Feature

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The ultimate guide to Colorado’s exploding craft distillery scene.

February 2014

5280 has declared February the Month of Cocktails. In addition to this story, we will be posting daily spirituous stories on 5280.com/MOC. Among the offerings: A chance to vote in the Colorado Cocktail Challenge—a competition between three of Denver's craftiest mixologists—for your favorite quintessential Colorado cocktail at 5280.com/COcocktail.

5280.com Exclusive: Join us Tuesday, February 4 at 4 p.m. for a live chat with Williams & Graham owner Sean Kenyon. 5280.com/livechat

insideGraghic

What's Behind Our Spirit Boom?

Liquor Lingo + Denverites' Favorite Spirits

Colorado Liquor Cabinet + Cocktail Bars Where You Can Find Them

The Art of Making Booze + Colorado Distillery  Tours

The 5280 Whiskey Taste Test

Amateur Status: Why Home Distilling is Illegal 

The Colorado Cocktail Challenge: Meet the Contestants

Tippling Trends + Essential Bar Tools

 

spirited

If Colorado’s liquor cabinets seem a little more crowded recently, it’s not your imagination. Ten years ago, maybe 60 craft distilleries existed in the country; today, they number closer to 400—and at least 40 of them call Colorado home. “Colorado is pretty much the gold standard in terms of craft distilling,” says Penn Jensen, executive director of the newly formed American Craft Distillers Association, which brings its inaugural conference to Denver next month to coincide with DStill (March 10 to 16), the city’s second annual Great American Beer Festival–style spirit celebration. 

It seems natural that a state known for its beer culture would also lead the way when it comes to spirits. After all, says Williams & Graham owner Sean Kenyon, distillers are working with the same base ingredients: grains. Perhaps more important, over the past 20 or so years, Denver’s beer makers have cultivated a taste for craft products—meaning Colorado’s consumers have been trained to look for local labels instead of simply grabbing a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. And the state’s relaxed approach to the distribution of spirits makes craft distilling an enticing option not only for brewers looking to diversify, but also for out-of-state distillers with big dreams. (For example, Leopold Bros. moved here from Michigan in 2008 in part because of our lenient laws.)

barrelsUnlike most other states, Colorado allows spirit makers to self-distribute. “That means you can make it, sell it, deliver it, collect the retail income, and have tasting rooms both on- and off-site,” says Rob Masters, president of the Colorado Distillers Guild and head distiller at Loveland-based Spring44. “That’s not common practice in the rest of the country.” But other states are beginning to adjust their laws. “Colorado has been very influential in terms of showing other states the value of doing this,” Jensen says. 

Colorado’s laid-back laws don’t mean starting a distillery is easy, though. First, there’s the cost of the equipment, which can run into the tens of thousands. Then there’s the permitting process: Distillers need a federal permit (technically free) and state license (about $1,025). The state license comes after the federal permit, but the latter can take up to a year to secure—and it’s granted only after a distiller shows financial proof that if all of the hooch in her warehouse disappeared, she’d be able to pay the tax on it.

That’s not all: Making Colorado’s most popular spirit—whiskey—takes time. Many new craft distillers subsist by making vodkas, gins, and liqueurs while they wait for their darker spirits to age. Others source whiskey from elsewhere and bottle it here, a practice that elicits serious debate when it’s not disclosed on the label. To that end, throughout this story, we’ve noted with an asterisk (*) any spirit that’s not “grain to bottle,” which means the maker did not distill the spirit himself from raw ingredients. We’ve done so not because sourcing a spirit diminishes its taste—our whiskey panel’s top bourbon pick is a blend partially sourced from Kentucky (see “Taste Test,” page 53)—but because transparency is important in consumer decisions, especially in a town that reveres its alcohol artisans. At the end of the day, notes Kenyon, it’s all about taste: “The bottom line should be the quality of the product in the bottle.”

In that regard, Colorado has plenty to be proud of.

