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Tracing the grains that make up Durango Craft Spirits’ bourbon

Distiller Michael McCardell makes a point to source regional ingredients

Judging by the medals sitting behind Durango Craft Spirits’ bar, the distillery’s Cinder Dick bourbon is a clean and smooth quality spirit. The caramely, slightly sweet two-year bourbon has been recognized by the American Distilling Institute, the Denver International Spirits Competition, North American Bourbon and Whiskey Competition and other notable entities. Their numbers reflect the spirit’s flavor; DCS’s tasting room sales are up 25 percent from 2017 and distribution sales are up 20 percent, which prompted a 1,500-foot expansion to double bourbon production from two barrels a month to four.

Craft distilleries grew 15.5 percent in 2018, making a drinker’s choice of bourbons as diverse as grocery store pasta sauce, but Cinder Dick has been able to stand out in the competitive market.

“I wanted to be like a distillery would have been 100 years ago,” said Durango Craft Spirits co-owner and distiller Michael McCardell. “ I wanted to use all regional grains. I wanted to go grain to glass.”

That strategy has helped McCardell’s success.

Michael McCardell, co-owner of Durango Craft Spirits, produces Cinder Dick Bourbon, Soiled Doves Vodka and Mayday Moonshine at his location at 1120 Main Ave.

“I take a very common sense approach to this whole industry, and I do things that are sometimes different than other people, but I don’t care because it works for me,” he said.

Bourbon gains a lot of flavor from the char of the inside of the barrels that are burned with flames and then doused with water. McCardell uses a char four (most major brands use char three) from a cooperage in Kentucky. But quality regional grains also set Cinder Dick hooch apart from other grain liquors. Those grains come from Towaoc’s Bow & Arrow Foods and Alamosa’s Colorado Malting Co.

Great grains

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm & Ranch sprawls across 7,700 acres on tribal lands and grows corn and alfalfa and raises cattle. Pastel Shiprock can be seen framed between the farm’s massive grain bins that hold 500 semi truck loads or 500,000 bushels. Bow & Arrow Foods is on the same site as the farm and mills Ute Mountain Ute Corn that eventually finds its way into Durango Craft Spirits’ old-fashioneds.

Simon Martinez, operations manager at Bow & Arrow Foods in Towaoc, shows off crops grown on the Ute Mountain Ute farm. Four years ago, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe added a mill to the site to grind its grains.

Simon Martinez has been the operations manager for the farm for the past 29 years. Martinez said the mill was added four years ago. The farm sets aside 120,000 bushels of corn for the mill each year.

“Our customer base deals in whole corn, corn mill, cornflower and cracked corn for animal feed,” Martinez said. “You have to have a 52 percent corn base for your bourbon and vodka. That is where Durango Craft comes in.”

Cinder Dick Bourbon is 65 percent corn. McCardell purchases two 2,500 pound pallets of pre-milled white corn per month from Bow & Arrow, which he said has always been consistent.

“It has a really high sugar content and it works great for my spirits,” McCardell said. “And they are so great to work with.”

Martinez said Bow & Arrow typically keeps McCardell’s corn mill ready to go on the floor. He was the first distillery to purchase from Bow & Arrow, but selling to distilleries has become a business strategy for the high-tech mill. Because it is competing against Iowa and Nebraska and established brands like Bob’s Red Mill, it is finding more luck with those interested in craft and the story behind Ute Mountain rather than battling to be in major grocery chains, Martinez said. Its products can be found in other distilleries, including Fairplay’s Snitching Lady’s blue corn bourbon and Raquelitas Tortillas’ chips out of Denver.

Bins store the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm & Ranch’s grain as Shiprock stands in the distant background.

“We can do 24 different granulations for distilleries alone,” Martinez said.

Honeyville and Zia Taqueria also use Bow & Arrow products, and the company’s cornmeal is sold at Nature’s Oasis.

Taste the terroir

Durango Craft Spirits was the first distiller to purchase from Bow & Arrow brand, and the very last customer to get on with Colorado Malting Co.

“These guys are geniuses. They are all Ph.D.s,” McCardell said.

Jason Cody is one of the family operators. Cody’s great grandparents homesteaded the land that eventually became a barley farm. Because the farm had been around for so long, Colorado Malting Co. was one of the first to be involved in the craft beer scene. Their products have been used in New Belgium, Left Hand, Avery, Dogfish Head, Sierra Nevada and other, smaller breweries and some distilleries.

“We are producing about 78 different malts right now,” Cody said.

This may seem like an overwhelming amount of options, but the Cody family’s knowledge and connection to agriculture can pay off in spades for craft distillers and brewers. They’ve even planted special crops for customers who are willing to pay for it.

“Michael is picking the stuff he likes. It’s part of what made our brand successful – since we’ve been in the game so long we know how to do a lot of things,” Cody said.

For McCardell’s bourbon, he purchases 2 tons of wheat, rye, barley, malted wheat and malted two-row barley pre-milled from Colorado Malting Co. each month.

Like Ute Mountain Ute and Bow & Arrow, everything is done on the same site at Colorado Malting Co. (It recently opened its own brewery on the property.) The soil and climate in Alamosa are not the friendliest to crops, but Cody said that creates a better product.

“When people are growing grapes for wine, they don’t want it in the best soil. It produces more yield but not the best flavor,” he said.

Using crops from Colorado creates a terroir, or taste based on the climate and environment, that influences the flavor of the bourbon.

“A lot of people are buying the raw materials from all over the country, so you are not tasting the area,” Cody said.

So what is McCardell’s serving suggestion on the best way to taste Cinder Dick’s flavors of the region?

“You know what I really like to mix with my bourbon?” he said. “More bourbon.”

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