It can be intimidating to commit to sipping a single spirit. The flavors of straight booze can be big and brash, and the price tag can be much higher than a glass of wine or a cocktail.
Until recently, I’ve always opted for an IPA or a Moscow mule rather than a neat nip. But after a lifetime of active avoidance, I’ve started experimenting with sipping various craft bourbons, vodkas, tequilas, and liqueurs straight up.
And you know what? It’s actually enjoyable. Especially with the colder temperatures bearing down on us, it’s a good time to cozy up with a dram—fireplace optional—and let the distinct, complex flavors of a fine bourbon or liqueur wash over your palate. When it comes to appreciating the various nuances of a spirit, there’s no better way.
If you, like me, are just testing the (strong) waters of straight booze, here are a few local ideas from Argonaut Wine & Liquor liquor buyer Andrew Burton and Williams & Graham owner Sean Kenyon to get you started.
Whiskey: Both Burton and Kenyon dig the offerings from Denver-based Laws Whiskey House. Of the Four Grain straight bourbon whiskey, Kenyon says: “[It] stands above in richness and quality without a doubt. Their bourbon has almost a weight to it … a richness of character. I think it’s one of the best whiskeys to come out of Colorado, without a doubt.” Burton recommends the distillery’s cask-strength bourbon, which he describes as “lightly sweet, with fruit up front and a nice load of spice on the finish [and some] toasted oak and light smoke on the palate.”
Kenyon also favors Woody Creek Distillers’ straight rye whiskey. “It has amazing fruit notes to it. It’s a by-the-fireplace kind of whiskey, over one big rock kind of thing.” Looking to try something new? Burton recommends the Colorado spiced whiskey made by Eagle’s 39 North Spirits and the wheat whiskey from Denver’s Bear Creek Distillery, both relatively recent additions to the market.
Vodka: “You can’t go wrong with Woody Creek Distillers,” Kenyon says unequivocally. The Basalt-based distillery’s vodka is made with potatoes grown just miles away, and that attention to detail makes it stand out. “It has an amazing viscosity and a creamy texture,” Kenyon says. He recommends drinking it on the rocks or with a twist of lemon.
For a flavored option, Burton points to the lavender-infused vodka made by Fort Collins-based CopperMuse Distillery. “It tastes exactly as one would expect, with no harsh or herbal flavors. We put it on the shelves and it just goes all day.”
Liqueur: When it comes to liqueurs, both Burton and Kenyon admire Denver’s pioneering Leopold Bros. products. Burton prefers the distillery’s “piney, herbal, spicy, and very well-balanced” Three Pins Alpine Herbal liqueur, which he says was originally created as the ideal flask companion on the slopes. “[It’s] pine-y, herbal, spicy and very well balanced,” he says. Kenyon enjoys Leopold Bros.’Aperitivo, as well as its Fernet. Both are low-alcohol, he points out, which makes them great introductory sippers. “[You’re] gonna get great complexity, a little bitterness.” Kenyon says he especially enjoys a glass of the Fernet after a heavy meal, such as pizza.
Looking for sweeter options? Burton enjoys the caramelized sugar notes in the Brûlée liqueur from Loveland’s Dancing Pines Distillery and the warming cinnamon and vanilla flavors in Boulder-based J & L Distilling’s FYR liqueur.