 

lingo

ABV
Alcohol by volume, or what percentage of alcohol a bottle contains. Beer usually averages somewhere between 3 and 9 percent; wine sits at about 10 to 14 percent; and spirits are usually about 40 percent. 

Angels’ share The amount of booze that evaporates from barrels while the spirit ages. (Early spirit makers imagined angels were the only explanation for liquid missing from sealed barrels.)

Liqueur Flavored, often sweet spirits that tend to have lower alcohol contents. 

Neutral grain spirit A colorless, odorless spirit that’s typically 95 percent ABV, or 19 proof (!). It’s often used to craft other liquors. 

Proof Twice the ABV percentage. So if a bottle of booze is 40 percent ABV, it’s 80 proof. 

Single malt Whiskey made from malted grain that is the product of a single distillery. 

Small batch This phrase refers to the number of barrels of whiskey (or rum, or whatever) mixed together in the bottling tank to create the whiskey in a single bottle. Interestingly, there is no federal regulation for what qualifies as “small.”

Thujone The plant-derived chemical found in absinthe thought to create the drink’s hallucinogenic effects. Federal restrictions mandate that absinthe can contain only 10 parts per million of thujone. 

Whisky versus whiskey Scotland and Canada tend to drop the “e”; most of the rest of the world retains it.

White whiskey Unaged or lightly aged whiskey. 

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survey

liquorcab

distillery1

5280.com Exclusive: Find Colorado liquor cabinet drink recipes at 5280.com/MOC.

Peach Street Pear Brandy
$60

When your distillery is in the middle of fruit heaven—Palisade—it follows that your brandy (and eau de vie and grappa) is among the state’s best. Each bottle of Peach Street’s Pear Brandy comes from 20 pounds of Bartlett pears, including a whole one inside the bottle.
Use it in… A sidecar.

Drink it at… Williams & Graham in a “My Pear Lady” (gin, pear brandy, lemon juice, grenadine, and simply syrup)

5280.com Exclusive: Get the recipe for a Peach Street Pear Brandy sidecar here.

Montanya Platino Light Rum
$25

Montanya Distillers uses American cane sugar to make its rums, which are distilled over open flames and aged in reclaimed Stranahan’s barrels. The result: sweet nectar. Taste it for yourself at their Crested Butte bar, Outside‘s 2012 best après adventure bar in the world.
Use it in… An old-school daiquiri (read: no blender).

Drink it at… The Rackhouse. This Stranahan’s neighbor boasts one of the city’s largest selections of local spirits, including Montanya’s rums.

5280.com Exclusive: Get the recipe for a Montanya Cuban Daiquiri here.

Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey*
$40

One of Colorado’s most decorated spirits, this bourbon delivers everything you’d expect of the breed: a balanced profile of caramel and spice with a nice long finish. You can score your own bottle for “free” by volunteering at one of Breckenridge’s bottling parties (sign up online).  

Use it in… A classic Manhattan.

Drink it at… Beast & Bottle. You can ask for Breckenridge in your Manhattan, or upgrade to an “I Smell Brecks and Candy” (bourbon, lemon juice, and house-made orange liqueur, on the rocks with a citrus candy rim).

5280.com Exclusive: Get the recipe for a Breckenridge Manhattan here.

Peak Spirits CapRock Organic Gin
$32

Local organically grown apples, organic wheat distillate, and a lively blend of lavender, juniper, roses, and other botanicals come together in this bright gin, made by Lance Hanson, a 2012 James Beard Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional semifinalist. 

Use it in… A martini.

Drink it at… Farm Bar, CapRock’s newly opened watering hole inside the Source in the RiNo neighborhood.

distillery2

Dancing Pines Chai Liqueur
$37

Dancing Pines liqueurs get high marks from chefs and spirit geeks alike. The black walnut bourbon liqueur is a secret ingredient in several Denver dishes, but the Loveland-based distillery’s chai liqueur, named one of Wine Enthusiast’s 50 Best Spirits of 2012, really stole our hearts (and taste buds). 

