Photography by Paul Miller
From 1 to 80-plus in less than a dozen years, Colorado distilleries are shaking up the booze biz.
P.T. Wood is perched at the end of the bar, his stool surrounded by exposed brick, paint-splattered plaster, scrap metal, curious sculptures and church pews upholstered in red fabric. The space, a former auto body garage in downtown Salida, was built in 1900, and in 2012, Wood, a 51-year-old hippie with a magnificent handlebar mustache, and his brother Lee bought it. Today it houses Wood’s High Mountain Distillery, a tasting room, social center and attached warehouse where they distil and bottle small-batch whiskey, gin and liqueur.
Like a lot of distillers in Colorado, Wood, whose first name is really Powell Thomas (or just “Passing Through,” as he jokes), took a circuitous route to the profession. Born in Boulder, he earned a degree in business management from Fort Lewis College in Durango, then moved to Salida in 1989 to become a river rafting guide. It was actually on the river that he first hatched the idea of distilling: He and his fellow boaters liked to celebrate the end of a multi-day paddle with a swig (or three) of whiskey, and right around the time that Stranahan’s—Colorado’s first licensed, post-prohibition distiller—released its introductory batch of 2-year-old Rocky Mountain whiskey, a guy brought along a bottle on one of the rafting trips.
“I’d decided that I was going to start making whiskey, which wasn’t much more than a drunken proclamation at the time,” he says. “But I spent years chasing after the idea of opening a distillery, and once I tasted Stranahan’s whiskey, I charged off to Kentucky to buy an 1880 German pot still, started doing tons of research and going to the American Distilling Institute conferences. Then I found this building, and I knew it was time.”
As the proprietor of his own distillery and the president— and mouthpiece—of the Colorado Distillers Guild, a nonprofit association of licensed Colorado distilleries and distilling industry suppliers and tradespeople, Wood has witnessed a boom in Colorado craft distillers, one that’s persuaded everyone from former U.S. Army soldiers to fashion photographers to abandon their careers to make every thing from whiskey and gin to absinthe and moonshine.
The popularity of Colorado craft distilleries, according to Wood, results in part from the state’s progressive and lenient laws, which have made it much more feasible for spirit creators to self-distribute. Colorado allows distilleries not only to make their own spirits, but also to sell what they produce, both in liquor stores and their own on- and off-site tasting rooms; licensed distillers also may collect the retail revenue from those sales. “Colorado laws are small-business-friendly, and because of that, the doors have opened wider and wider for craft distilleries to become viable,” Wood says.
And since Colorado already has a superior craft-beer culture, Wood adds, it stands to reason that the spirits industry would aim for similar success. Still, he’s quick to point out that distilling isn’t easy. “When everyone started brewing craft beer, there was essentially one style of beer out there—and it tasted like water—but with spirits, we were going up against a huge spectrum of amazing gins and whiskeys that were already available,” he says. “So the goal was to distil something better and more adventurous than the great juice that existed before us, and that’s a challenge.”
Jake Norris, the start-up distiller of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey (now owned by Proximo Spirits) and, most recently, the head distiller of Laws Whiskey House, agrees. “Distilling spirits is a very difficult and complex process, and you can’t take shortcuts,” he says. And opening a distillery is hardly an inexpensive—or overnight—endeavor. The cost of equipment can exceed the price of a pretty damn nice house, Wood says.
A nonrefundable license application fee, plus the state manufacturer’s license fee and wholesale liquor license fee (the latter of which allows distillers to sell their products to retailers) currently amounts to $2,395. And then it can take up to a year to actually secure the state license.
Norris, who plans to open a “world-class whiskey bar” in early 2017, worries, too, that the bubble may burst. “Colorado has grown from one distiller—Stranahan’s—to more than 80 in less than a dozen years, and a lot of people have put their hats into the ring because they think this profession is romantic, neat or fun,” he says. “But you’ve got to do your homework and ensure you’re distilling spirits that are superior and unique.”
He proudly points to Laws, as a distillery that produces spirits the right way: “Laws honors its craft by making its whiskey from start to finish and employing local farmers to grow the grain for the whiskey.” The combination of those two elements, he says, “ensures that we come full circle by keeping the money in Colorado and empowering farmers to grow wheat in their home state.”
Locality, Wood echoes, counts for a lot in Colorado, which ranks second nationally for the number of licensed craft distilleries (Washington state is first). “The state is full of people who have a very keen sense of local craft culture,” he says. “Not only do they want to buy locally produced spirits, they also want to purchase those spirits from smaller, hands-on companies.”
For Wood, distilling is the culmination of a dream that spans two decades. “For all of the hard work, dedication and expense, I wake up every single day and do what I’ve wanted to accomplish for the last 20 years,” he says. “Every day is a puzzle, and I find that fascinating.”
Into the woods: If you find yourself in Salida, allow time for a jaunt to Wood’s High Mountain Distillery/ 144 W. First St./ 719-207-4315
INTOXICATING FINDS Whiskey? Gin? Vodka? Rum? Moonshine? We’ve rounded up some of the state’s best bottles—no matter your craving. On the rocks, neat or in a cocktail, it’s time for a taste test. (Insert clinking glasses noise here.)