Jason Blevins/The Denver Post
Jason Blevins/The Denver Post
SALIDA (AP) – PT Wood delves deeply into a snifter of gin as Lenny Eckstein details the botanicals used in distilling his subtle concoction.
Some peppercorns, caraway seeds, cardamom. A lot of citrus.
“I like the pennyroyal coming in early, but I miss the juniper fragrance,” said Eckstein, owner of Buena Vista’s Deerhammer Distilling Co., which opened a year ago and recently sold out of its first run of single-malt whiskey.
“It’s really interesting,” said Wood, owner of Wood’s High Mountain Distillery in Salida. “It’s nice.”
The two distillers are part of a craft-libations boom in the Upper Arkansas Valley, where soon 11 breweries, distillers and winemakers will be crafting beer, aging whiskey and bottling wine. That’s about one brewhouse, distiller and vintner for every 2,000 residents in Chaffee and Lake counties. Area boosters say it’s the highest per-capita density of craft-beverage makers in the country.
And soon, they will be united under one mantle, merging their talents and passions into the Ark Valley Libation Society, a regional craft guild where collaboration trumps competition.
“Competition is a weird thing in this industry because there’s so much out there. In the craft world, it’s more about getting good stuff out there,” said Eckstein, who delivered a couple of his whiskey-tinged oak barrels to Salida’s new Elevation Beer Co. for aging a Belgian ale. “There’s nobody I’d rather give these barrels to.”
On a recent weeknight in the shadow of Elevation’s massive brew kettles, the league of libation lovers gathered, planning a collaborative website and marketing push that will put the Upper Arkansas River corridor – from Leadville to Salida – on the craft-drink map.
“We are a community-oriented town, and we can all work together to make this place stronger,” said Tom Price, who is joining longtime Salida brewer Mike Lacroix in opening Blindsight Brewing on U.S. Highway 50.
Before the meeting, Elevation owner Xandy Bustamante – one of four 20-something owners – led the group through a “sensory analysis” beer tasting. They sipped off-flavors – tripled in intensity to more easily identify – and discussed the green-apple finish of acetaldehyde found in some young beers and the canned-corn taste of dimethyl sulfide.
Educating palates is part of the mission of any craft distiller, brewer or vintner, and the team smacked and snorted as they searched for obscure tints in the brews.
“We are just feeding off each other,” said Steve Flynn, whose 3-year-old Vino Salida offers 13 wines and meads made from grapes harvested in Palisade. Flynn recently provided Eckstein with wine for distilling into a brandy.
“This just widens our scope of knowledge,” said Wood, sipping through Eckstein’s gin, Flynn’s red and Bustamante’s ale. “This is a great place to bounce ideas off each other. I love sampling everyone’s latest projects.”
Beverages are booming in Colorado, with a resurgence of craft brewhouses and distilleries. Wood last month secured his permit from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. It was the 38th distilling permit issued in Colorado, up from 18 in early 2011.
The giant window at Wood’s soon-to-open downtown distillery in Salida is smeared with nose prints – signs of curious gawkers admiring his 1880s still and growing number of whiskey barrels.
“It’s pretty awesome to see a guy who is 60 leaning into my window with a huge smile on his face,” Wood said. “It helps me through some of the endless math, the hauling, the cleaning and the waiting.”
Craft brewers paved the regulatory pathway now traveled by the swelling ranks of distillers such as Wood and Eckstein. While other states painstakingly sculpt new laws governing small-batch tasting rooms and distribution, Colorado distillers are clicking into long-standing procedures and regulations well-honed by the state’s 162 craft beer makers.
“As a small craft industry, there’s no better place to be than Colorado,” Wood said.
But those beer-makers did more than prep the regulatory landscape. Colorado residents have been groomed to embrace craft libations under the state’s deluge of craft beer.
“People around here like artisan products,” said Bustamante, whose initial hope for 600 annual barrels of beer has already tripled after seven months. “They like them a lot.”
Beer tourism is a growing trend as thirsty travelers link together the state’s breweries in beer tours. Working together as a group trumpets the Upper Arkansas Valley’s sating message in a crowded market.
“It’s a competitive environment out there, and we can get a lot further working together rather than fighting each other,” said Ryan McFadden, the manager at Buena Vista’s Eddyline Brewing Co., which last year started canning craft tallboys – an industry first. “Let’s not fight for the scraps off the table. Let’s get a seat at the table.”