Use it in… A “chaitini,” anyone? Or upgrade your weekend coffee. 

Drink it at… Social. This Fort Collins bar’s Breakfast in Bed (cereal milk made from milk infused with Frosted Flakes and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, cold-steeped coffee, and chai liqueur) is breakfast in a glass.

Deerhammer Down time Single Malt Whiskey

$50

Buena Vista’s Lenny Eckstein—whose great-grandparents made bathtub gin in New York state during Prohibition—together with his wife, Amy, pot distills a blend of five malted grains and Arkansas River snowmelt into a smoky, delicious American whiskey. 

 

Use it in… Nothing. Sip this whiskey neat. 

Drink it at… Green Russell, one of only a handful of Denver bars that carry Deerhammer.

Woody Creek signature Potato Vodka
$31

This year-old distillery is the epitome of craft. Woody Creek grows its own heirloom potatoes on the Scanlan Family Farm, harvests them, and then gets them in the stills the same day to create a clean, smooth potato vodka. 

 

Use it in… A Moscow mule.

Drink it at… Z Cuisine. You’ll have to ask for it in your martini, but the Highland restaurant regularly carries Woody Creek.

Leopold Bros. Maryland-Style Rye
$45

You’ll have to fight with Denver’s best bartenders to find a bottle of this limited production rye, released only in November. But the opening of Leopold Bros.’ new production facility next month means we’ll see more of this smooth rye with floral, fruity hints and zero burn. 

Use it in… An old fashioned.

Drink it at… Oak at Fourteenth in a “Winds of Change” (rye, Leopold Bros. Three Pin Alpine Herbal Liqueur, green tea, apple, agave, Pimento bitters, and lemon).

5280.com Exclusive: Get the recipe for a Leopold Bros. Classic Old Fashioned here.

 

spiritsdistilled

basicsIt’s been more than two years since co-founder and whiskey guru Jake Norris left Stranahan’s. Since then, he’s been perfecting a new bourbon—set to debut next month—at a new Denver distillery (whose name had not yet been released at press time). Here, Norris walks us through his process to break down the art—and science—of making booze. 

1. Malt

 

maltTo make alcohol, a distiller feeds sugar to yeast. Grain is turned into sugar through malting—or germinating the grain seed by getting it wet and warm and then halting the process to keep sugars in. Norris, as well as many other local spirit makers, uses malted grain from Colorado Malting Company, an Alamosa family farm that began growing barley for Coors in the 1930s (though it doesn’t anymore). A few years ago, the farm began malting grain for spirits. 

Leopold Bros. will soon malt its own grain, becoming one of only a few distillers in the world to do so. 

2. Mill 

millHere’s where the distiller’s work really begins. Norris uses roughly 900 pounds of malted grain to produce 1.25 barrels of whiskey (though he notes others use less), milling—or grinding up—the grain for about 20 minutes. From there, he pumps the milled grain over to the cooker. 

 

3. Cook

cookNext, water (in Norris’ case, good old Rocky Mountain spring water) is added to the milled grain, and then the mixture cooks for four to six hours at more than 150 degrees, a temperature just high enough to kill bacteria. What comes out of this is called the “wash.” (Brewers call it the “mash.”) 

 

4. Ferment 

fermentThe wash is moved to the fermenting tanks, where yeast is added. It sits for about four days while the yeast eats the sugars and creates alcohol, a process that produces its own heat. To stop the fermenting process, Norris simply cools the materials with water. Like many whiskey makers, Norris uses open-top fermenters, which tend to make richer whiskey than closed-top fermenters. 

At Stranahan’s, Norris helped pioneer the use of closed-top fermenters (usually used for beer) for whiskey.

