Dance With The Devil

If there’s only one Scandinavian word you should know, it’s aquavit. Get a tasty language lesson at Englewood’s Devil’s Head.

March 2016

—Illustration by Arthur Mount, photo by Sarah Boyum

While Colorado has seen an explosion in distilleries over the past few years (the state now boasts more than 50), Englewood has been left out of the action thanks to an antiquated law prohibiting distilleries. Until now. Littleton native Ryan White spent months working with Englewood’s City Council to win approval for a distillery, and in September, Devil’s Head opened with an urban tasting room near the Gothic Theatre. Devil’s Head might have been late to arrive at Colorado’s distillery party, but it’s already getting a lot of attention as the only Colorado spirit maker crafting aquavit from scratch. The clear spirit is native to Scandinavia, but Devil’s Head presents a persuasive case for making Colorado its second home.

5280: First off, what’s the correct way to pronounce aquavit?

Ryan White: Awk-wah-veet. [Which means “water of life.”]

What is it?

It’s a traditional Scandinavian spirit, and the production process is pretty much identical to gin. But in gin, the primary botanical flavor is juniper, and in aquavit, it’s caraway seed. There are six botanicals in my gin and six botanicals in my aquavit, but they’re all different. Aquavit has more of an earthy flavor, similar to dark, rye bread, versus the piney flavor of gin.

Does that flavor work in cocktails?

In Scandinavia it’s traditionally chilled, and you drink it straight with dinner. We’ve played around with substituting aquavit for other spirits in drinks and also researched making cocktails tailored to aquavit’s flavors. Bloody Marys work really well, as do Moscow mules. Our number one–selling drink at the tasting room is an old fashioned made with aquavit. 

Which botanicals do you use?

Caraway, fennel, dill, celery seeds, star anise, and cubeb berry, which is similar to black pepper.

Why did you start making aquavit?

I was a territory sales manager for a high-end carpet manufacturer, and after 20 years in that industry I grew bored and decided to pursue a career in something I was passionate about. I got the idea to start a distillery when I was hiking Devil’s Head [National Recreation Trail in Pike National Forest]. The trail was lined with junipers, and I thought, Let’s make some gin! So that’s what I started with, but I wanted to have something different to set me apart from other distilleries. No one else in Colorado makes aquavit, and there are only a handful of places in the country that make it. We’ve only seen one kind [from Scandinavia] imported in Colorado, and none of the other domestic producers are available here, so it helps me get a foot in the door in liquor stores, bars, and restaurants. 

Some restaurants and bars make aquavit by infusing spirits. How is your product different?

Many places make aquavit with infusion. That’s the process of taking a neutral spirit like Everclear and steeping the botanicals to extract the essential oils. We start with the grain, and botanicals are a part of the distillation process [as opposed to being added at the end of it], so it doesn’t start off as Everclear or vodka. We’re able to give somebody a true grain-to-glass aquavit—not something that’s made at a big ethanol plant then brought over in a tank and rebottled. 

What’s next for Devil’s Head?

We’re doing aquavit, gin, and vodka right now, and eventually we’ll do some rum, agave, and whiskey, too, but that has to age. 

Visit Devil’s Head Distillery at 3296 S. Acoma Street in Englewood on Fridays and Saturdays from 4 to 11 p.m.