Steeped in Brewing History, This Mountain State Has a Serious Spirits Scene

Stranahan's bar interior
Stranahan's interior / Photo courtesy Stranahan's

Beer came first to Colorado, arriving with the 1858 Gold Rush. The Rocky Mountain Brewery opened in 1859 to serve Denver’s thirsty miners, while in Golden, German immigrant Adolph Coors founded Coors Brewery in 1873.

When Colorado’s microbrew culture bubbled up in the 1990s, craft distilleries soon followed, particularly whiskey producers. Stranahan’s, founded in 2004, lays claim as the first microdistillery to open in the state post-Prohibition. As of 2019, Colorado was home to 102 distilleries, according to the American Craft Spirits Association.

“Beer was the natural evolution for a lot of the distilleries,” says Sean Kenyon, bartender/proprietor of Denver bars Williams & Graham, Occidental and American Bonded. Grain grows abundantly in the state and is fermented to make the base of both beer and whiskey, Kenyon notes, and in classic frontier spirit, the state has embraced both.

Sean Kenyon with whiskey
Sean Kenyon / Photo by Chad Larson

Of course, grain isn’t the only crop flourishing in Colorado. Kenyon points to local fields of potatoes distilled into sought-out vodka at Woody Creek Distillers, and orchards of fruit turned into brandy and liqueurs at Peach Street Distillers and Leopold Bros., among others.

“I could outfit my back bar with strictly Colorado spirits and be pretty happy with it,” Kenyon says. It’s a testament to the diversity and quality of bottlings produced in state.

For those who choose to accept a similar challenge, here are ten notable Colorado distilleries to seek out.

Breckenridge Distillery: Located at the base of the Rocky Mountains in the ski resort town of Breckenridge, this distillery makes a wide range of spirits. Yet, it’s perhaps best known for Breckenridge Bitter, an amaro-like “aperitif bitter” made with alpine herbs.

Distillery 291: Specializing in small-batch whiskeys, this Colorado Springs distillery produces a wide batch of Bourbons, rye and American whiskeys, including some singlebarrel offerings. Of note, some of the whiskeys are finished with staves from Colorado aspen trees.

Golden Moon Distillery: Herbal spirits are at the core of this Golden-based distillery, founded in 2008. Local bartenders have embraced their lavender-forward gin (a Port cask-finished variation is also offered), and the producer’s bracing Redux Absinthe is worth seeking out.

Leopold Bros. / Photo courtesy Visit Denver, Convention and Visitors Bureau
Leopold Bros. / Photo courtesy Visit Denver, Convention and Visitors Bureau

Leopold Bros.: In the mid-2000s, Todd and Scott Leopold relocated their company from Michigan to their home state of Colorado to focus solely on distilling. Now located in an industrial neighborhood in Northeast Denver, the facility includes the state’s first malting floor and kiln, the basis for innovative small-batch whiskeys.

The State That Quietly Became the Midwest's Craft Spirits Capital

Marble Distilling: If you’ve ever thought you’d like to stay overnight at a working distillery, Marble offers a Distillery Inn to make those dreams come true. Located in Carbondale, not far from Aspen, the producer makes vodka and liqueurs such as aromatic Gingercello.

Karen Hoskin, founder/owner, Montanya Distillers (left), with Renee Newton, distiller and distillery manager / Photo by Nathan Bilow
Karen Hoskin, founder/owner, Montanya Distillers (left), with Renee Newton, distiller and distillery manager / Photo by Nathan Bilow

Montanya Distillers:  Noted for making “Colorado rum” and emphasizing environmental sustainability, this Crested Butte-based business is run by founder/owner Karen Hoskin. She’s also head of the Women’s Distillery Guild and an advocate for gender diversity in the industry.

Peach Street Distillers: Based in Palisade, in the heart of Colorado’s fruit and wine country, this craft distillery draws its name from the area’s abundant peach orchards. While they produce a vast array of spirits, those made with local fruit are their forte. Their aged peach and aged pear brandies are spectacular.

Spring44 Distilling: This Northern Colorado distillery lauds the quality of the Rocky Mountain artesian spring water used to make their vodkas and gins. A detailed water analysis is even provided on their website.

Barrels and stills at Stranahan's / Photo courtesy Stranahan's
Barrels and stills at Stranahan’s / Photo courtesy Stranahan’s

Stranahan’s: The OG of the Colorado craft spirits boom, dedicated “Stranafans” camp out overnight at the Denver facility to scoop up their annual Snowflake whiskey release.

Woody Creek Distillers: Just outside Aspen, in mellower Basalt, Woody Creek works with local farmers to harvest Rio Grande potatoes for their robust farm-to-flask potato vodka. According to local legend, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who lived in nearby Woody Creek until his death in 2005, had his ashes shot directly over the potato field used to make said vodka.

Published on December 31, 2020
Topics: Spirits