Dry Land Distillers co-founder Nels Wroe was hiking with his border collie, Mei, three years ago when inspiration struck—or, more accurately, poked.
Wroe and Mei were hiking on Rabbit Mountain, a popular Boulder County outdoor recreation area a few minutes from downtown Longmont, where Wroe and two friends were planning to open their distillery. As they walked along, Mei accidentally stepped on a prickly pear cactus, so Wroe stopped to gently remove the spines from her paws—and an idea began to take shape.
For several months, Wroe and fellow Dry Land co-founders Aaron Main and Marc Staats had been brainstorming ways to make a unique version of tequila or mezcal, those delicious Mexican spirits made from agave, a type of succulent. “I’m sitting there, frustrated, pulling out thorns from her pad and I’m like, ‘Cactus has got to be related to agave. And it’s all over Colorado,’” Wroe says. “That’s when I realized that we were thinking about it all wrong. Maybe we were missing the obvious.”
That fateful and quintessentially Colorado moment led Wroe, Main, and Staats to begin experimenting with creating a spirit from native prickly pear cacti. It was a complicated and painful process—literally, because at first they harvested the cacti by hand—that ultimately led to something one-of-a-kind and delicious.
The team first had to explore whether prickly pear cacti could be fermented, one of the early steps in the distilling process. They tested a few small batches in the basement of Wroe’s Longmont home, which led to some creative nicknames from his kids. “Sure enough, we were able to get a really sludgy, green, gnarly-looking fermentation going, which the kids immediately nicknamed ‘dog snot,’” he says.
The trio scaled up to larger test batches, bought a huge trailered smoker from a Boy Scout camp in Pueblo, and began smoking the cacti pads over mesquite. (Because there aren’t any commercial growers of cacti in Colorado, Dry Land sources the plants from Texas and California.) Next, they had to figure out how to cut up the blackened cacti chunks to make them useable for the rest of the distilling process; they broke several blenders and food processors before learning that a wood chipper was the right tool for the job. The resulting chunks were then cooked down in a mash tun to a thick, greenish-black liquid, which they fermented and distilled.
Today, two and a half years after Dry Land Distillery opened in June 2018, the process remains much the same. The distillers add raw cane sugar to the green-black liquid to help ensure consistency from batch to batch, since the levels of fermentable sugars in the cacti can vary depending on when they were harvested and whether they had already fruited. The plants also contain tons of micronutrients, which leads to a long fermentation with happy, healthy yeast. “We get a really beautiful, earthy, very smoky spirit,” Wroe says. “It’s like a mezcal, but it’s a lot softer on the palate. It doesn’t smack you across the face. The cactus adds a whole new dimension of earthiness, kind of a vegetal component to it. And, of course, the smoke is present, for sure.”
Come summer 2021, building on Dry Land’s success with its cactus and other spirits, the team plans to open a much larger, 3,000-square-foot distillery and tasting room in downtown Longmont, complete with an outdoor gin garden featuring the native botanicals they use to make their eponymous spirit. The new location, at 519 Main Street, will allow them to scale up production by a factor of five.
Dry Land remains one of the only distilleries in the world making a smoked cactus spirit, which won a bronze medal at the 2018 International London Spirits Competition. At its current Longmont tasting room, situated in the back of an old bank building, the cactus spirit is put to delicious use in a host of inventive cocktails, including a smoky margarita, the most popular drink on the menu, made with fresh lime and orange juices and a splash of simple syrup. It’s also delicious on its own, poured over a large ice cube with a twist of lime. In addition to the standard cactus spirit, Dry Land also makes a barrel-aged cactus reposado, which includes notes of vanilla, oak, and spices. “We’re discovering that Colorado ingredients make some really beautiful spirits,” Wroe says.
If you go: Dry Land Distillers is open Fridays and Saturdays for outdoor seating, weather permitting, under Boulder County’s Level Orange restrictions; to-go cocktails and bottle sales are also available at the tasting room. 471 Main Street, Longmont