The driving force behind Colorado’s robust craft distilling scene — now 80-plus strong — is whiskey. Sparked by the mash-recycling moonshiners at Stranahan’s who forged Colorado’s first microdistillery more than 13 years ago, Colorado has become the birthplace of Rocky Mountain Whiskey, a hand-crafted movement injecting youthful vigor into the centuries-old whiskey business.
For fans of whiskey and other spirits seeking a tour, here’s an assemblage of distilleries where inventive whiskey peddlers are tweaking grain profiles to fuel a new era of Colorado distilling.
1. Feisty Spirits, Fort Collins
Starting up north, the small batch whiskey artisans at Fort Collins Feisty Spirits — the city’s first distillery — conjure up bourbon, rye and malt whiskeys in a copper still called Aphrodite. Try the nutty Blue Corn Bourbon, the award-winning, more sugary Red Corn Bourbon or the unique, clear Quinoa Whiskey for a different twist. Stop by the distillery for a nip and a tour at 1708 E. Lincoln Ave #1, Fort Collins, 80524. 970-444-2386. feistyspirits.com
2. Stranahan’s, Denver
People hold glasses of whisky up to the light on a tour of Stranahan’s Colorado whisky, in Denver Colorado, on Feb. 23, 2017.
Denver is a hotbed for whiskey-making. Credit for that goes to Jess Graber, the firefighter who met beer-maker George Stranahan when his Woody Creek barn was aflame. The barn burned but the duo brewed up a plan to use Stranahan’s Denver-made Flying Dog beers — and leftover mash — as a spark to start distilling whiskey. Though the beer (and Graber) are no longer part of Stranahan’s whiskey, the barley-mash single-malt is still hand-produced in small batches in Denver. East Coast liquor distributor Proximo Distillers bought Stranahan’s in 2010, sparking, no doubt, hope among fledgling whiskey-makers that they too, someday, could walk away rich like Graber. Despite the new owners, Stranahan’s remains the benchmark for quality Colorado whiskey. Book a tour of the Stranahan’s Distiller at 200 South Klamath St., Denver 80223 at stranahans.com.
3. Laws Whiskey House, Denver
While everyone knows about Stranahan’s, the genre-defining whiskey that paved the way for dozens of Colorado distillers seeking something more from their distilled grains, some of the state’s most ardent whiskey lovers avow allegiance to A.D. Laws. The Laws Whiskey House, where Al Laws and his team copyrighted the phrase “Whiskey Above All,” is a must-stop for anyone with a fondness for bourbon. The Four Grain Straight Bourbon, made with Colorado-grown wheat, rye and barley, is aged three years in white oak barrels. Law’s Single Barrel Secale Straight Rye packs a creamy, chocolatey punch and deserves every gram of its gold medal from the 2016 World Spirits Competition in San Francisco. For a real treat, get over the Laws Whiskey House for a Thursday whiskey flight night to sample the array of Law’s whiskeys. Otherwise, book a 90-minute tour on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday at lawswhiskeyhouse.com. 1420 S Acoma Street, Denver, 80223. 720-570-1420.
4. Leopold Bros., Denver
Todd Leopold, distiller at Leopold Bros. distillers, in Denver Colorado, on Feb. 23, 2017.
The family owned Leopold Bros. distillery in industrial north Denver labors over every step in its liquor-making process. The sprawling facility boasts the country’s largest malting floor, where 700,000 pounds of barley steeps every year, seeding nearly 50 varieties of liquor. Todd Leopold traveled to Europe to study malting designs before building the country’s only pagoda-topped malting kiln, which uses 18th century techniques to cure his germinated barley. Giant open vats of bubbling brews are sprinkled with pollen blown in from peach trees and lavender bushes outside the open windows. Leopold employs a wide variety of yeast strains when fermenting his Maryland-Style Rye Whiskey, a more fruity than creamy rye that can be hard to find on shelves after its seasonal release. Visit the Leopold Bros. tasting room Wednesdays through Fridays and book tours and cocktail workshops at leopoldbros.com. 5285 Joliet St., Denver, 80239.
5. Axe and the Oak, Colorado Springs
Colorado Springs is fostering the next generation of whiskey makers. Started by five friends seeking a lifestyle shift, Axe and the Oak Distillery follows the grain-to-glass ethos paved by Leopold’s and Laws, where every drop is made in-house. Last year, three years after launching, Axe and the Oak whiskeys won three silver medals at international competitions. The distillery also opened a tasting room across town from its distilling operation, crafting cocktails and gourmet pub-grub inside a former elementary school. Try the Tobacco Old Fashioned for a new-school twist on a timeless cocktail. axeandtheoak.com. 1604 S. Cascade Ave., Colorado Springs, 80905. 719 660-1624.
