summer day.
Even though there are plenty of great cocktails to be had at Colorado distilleries, Colorado’s proper cocktail bar scene is booming as well. Taking a cue from the brew pub menus that prominently feature Colorado beers and mention a beer’s state/country of origin prominently, you’re likely to see that on the spirit menu as well. Colorado Gins like Spring 44 Gin and CapRock Gin are widely used house pours at a number of restaurants all over the state.
An alley just off 27th St. between Larimer St. and Walnut St. Denver, CO 80205
Local Gin Tip: Greenlight Lab is literally as if a lab. The cocktail menu has monthly new ‘beta cocktails.’ After trying, you’ll be able to rate the cocktail. Depending on how it performs it may make it to their ‘approved’ cocktails list. Though I suggest getting the Dealer’s Choice. Last time I was there, I had a cocktail where the bartender blended Golden Moon Gin for a gentle floral note and Hayman’s Old Tom for its gentle sweetness.
1 Old Town Square #7 Fort Collins, CO 80524
Local Gin Tip: Only one gin gets a full name call out on Social’s extensive cocktail menu and that is nearby Loveland based Spring 44. Their house Gin and Tonic uses a tonic syrup and is garnished with juniper berries.
1701 Wynkoop St. #125 Denver, CO 80202
Local Gin Tip: Ultreia specialises in Spanish style Gin and Tonics (Gin Tonica) and their extensive gin list features around ten from Colorado. Their current local gin tonica of choice is the Coffee and Cigarettes which pairs Block Distillery’s Autumn Gin and Coffee Liqueur with Q Tonic Water.
Williams & Graham
3160 Tejon St. Denver, CO 80211
Local Gin Tip: The unassuming speakeasy located in what appears to be an old bookshop was recognised in 2014 as one of the “Best 50 Bars in the World” by Drinks International.
Lest you think they’ve rested on their laurels, they have a cocktail menu rife with original creations. Their Rocky Mountain Escape features Woody Creek Gin and might conjure up visions of a pine forest outside a ski resort.