5. Distill

distillThere are three major types of stills: column stills (the most efficient); pot stills (they preserve the most flavor); and hybrid pot-column stills (see illustration at right), which most craft distillers prefer because they offer the best of both worlds. The still is where the real action happens. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water (180 degrees versus 204). So to separate the hooch from the water, the stills are heated up to 180 degrees, and the alcohol turns into a vapor and rises. When it hits the condenser, where the temperature is lower than 180, it turns back into a liquid. That liquid is collected and—typically—it’s distilled again to remove any remaining impurities. 

Montanya uses pot stills to craft its rums. 

6. Barrel

barrelAt this point, if a spirit maker is bottling vodka, he’s pretty much done. The stuff that’s coming out of those stills is about 125 proof. But Norris is not making vodka (or gin, in which case he’d take the spirit, add a recipe of botanicals, and distill it again); he’s looking for whiskey. So the distilled liquid is cut with water to bring it down to between about 110 and 125 proof, and then it’s poured into new, American white oak barrels. The distilled spirit is still clear going into the barrels; it will pick up its color—and much of its flavor—from the barrels as it ages (a minimum of two years by Norris’ standards). 

7. Bottle

bottleWhen the whiskey is properly aged, it’s poured into a bottling tank, cut with water, and then bottled. 

Stranahan’s and Breckenridge pay their bottling volunteers with a meal and a bottle of booze. Sign up on their websites.

 

5280.com Exclusive: Here, a list of distillers that offer tours.

Black Canyon Distillery: By appointment; call 720-204-1909 to schedule; 13710 Deere Court, Unit B, Longmont; blackcanyondistillery.com

Boulder Distillery: Wednesday–Saturday, 2–5 p.m. or by appointment; 2500 47th St., Unit 10, Boulder; 303-442-1244; 303vodka.com

Breckenridge Distillery: Tuesday–Sunday, 11 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; 1925 Airport Road, Breckenridge; 970-547-9759; breckenridgedistillery.com

Colorado Gold Distillery: Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; 1290 S. Grand Mesa Drive, Cedaredge; 970-856-2600; coloradogolddistillers.com

Dancing Pines Distillery: Wednesday–Friday at 4:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2, 4, and 6 p.m.; 1527 Taurus Court, Loveland; 970-635-3426; dancingpinesdistillery.com

Deerhammer Distilling Co.: Thursday–Saturday, 5–10 p.m.; 321 E. Main St., Buena Vista; 719-395-9464; deerhammer.com

Downslope Distilling: Monday–Thursday, 5–7 p.m. by appointment and Friday–Sunday, noon­–5 p.m. Text DS TOUR to 303-478-0228 and indicate date, time, and number of people in your party; 6770 S. Dawson Circle, Suite 400, Centennial; downslopedistilling.com

Dram Apothecary: By appointment, Saturday and Sunday. Call to schedule; 1010 Main St., Silver Plume; 720-608-0063; dramapothecary.com

Feisty Spirits: Saturday and Sunday, 1–6 p.m.; Monday and Wednesday, 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; Thursday, 5 and 6:30 p.m.; reserve online; 1708 E. Lincoln Ave. #1, Fort Collins; feistyspirits.com

Golden Moon Distillery: Monday–Friday, 9 a.m–5 p.m., and by appointment; 412 Violet St., Golden; 303-993-7174; goldenmoondistillery.com

J&L Distilling: By appointment Monday–Saturday; call to set up an appointment; 4843 Pearl St. #1, Boulder; 720-400-1907; jldistilling.com

Montanya Distillers: By appointment Monday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; 202 Elk Ave., Crested Butte; 970-799-3200; montanyarum.com

Overland Distillery: By appointment; email [email protected]; Loveland; 970-692-4193; overlanddistillery.com

Peach Street Distillers: By appointment Friday at 3, 4, and 5 p.m. and Saturday at 2, 3 and 4 p.m. Book online; 144 S. Kluge Ave. #2, Palisade; 970-464-1128; peachstreetdistillers.com    

