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Guess Which Beer Capital Has Uplifted Artisanal Spirits

Feisty Spirits was one of several Colorado distilleries to showcase their products at the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. Credit: Jessie Unruh

Feisty Spirits was one of several Colorado distilleries to showcase their products at the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. Credit: Jessie Unruh

Back in 2011, in a piece on mountain rums, I briefly provided some context to explain how Colorado had managed to become such a liquor mecca — not just the beer capital it’s best known as, but also a distilling hub. (Granted, my state’s wine industry is still fledgling, but it’s got potential.)

That discussion really hit home just the other day, when I attended the fourth annual Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. It surely will again when I hit the Great American Beer Festival — more on that in another story. As a mining settlement turned ski resort, Breckenridge was born to be a hard-drinking town. There were already 18 saloons here in the late 19th century, including the Gold Pan, established in 1879 and still going strong. The city’s Heritage Alliance even conducts a tour on the subject. No wonder, then, that it’s proving the perfect place to showcase local distilleries, welcoming more than 20 of them, along with 600 guests, to the Riverwalk Center this year (compared with eight producers and 100 attendees at its inauguration, according to Ken Nelson, president of the Breckenridge Restaurant Association).

Some of the names may already be familiar to outsiders, including Peach Street Distillers in Palisade, which sources from neighboring orchards and wineries to make fruit brandies, eaux-de-vie and grappa, among other things; the pioneering Denver-based Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey; and Montanya Distillers, whose rums are available far beyond its home base of Crested Butte. Others were new even to me — but if quality alone guaranteed distribution, products like the following would be everywhere.

Golden Moon Crème de Violette

Many present-day spirits producers talk the talk of ancient recipes and Old World methods, but few walk the walk quite so boldly as Stephen Gould’s Golden Moon Distillery (based, of course, in Golden). A “trained saucier” and former brewer, he got interested in collecting old, rare bottles a decade ago. Upon “stumbling across a case of 1950 Spanish absenta and really enjoying it,” he says, “I started doing a little digging — and now I own, I’m told, one of the largest collections in private hands of books on distilling in North America.”

Based on his research, he’s worked tirelessly to re-create bygone styles of gin, absinthe and brandy as well as liqueurs rarely sighted on these shores. Though the craft-cocktail movement has begun to engender their modest return to the market, Gould is staking his name on the sort of remarkable adherence to historical detail that screams “cult following” — and sure enough, he’s beginning to distribute out-of-state thanks to the help of restaurateurs who have petitioned to carry his products.

His wonderfully evocative crème de violette, for instance, is a true distillate of the namesake flower. He hit upon the recipe for it after “studying how French perfumers worked with violet to keep it stable.” The result is higher in alcohol (at 30% ABV) and lower in sugar than any that I could find. Sadly, I couldn’t sample his take on the legendary orange bitters Amer Picon, which he calls Amer Dit Picon, because he’s awaiting label approval. In any case, his version replicates not the current but the original recipe, “with the exception of one ingredient, calamus root, that the FDA has forbidden.” Although there are substitutes on the domestic market for the otherwise unavailable French liqueur, Gould says they’re much less complex than the 100-year-old bottles he’s had occasion to try, compared to which “ours is a little more peppery and a little harder — but then, after a century of aging, it’s natural that they’d have mellowed. I think we’ve come about as close as possible.”

Feisty Spirits Elementals

Unless it’s specified as bourbon, rye, etc., “whiskey can technically be made from any grain. Only four or five are generally used, but there are hundreds out there; why not try them?”

Drinks ready for imbibers at the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. Credit: Jessie Unruh

Drinks ready for imbibers at the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. Credit: Jessie Unruh

So wondered Jamie Gulden, co-founder of Feisty Spirits in Fort Collins, when he and his partner, head distiller David Monahan, set about experimenting with cereals beyond the blue corn, oats and rye they use for their single-barrel bottlings. Not all of them worked, he admits — amaranth, for one, “isn’t something you’d want to drink straight” — but four others now compose Feisty’s single-grain line, Elementals: Kamut (aka Khorasan wheat), Millet, Triticale and Quinoa. I liked the roasty, toasty qualities of the Kamut; as for the Quinoa, which wasn’t on offer at the festival, Gulden calls it “a polarizing whiskey: some people really love its grassiness mixed with nuttiness, some don’t.” It may be awhile before non-Coloradans can judge it for themselves; Feisty’s distribution, after only a year in business, remains limited to the Front Range.

Santa Fe Single-Malt Whiskey

Speaking of whiskey, I have to give a nod to one of the festival’s few non-local exhibitors. Santa Fe Spirits is rolling out a single malt in which the barley is smoked not over peat à la Islay Scotch, but rather mesquite. Perhaps I’m swayed by fond memories of Christmas in New Mexico, but its tangy notes of wood smoke yet surprisingly mellow character immediately won me over. (Availability is slowly expanding from the Southwest to the West Coast.)

Dancing Pines Black Walnut Bourbon Liqueur

I first met ex-paramedic firefighter Kristian Naslund a couple of years ago, not long after he’d launched Dancing Pines Distillery in Loveland. Offered samples of his chai, caramel and cherry liqueurs, I was thoroughly skeptical — they sounded like just so much commercial cough syrup. But boy, I was wrong; though certainly sweet, they lacked any trace of sharp artificiality, their profiles warm yet clear. So it is with this newer release, which begs for a fireside armchair; Naslund and crew do distribute out of state.

Breckenridge Bitters

Billed as the world’s highest-altitude spirits producer (the facility sits at 9,600 feet), Breckenridge Distillery likewise enjoys some presence on the national market, primarily thanks to its well-received bourbon. Its strikingly heather-honeyed small-batch bitters are built on the discovery by master distiller Jordan Via, while hiking close to home, of some plants that turned out to be related to those used in génépi, an Alpine liqueur. Along with the brand’s own vodka, they serve as the foundation for a blend whose 10 other proprietary botanicals make for a smoother, gentler, more rounded variation of the European model — neither quite as bitter nor quite so intensely sweet.

Top photo: Feisty Spirits was one of several Colorado distilleries to showcase its products at the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. Credit: Jessie Unruh

Zester Daily contributor Ruth Tobias is a seasoned food-and-beverage writer for numerous city and national publications; she is also the author of  "Food Lover's Guide to Denver & Boulder" and "Denver and Boulder Chef's Table" from Globe Pequot Press. Her website is or follow her @Denveater.