By Michelle Venus
Ten years ago, there were about five licensed distilleries in all of Colorado. That number has increased 20-fold, and about ten of the state’s distilleries are right here in Northern Colorado, which is not a surprise considering how many microbreweries have taken residence in the region. Craft distilleries are simply a natural evolution. A study conducted by the American Craft Spirits Association reported national retail sales of $2.4 billion in 2015; Colorado is one of the top five producing states along with California, New York, Washington and Texas.
Hans Breuer, the founder of the eponymous Big Fat Pastor Spirits, erupts into boisterous laughter and admits to having carried a few extra pounds several years ago. The pastor at Vineyard Church in Fort Collins started the Loveland-based distillery (a family joke inspired the name) after a conversation with his wife about investing in the next generation. That led to the decision to start a family business. After rejecting the notion of adding to the Northern Colorado microbrewery roster, they landed on a distillery, thus the genesis of Big Fat Pastor.
“Having a family-run distillery gives us a wonderful opportunity to rub shoulders and spend time together,” says Hans.
Big Fat Pastor is committed to distilling a very clean product. The distillery cuts out the unwanted chemical components such as methyl alcohol and acetones from the beginning (the head)—the stuff that gives you a hangover—and unpleasant fatty and oily substances from the end (the tail) of each run, using just the heart, which is the very center of the run and contains ethyl alcohol and aromatic substances.
“That process makes a very smooth product,” says Hans. Big Fat Pastor works with local vendors for ingredients and merchandise. Future plans include Fruits of the Spirit, a product line that includes Adam’s Apple, an apple brandy.
Husband and wife duo Jason Hevelone and Heather Trantham met as engineering majors at Colorado State University (CSU). When they weren’t studying, they dabbled in brewing their own beer. Upon graduation, the two pondered becoming craft brewers instead of engineers. The idea didn’t fly with their parents, so they pursued engineering careers. On their off hours, they continued to indulge their beer-brewing habit and added wine-making to their repertoire.
But the calling to entrepreneurship, the itch to create, and a phenomenal gin and tonic made with a small-batch gin propelled Jason toward distilling. “I took that first sip and it was so flavorful, so much better than any other gin I’d ever had before. It was nuanced and delicious.”
Mental lightbulbs flashed. Jason realized that the craft distillery sector was an unexplored frontier in Northern Colorado. Distilling utilized all the skills he developed as a home brewer and wine maker and notched them up a level. “I knew I had to do this,” he says.
As it turned out, the solar start-up Jason was working for was teetering, providing the impetus to take the leap. After much discussion with Heather, the leap was leapt. CopperMuse came into being.
The first spirit Jason distilled was vodka. “But the more interesting story is the rum,” he says. “You’re working with 100 percent sugar cane as the foundation. My engineering background was all about experimenting and trying this and trying that.” All ingredient variations and distillation processes were recorded in journals and spreadsheets. The best part was testing and tasting and sharing with others to get their opinions.
One of CopperMuse’s signature distillations is its Vicieux® Black Vodka. The idea was inspired by a local mixologist who wanted a jet-black vodka without adding any additional flavor. Getting the right mix was tricky because early iterations stained testers’ teeth. Not a good outcome. The end result, however, is elegant and unique, resulting in beautiful drinks.
Until 2014, Estes Park prohibited brewing and distilling unless the facility also had a full kitchen on the premises. Once that law was overturned, McShan Walker and his business partner, Joe Elkins, jumped on the opportunity to become the first distillery, Elkins Distilling Co., in the mountain-top community. That distinction, coupled with very pure water flowing from Rocky Mountain National Park, has put Elkins on the map.
That, and the whiskey. Every drop is distilled in Estes Park in the shadows of Longs and Mt. Meeker Peaks.
“When we started developing our products, we realized there was no definition behind Colorado whiskey,” explains McShan. “So we wanted to make sure everything we produced was ‘Colorado.’”
Only local grains are used; the corn is sourced from a farm in Nunn and the barley and rye come from Root Shoot Malting in Loveland.
With more than 4 million visitors a year to Estes Park, Elkins has become a draw for tourists. McShan gets feedback from people from all over, who share their vast and varied experiences with craft spirits. And with only whiskey on the menu, the mixologists get creative, using it in margaritas and in cocktails that typically feature vodka. “I call it ‘gateway whiskey,’” jokes McShan. “Give it a chance, and you’ll be hooked.”
“There’s a lot of bourbon out there,” says Noah Kroencke, one of the founders of Mobb Mountain Distillers. “We decided to go with rye, which is very traditional. We use a toasted oak barrel that gives our rye a smoky, spicy character, which you don’t see with a lot of whiskeys these days.”
Mobb’s gin is actually a genever, which is a precursor to dry gin, explains Noah. (He’ll be graduating with a degree in fermentation science from CSU in May.) “To put it simply, it’s a whiskey, grain and malt base with botanicals including juniper and grapefruit peel.” It’s one of a few genevers made in the United States and the only one in Northern Colorado, which makes it especially appealing to discerning palates.
Mobb is in Fort Collins’ burgeoning River District. “It’s exciting to be in this part of town, watching it grow,” he says. “It made a lot of sense to locate here.” And the tasting room is the only place you can get Mobb’s spirits. The company doesn’t distribute its products. Mobb recently introduced a dry gin and a vodka, and is working on a cherry-smoked malt whiskey that is due out in the spring.
“It’s old-school booze,” Noah laughs.
It’s hopping in Greeley in a pretty unique way. Syntax Spirits Distillery, co-founded by design engineer Heather Bean, has mostly women on its employee roster. Heather’s business partner, Jeff Copeland, provides financial guidance and weekend bartending while the ladies do the rest. No other distillery can make that claim.
Syntax opened its doors in 2010, making it one of the first distilleries in the region, and the only one in Greeley. Bean plans to move Syntax into the old Greeley Grain Elevator building once it’s renovated. “It’s a little daunting, but super fun,” says Heather.
After 20 years in corporate life, Heather was ready for a change. “My joke is that corporate engineering drove me to drink—literally. And as an engineer, I knew I could do [distilling] cheaper.”
Bean designed and built the entire production line. The prospect of creating an experience that feeds the senses, “making something that people hold, and touch and drink,” inspired her. “I just love being part of something this cool,” she says, looking around the eclectic tasting room. Gustav, the distillery cat, wanders by. He’s a big, red tabby whose chief responsibility (besides making nice with patrons) is to keep the grain storage areas mouse-free.
Like other distilleries, bourbon and vodka are featured on Syntax’s roster. Gin, too. But this gin is flavored with red rose petals and other botanicals. It adds a unique twist to mixed drinks and is sweetly refreshing all on its own. It’s also Heather’s go-to sipper after a long day.
Start With a Sip
For those who don’t drink beer or are ready to expand their horizons, Northern Colorado craft distilleries offer new and exciting options. Go on a distillery tour. Ask for them at your local liquor store. Order a drink at an area restaurant. Give those spirits a try. Your taste buds will thank you.
Michelle Venus is a writer and social media manager based in Fort Collins.
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