The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
After one afternoon at the Breckenridge Distillery in Breckenridge, I was ready to add “whiskey blender extraordinaire” to my resume.
I’d just spent two hours nerding out about nose, mouthfeel, and flavor profiles with head distiller Hans Stafsholt and founder/CEO Bryan Nolt during the first session of the Whiskey Blending Lab. The blending lab—a new experience offered by Breckenridge Distillery—launched in July 2021, giving guests an opportunity to not only sample whiskey, but also study the intricacies of the spirit and create a bespoke blend. And, unless your last name is Beam, Walker or Van Winkle, this is a rare experience indeed.
In fact, Nolt says that the Whiskey Blending Lab is as close as the average whiskey fan may get to making their own whiskey. “You can never get all the way behind any curtain for anything you like—it doesn’t matter what it is,” Nolt explains. “I mean, if you’re a foodie, if you’re lucky, you can do a chef’s table or something in the kitchen. And that’s a great experience, but you’re not going all the way in.”
The blending lab is Nolt’s way of providing the kind of in-depth experience that he craved when he was starting out, spending his spare time and money trying to find the ultimate whiskey experiences. “We do lots of curated experiences in Dark Arts Lounge and all that stuff, but this is the ultimate,” Nolt says. “You can’t go any further unless you’re an intern.”
The Blending Lab allows guests to dive into the process of blending whiskey, a more difficult process than many people realize. For professionals like Nolt and Stafsholt, it requires a deep knowledge of the product, experience in combining flavor profiles, and a little bit of luck.
Class is held in the Founder’s Lab, part of the original distillery where grains and barrels were stored (and some still remain to set the mood). Participants perch behind barrels loaded with arrays of equipment reminiscent of high school chemistry class: beakers, glass stirrers, pipettes of varying size. There’s one difference, though—the beakers are filled with whiskey.
Labeled A, B, C and D, each whiskey comes from a different barrel, varying by age, proof, grain bill, and flavor. Stafsholt leads the group through tasting each whiskey, commenting on the nose, overall flavor, and finish. Descriptors like butterscotch, orange, caramel, dark stone fruit, baking spices, leather, and pepper are common—each has unique characteristics.
“I like pulling down barrels that have a degree of variance,” Stafsholt explains. “Some barrels have the stone fruit—those dark flavors—and some have those bright, fruity notes, whereas some are just more kind of spicy. I think that all of those variances and all those different varieties in the barrels that we pick give people the option to veer towards their perfect whiskey.”
After taking several sips and copious notes, it’s time to blend. Stafsholt encourages experimentation but cautions that it’s not a direct science—just because you like two barrels doesn’t mean they’ll work well together. It’s a difficult process, but eventually, with help from the experts, you can find your perfect blend.
For those wondering if you can mess it up—if it’s even possible to make a terrible whiskey—the answer is yes. But Stafsholt is ready for that too.
“Brad* kinda made a bad whiskey,” Stafsholt says with a laugh, “but after he did that, we were able to guide him to a different whiskey that he loved with the same ideas that he was hoping for.”
As for this writer, my perfect blend has hints of dark stone fruit on the nose, leading to nutmeg and butterscotch with a long, smooth, spicy finish. And when I’m finished with that bottle, I’ll just have to return and try my hand once again. After all, practice makes perfect.
If You Go
Book your Founders Lab blending experience here. The cost is $300 per person and includes a bottle of bespoke whiskey; availability is limited.
*Name changed to protect the participant