Peak Spirits Farm Distillery: By appointment. Call to schedule.; 26567 North Road, Hotchkiss; 970-361-4249; peakspirits.com

Roundhouse Spirits: Tuesday–Saturday, 3–7 p.m.; 5311 Western Ave. #180, Boulder; 303-819-5598; roundhousespirits.com

Spring44: Saturday at 2, 4, and 6 p.m.; 505 W. 66th St., Loveland; 970-685-4369; spring44.com

Still Cellars: By appointment; 1115 Colorado Ave., Suite C; 720-214-6064; stillcellars.com

State 38: Monday–Wednesday, 11 a.m.–6 p.m. and Friday­–Saturday, 4–6 p.m.; 400 Corporate Circle, Suite B, Golden; 303-859-9121; state-38.com

Stranahan’s: Monday, Thursday, and Sunday at 11 a.m., 1, 3, and 5 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.–5 p.m. on the hour; Saturday 10 a.m.­–5 p.m. on the hour; 200 South Kalamath St., Denver; 303-296-7440; stranahans.com 

Syntax Spirits: Wednesday–Saturday, 5 and 7 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m.; 625 Third St., Unit C, Greeley; 970-352-5466; syntaxspirits.com

Tesouro Distillery: Saturday, 2–6 p.m.; 105 South Sunset St., Suite A, Longmont; tesourodistillery.com

Trail Town Still: By appointment; 240 Palomino Trail Suite A, Ridgway; 970-626-3060; trailtowndistillery.com

Two Guns Distillery: Monday–Friday, noon–3 p.m., or by request at the bar; 401 Harrison Ave., Leadville; twogunsdistillery.com

Woods High Mountain Distillery: Wednesday–Friday, 5–9 p.m, Saturday noonish–10 p.m., Sunday noonish–5 p.m., and Monday and Tuesday by appointment; 144 W. First St., Salida; 719-207-4315; woodsdistillery.com

Woody Creek Distillers: By appointment; call to set up an appointment; 60 Sunset Drive, Basalt; 970-279-5110; woodycreekdistillers.com

Coming soon! Six northern Colorado distilleries—Black Canyon, Dancing Pines, Feisty Spirits, KJ Wood, Spirit Hound, and Spring44—are working together to create a “Colorado Distillers Trail” app. Essentially, purchasing the app plus one bottle of each of the distilleries’ spirits (at your local liquor store) entitles the buyer to a 10 percent discount at the register and a small gift at each distillery she visits. A $100 upgrade gets you a 30-minute private tour for two at each distillery, two cocktails at each spot, and weekly deals. Learn more by contacting any of the participating distilleries.

 

tastetest

 


There’s no denying whiskey has emerged as the darling of Colorado craft distillers and drinkers. So, it seemed high time someone tasted our state’s renditions to determine which bottles deserve shelf space in your home bar. First, we solicited submissions from Colorado’s bourbon and whiskey makers; we ended up with 15. Then, we gathered a team of whiskey drinkers for a blind taste test. Three hours later, we collected their notes (and made sure everyone had a ride home). Below, we offer a look at their favorites. Consider it a cheat sheet for the next time you’re in the mood for a Manhattan.

5280.com Exclusive: Read more detailed descriptions of some of Colorado's best whiskeys here.

 

bourbon

Breckenridge Distillery, Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey,* $40 
Made with Breckenridge snowmelt, this bourbon is layered and balanced, with notes of sweet caramel. 

Judges’ comments: 

“Approachable; round.” 

“A touch of fruit, perhaps.” 

Peach Street Distillers, Colorado Straight Bourbon, $60 

Peach Street’s crisp, clean bourbon delivers fruity undertones that make it great for sipping on its own or in a mixed drink. 

Judges’ comments: 

“A bit of a lemon, citrus smell.”  

“Herbaceous at the end; would be good in a cocktail.” 

Dancing Pines Distillery, Bourbon Whiskey, $40 

Loveland-based Dancing Pines’ version proves to be a consummate bourbon—oaky and a bit sweet. 