6. Deerhammer, Buena Vista
Amy and Lenny Eckstein have been distilling their Deerhammer artisan whiskeys in downtown Buena Vista since 2010, starting with a 140-gallon copper pot and, now, a 600-gallon sister still. With a mad-scientist approach to making whiskey, the Ecksteins employ cold-smoked oats, Colorado-grown corn and rye and four varieties of malted barley for their high-country spirits. The chocolate and coffee flavors make for a unique spin on Deerhammer’s signature single-malt whiskey. Lately, the distillers have been working with Colorado microbrewers — like Wit’s End and Crooked Stave — who age their beer in Deerhammer whiskey barrels; Deerhammer then finishes its 2-year American Single Malt whiskey in the barrels after the beer makers are done. The Deerhammer tasting room in Buena Vista a whiskey laboratory, with mixologists tweaking microbatches of whiskey — like a ghost pepper whiskey with a powerful kick — to create one-of-a-kind cocktails. “We are not trying to replace Maker’s Mark. We are finding our own path and our own flavors,” Lenny says. deerhammer.com, 321 E Main St., Buena Vista, 81211. 719-395-9464.
7. Wood’s High Mountain, Salida
PT Wood, owner of Wood’s Mountain High Distillery enjoys some of his single malt whiskey on March 7, 2017 in Salida.
Down the road from Buena Vista is Salida, where bothers P.T. and Lee Wood have been distilling their Tenderfoot Whiskey and smoky, chocolatey Alpine Rye Whiskey in an old car-repair garage for more than four years. Using a 19th Century German pot still, Wood’s High Mountain Distillery honors the centuries-old grain-to-glass ethos of whiskey-making, using locally grown grains and lots of labor. Like his pal Lenny up U.S. 24, P.T. deploys an array of barley malts, malt rye and malt wheats in his mash bill to craft distinctive whiskey and Colorado-styled gin. The brick-and-steel tasting room offers comfy church pews for sipping spirits and watching the Salida traffic on summer days, when the garage bay doors are raised and the townie cruiser bikes are stacked deep out front. woodsdistillery.com, 144 W First St., Salida, 81201. 719-207-4315.
8. Montanya, Crested Butte
Delena Aseere, right, is the Assistant Distiller for Montanya Distillers as well as the tasting room manager, on November 11, 2008, at the original Silverton location.
Over Monarch Pass in Crested Butte is the home of Colorado distilling OGs Karen and Brice Hoskin. Their Montanya Distillers doesn’t make whiskey, but the new-school rum-runners should be part of any distillery tour because of their hand-crafted rums. The Hoskins are nine years into their effort to dismantle the notion that rum belongs on a beach. Starting in Silverton and moving to the ski village of Crested Butte, the couple is one of Colorado’s original craft distillers. “I wish I had $100 for everybody who told us we couldn’t possibly start a rum distillery in Colorado,” Karen says. Ferrying the South American and Central American tradition of rum making to Colorado, Montanya has become an international sensation. Today, the Hoskins employ 20 workers at their distillery and craft cocktail bar, one of downtown Crested Butte’s must-stop joints. What started out as a distillery with a bar has evolved into a chef-guided bar with a distillery. But don’t think the bustling bar and restaurant have hindered the rum making. Using sugar cane from Louisiana farmers who grow specifically for Montanya, the award-winning Montanya Platino — aged in Colorado whiskey barrels and finished with a touch of Colorado honey — the Montyana Oro and the limited Montanya Exclusiva are available around the country. The international flavors are abundant in the Montanya tasting room, where pho and street food-type appetizers are washed down with classic rum cocktails like mojitos and pina coladas and Montanya martinis, like the one-of-a-kind Maharaja, with fresh ginger, cardamom and Indian spices inspired by Karen’s travels through India in the late 1980s. montanyarum.com, 212 Elk Ave., Crested Butte, 81224. 970-799-3206.
9. Peach Street, Palisade
Keep heading west on U.S. 50 out of Gunnison toward Colorado’s wine country. There in Palisade, in the heart of the Grand Valley, surrounded by wineries, distiller Rory Donovan and Dave Thibodeau — the mastermind behind Durango’s Ska Brewing — are 12 years into distilling some of Colorado’s finest bourbon. Starting with vodka and one of the state’s first tasting rooms, the liquor makers at Peach Street Distillershave tapped all sorts of fruit, corn and flowers grown around their distillery to craft an array of gins, whiskeys, brandies, agaves, grappas and liqueurs. Check out the state’s oldest, locally-owned distillery and tasting room for a nip — maybe after a ride on the unforgettable Palisade Rim Trail — and, for a good story, make sure to ask how they got that pear inside the bottle of their Pear Brandy. peachstreetdistillers.com, 144 S Kluge Ave., Building #2, Palisade, 81526. 970-464-1128.