Judges’ comments: 

“Nice wood character.” 

“Very balanced.”

Spring44, Spring44 Straight Bourbon,* $40 

Straight Bourbon from Loveland’s Spring44 delivers a rich mouthful of caramel and nutty sweetness with every sip. 

Judges’ comments: 

“Sweet, almond, hazelnut.” 

“Very nice barrel character.”

Boathouse Distillery, Colorado Bourbon Whiskey,* $35 

Born in Kentucky but finished in Salida near the banks of the Arkansas River, Boathouse’s smooth, light Colorado Bourbon Whiskey is an amiable introduction for whiskey neophytes. 

Judges’ comments:

“Easy drinking; nonassertive.”

“Warm cake; citrus at the end.”

 

 

whiskey

 

 

 

panel

Deerhammer Distilling Company, Down Time Single Malt Whiskey, $50 

With its distinct smoky flavor, this single malt whiskey from Buena Vista’s Deerhammer Distilling may be as close as we’re going to get to Colorado “Scotch.” 

Judges’ comments:

“Nostalgic flavor: graham cracker...?”

“A very nice, warm finish.” 

“Roasty, smoky, charred wood.” 

Black Canyon Distillery, Black Canyon Whiskey, $26 

Based in Mead, Black Canyon’s sour mash corn whiskey was inspired by an Old West saloon, and it’s not hard to imagine a couple of cowboys sippin’ this well-balanced version.

Judges’ comments:

“Round; well done!”

“Appley.”

Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, $59 

When most people think of Colorado whiskey, Stranahan’s springs immediately to mind. And for good reason: Not only was it the first to produce a Colorado-born whiskey, but Stranahan’s booze is also damn tasty, with notes of caramel and fruit and a hot but clean finish. 

Judges’ comments:

“Sweet, some fruit, straightforward.”

“Autumn spice.” 

Colorado Gold Distillery, Corn Whiskey, $25 

This Cedaredge corn whiskey’s light, smooth, mildly fruity flavor profile derives from local ingredients. Colorado State University graduate and head distiller Mike Almy sources nearly all of his ingredients from the Centennial State, including Western Slope corn.  

Judges’ comments:

“Kind of a fruity taste, almost like a wine.” 

“Grappalike; soft and slightly sweet.” 

Deerhammer Distilling Company, Down Time Single Malt Whiskey, $50 

With its distinct smoky flavor, this single malt whiskey from Buena Vista’s Deerhammer Distilling may be as close as we’re going to get to Colorado “Scotch.” 

Judges’ comments:

“Nostalgic flavor: graham cracker...?”

“A very nice, warm finish.” 

“Roasty, smoky, charred wood.” 

Black Canyon Distillery, Black Canyon Whiskey, $26 

Based in Mead, Black Canyon’s sour mash corn whiskey was inspired by an Old West saloon, and it’s not hard to imagine a couple of cowboys sippin’ this well-balanced version.

Judges’ comments:

“Round; well done!”

“Appley.”

Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, $59 

When most people think of Colorado whiskey, Stranahan’s springs immediately to mind. And for good reason: Not only was it the first to produce a Colorado-born whiskey, but Stranahan’s booze is also damn tasty, with notes of caramel and fruit and a hot but clean finish. 

Judges’ comments:

“Sweet, some fruit, straightforward.”

“Autumn spice.” 

Colorado Gold Distillery, Corn Whiskey, $25 

This Cedaredge corn whiskey’s light, smooth, mildly fruity flavor profile derives from local ingredients. Colorado State University graduate and head distiller Mike Almy sources nearly all of his ingredients from the Centennial State, including Western Slope corn.  

Judges’ comments:

“Kind of a fruity taste, almost like a wine.” 

“Grappalike; soft and slightly sweet.” 

 

explainer

 

amateur

 

legalThere are those who would argue that a well-made whiskey is as essential a writing tool as paper, pens, and a working knowledge of Hemingway. For journalists, then, making hooch becomes a simple matter of economy. This is especially true in Colorado, where moonshining comes with a paltry $250 fine and ranks as a mere “petty offense,” a crime class that includes littering.

Or so went my logic when I pitched the idea of making booze for this story. (I’ve got a genetic predisposition: My great-granddaddy kept his Virginia root cellar stocked with the stuff.) Then I discovered that moonshining is still illegal under federal law, punishable by five years in prison and a $10,000 fine—which, it turns out, is not a reimbursable editorial expense. So I opted to explore a different question: At least 6,000 Coloradans make their own beer—why not booze? 

Well, death, for one thing. While you might make someone sick with poorly brewed beer, you’re probably not going to kill them. But you can accidentally produce methanol when making hooch. Methanol does wonders for your car in antifreeze, but your internal organs? Not so much. 

The federal government lets us do plenty of potentially lethal things legally, though—ride motorcycles without a helmet, own guns, play football, ski—so there had to be another reason. There is: money.

 The feds collect an average of $2.14 in taxes for every bottle of spirits produced. (Last year the government banked about $4.1 billion in taxes from domestic producers.) Compare that to the federal tax of five cents or less on a bottle of beer or about 21 cents on a bottle of wine, and you begin to get a clearer picture about the government’s “concern” for our well-being. 

Of course, should you decide to risk death and jail and make your own moonshine (legal disclaimer: We are not suggesting this), you probably won’t end up in the hoosegow. Our sources at the Denver field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives say moonshining isn’t exactly a high-priority crime for them. In fact, we couldn’t find a single prosecuted case in the state in the past 15 years.

We’ll drink to that.

 

colococktail

There’s a state bird (the adorable lark bunting), a state tree (Colorado blue spruce), even a state folk dance (the square dance, of course). Yet somehow there’s no Centennial State cocktail. We asked three of Denver’s craftiest drink makers to create a beverage fit for the title.

5280.com Exclusive: Watch each of these cocktails and then vote for your favorite here.

cocktails

1. The 4th Pin

KevinKevin Burke, Beverage Director, Colt & Gray

2 ounces Leopold Bros. American Small Batch Whiskey

½ ounce Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur

2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

1 large ice cube

Grapefruit peel 

Combine whiskey, liqueur, and bitters in a traditional rocks glass. Add ice cube and stir briefly. Garnish with a grapefruit twist.

Why it’s “stateriotic”: The 4th Pin is something of an ode to Colorado’s state sport: skiing. Leopold Bros. Three Pins Liqueur, made with dozens of herbs and flowers—many native to Colorado—is named after traditional telemark ski bindings, which use three pins to connect the binding to the ski. The drink—well, that’s the fourth pin.

2. Central Slope Sour

alexAlexandra Parks, Bar Manager, Acorn

1 ¼ ounces Breckenridge Bourbon

½ ounce Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur

¾ ounce honey

½ ounce lemon juice

1 dash Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters

.6 ounce Avery IPA

Sage leaf

Cherry

Shake all ingredients except the beer with ice and strain into a double old fashioned glass with ice. Top with Avery IPA and stir gently. Garnish with a sage leaf wrapped around a cherry on a bamboo spear. 

Why it’s “stateriotic”: “Colorado has always been a whiskey state,” Parks says. But, she notes, we’re also a craft beer mecca. Given all of that, Parks riffed on the whiskey sour with “a touch of the beautiful aromatics of beer and the feel of the forest.” 

3. The Centennial Smash

seanSean Kenyon, Barman and Proprietor, Williams & Graham

¼ Palisade peach

10–12 locally grown mint leaves

½ ounce Colorado honey

1 ½ ounces Spring44 Bourbon

½ ounce Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur

In a mixing tin, muddle the peach and mint with honey. Add the bourbon and liqueur and shake. Double strain the drink over fresh ice into an old fashioned glass. Garnish with a peach slice and a mint sprig. 

Why it’s “stateriotic”: “Whiskey was king in Colorado saloons in the late 1800s,” Kenyon says. And so were smash-style cocktails. For this drink, Kenyon showcases Loveland’s Spring44 Bourbon and all Colorado-grown ingredients: Palisade peaches, local wildflower honey, and mint leaves. 

essential

 

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What’s In My Cup?
Colorado Bartenders Guild president Chad Michael George explains the six other ingredients you should know when ordering your next cocktail.

Amari
This class of bitter Italian liqueurs includes Campari and Averna and aids digestion. Traditionally, each amaro is made with a mix of herbs, flowers, bark, citrus peel, and spices. 

Sherry
Most sherries are fortified wine made from grapes that are native to southwestern Spain. The ingredient is making a serious comeback in today’s craft cocktail world. 

Eau de vie 
A splash of eau de vie, a clear brandy distilled from fermented fruit juice, goes a long way in a cocktail thanks to its potent flavor and floral aroma. It’s also a great post-dinner drink on its own. 

St-Germain
An artisanal liqueur made from elderflower—a small, white bloom that grows in France—St- Germain brings bright, floral flavors to sparkling wine cocktails. 

Bitters
This strong tonic comes from concentrated flavors created by infusing or distilling herbs, barks, roots, and spices. A few bars make their own, a legally dubious practice in some cases.

Vermouth 
Also a fortified wine, vermouth is an aperitif that’s aromatized with herbs and spices. It can be dark and sweet—think Manhattans—or light and dry, such as in a martini.

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Cocktail Trends: So Hot Right Now

1. Real Simple Not so long ago, bartenders and mixologists crammed a zillion ingredients into each cocktail. These days, the trend is toward more simple cocktails popular during the pre-Prohibition era. “A base, a cordial, a citrus, a sugar, and a bitter,” says Adam Hodak, co-owner of Green Russell. “Or, if you build a spirit-forward cocktail, most likely three ingredients.” That’s it. 

2. Beer Mixers While plenty of bars have long served beer cocktails, Hodak says bartenders are just starting to get a feel for the recipes. “There were a lot of beer cocktails that were awful,” Hodak says. “But people are starting to understand the complexity of malt, yeast, and hops.”  

3. The Rebirth of Rye (and Gin) As drinkers and bartenders have rediscovered old-school cocktails, they’ve also discovered the spirits originally used to make them. “Gin was the number-one-selling spirit until the 1950s,” says Colorado Distillers Guild president Rob Masters. And pre-Prohibition bartenders favored spicier rye in old fashioneds over its caramelly cousin, bourbon. 

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Name Game
A sampling of some of our city's most creatively named cocktails. 

Unicorn Feather
Forest Room 5
Basil Hayden bourbon, bitters, ginger beer

867-5309 Ginny
Beast + Bottle 
Broker’s gin, Salers aperitif, lime juice, simple syrup, house-made orange bitters 

Six Demon Sling
Ace Eat Serve
Monkey Shoulder whisky, Daron Calvados, Amaro Montenegro, pineapple, grapefruit, lime, grenadine, Angostura bitters

Just Another Goat Rodeo
The Corner Office 
Milagro Silver tequila, Licor 43, blackberry, pepper, honey, lime

El Frito Bandito
Squeaky Bean
Sombra mezcal, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, orange, Angostura bitters

Lil’ Green Ghoul
Bitter Bar 
Coruba dark Jamaican rum, blue curaçao, orgeat syrup, chartreuse, lemon juice


—Main Illustration by David Plunket; Photographers: Jeff Nelson, Katy Steinfort; Courtesy photos: John Shors, Kristin Olson,Great Divide Brewering, Tovolo, Crate & Barrel, Alex Kotlik, Bed Bath and Beyon William Sonomo, Oxo, Capari istockphotos; icons: Jeff Parsons