During a recent phone call to the Breckenridge Distillery offices, the casual atmosphere of this business in Colorado’s prime ski territory came chiming through. An office dog barked, some background jokes interplayed with our conversation, and someone was, reportedly, exiting the property by backing his car around the entire building. It’s unclear if they were dodging snow or other vehicles, or just having a little fun.
But the people at Breckenridge Distillery take their business and their spirits seriously. They demonstrate that success comes from a mixture of experimentation, patience, a little craziness and a lot of discipline.
Maybe these characteristics – common in the Breckenridge area and in winter sports in general – had a hand in the decision to establish Breckenridge Distillery here. Breckenridge, after all, has been reinvented several times over, with ingenuity. It was the center of Summit County’s gold mining in the mid 1800s. The establishment of the ski resort in the 1960s revived the town. Recently, massive efforts to reclaim the Blue River and restore the valley’s natural habitat wrecked by mining are attracting a community of sports, arts and culinary enthusiasts.
But the deciding factor? The water, pure and simple. Distillery founder and CEO, Bryan Nolt, a radiologist living in Pueblo, Colorado, started his spirit journey in Scotland more than a decade ago while on a whisky tour. (We’ll see how that love of Scotch whisky folds back into the Breckenridge story.) Pursuing his passion for the hooch, Nolt signed up for an intensive practical distillation class at the American Distillery Institute in California. That’s where he met Jordan Via.
Via (rhymes with eye) is now the master distiller at Breckenridge Distillery, but his related history includes consulting with hundreds of novice and established distillers, as well as forays into wine and brewery enterprises before joining Nolt in 2007. Originally from Hawaii, Via came to the mainland for college and earned a degree in biochemical engineering. His nerdy background suits Nolt and the distillery well, and fellow workers find his detailed knowledge of the Farmer’s Almanac (“he memorizes it every year”) entertaining and downright helpful.
At any rate, after Nolt and Via had tested water in some dozen towns in the Rocky Mountains, Breck emerged as the clear choice.
The start-up process dragged on as Nolt scraped money and financing together and Via established vendor relationships. Work on Breckenridge Bourbon started first, using other people’s equipment and storing barrels where they could. By 2010, Breckenridge Distillery moved to its current production and bottling facilities, and the first bottles of Breckenridge Bourbon were ready to roll.
The timing was good. Craft distilleries were just beginning to pop up around the country, and bourbon was taking off as the darling of spirits: quintessentially American, invariably interesting to mixologists, and increasingly appealing to younger drinkers and, gasp, even women. Plus, bourbon, unlike Scotch, doesn’t have to made in Scotland, nor does it take as long as Scotch to move from the still to the store.
To be certified as a bourbon whiskey, the spirit must be produced in the United States from a grain mixture of at least 51% sweet corn; meet the distilling, barrel, and bottle proof levels; and be aged a minimum of two years in virgin, charred, white oak barrels.
Breckenridge Bourbon is characterized by its forthright packaging as well as its honest taste. The label, applied directly on the glass bottles, reads “A Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys.” Some of the blend is distilled right in Breckenridge, of course, while some comes from those relationships established early on. The select sources, whether they are in Kentucky, Tennessee or Indiana, use the same basic mash bill – the ratio of grains – established by Via: roughly 56% corn, 38% rye and the remainder barley.
The result is a bourbon of medium caramel color with a balanced, not overly sweet, taste. The distillery’s website tasting notes ring true: “Reminiscent of a slice of toasted rye bread with honey drizzled on it.” Breck’s bourbon is an intriguing combination of savory, nutty flavors with a bit of sweet molasses tossed in.
Pure Breckenridge water really shines in Breckenridge Vodka which, like the bourbon, has been produced here since 2010. The vodka, from 100% sweet corn, is initially distilled elsewhere. (The same goes for nearly everyone’s “artisan” vodkas.) But then the grain’s neutral solution goes back to Breck where it is filtered with charred coconut husks and combined with Breck’s distinctive mineral-laden snowmelt water. It’s supremely drinkable, even straight up, but especially welcoming in cocktails. The first brand extension was Chili Chile Vodka, just right for a mean Bloody Mary, especially when combined with a Bloody Mary mix by local brand Breckenridge 9600. Later this year, two more vodkas will be released, one infused with pear and the other flavored with coffee.
It’s almost as if you can see the mad scientists at play in their lab. More distillery fun is evidenced in Breckenridge Spiced Rum. Initially, spiced rum and whiskey were seasonal releases only, developed for warm cocktails on cold winter days. Breckenridge’s rum, made of raw sugar and molasses, is aged in bourbon barrels, taking on vanilla flavors with tones of nuts and berries. Demand for the small batch Spiced Rum soon outstripped supplies. So this year it goes into year-round production.
Sourcing botanicals and adding spice to the process is an ongoing pastime for master distiller Via. He pours over his Farmers Almanac and hikes through the mountains, discovering wild herbs and flowers that might inform his next invention. He’s created, for example, the complex Breckenridge Bitter, so interesting it can be drunk solo. It’s meant to be mixed into your favorite Manhattan or tipped into any cool new cocktails, but a sip really does evoke mountain herbs, brisk air and sun-warmed rocks.
Coming full circle, the next item on the Breck Distillery horizon is Malt Mash, certainly Nolt’s pet project as it harkens back to his favorite Scotch beverages. Like Scotch (without the whole made-in-Scotland thing), Malt Mash is a true single grain whiskey, all malted barley and coddled for 10 years. Nolt refers to it as The Dark Arts: the pursuit of a single-malt whiskey that rivals the Scotch whiskies he sampled back before this enterprise began.
Breckenridge’s mountain location can present challenges, too. Even though the altitude of 9,600 feet means access to mineral- and nutrient-rich snowmelt water, it can make distilling tricky. Boiling points differ at altitude. The delicate transition from the first “heads” boiled off to the essence, or “hearts,” is managed by taste and experience, not someone else’s formula. Yields are always an issue, too, as the altitude and dry air affect the evaporation of bourbon from the barrels.
The signature Breckenridge Bourbon is available in stores in over 40 states. Expansion of the distillery’s production facilities is underway, and while construction of a new restaurant and bar has begun, another circle is closing. The distillery sees itself giving back to the community after utilizing the area’s pure water. Part of the expansion plan involves providing spent grains to local farmers, and then serving their local meat and produce in the restaurant. With these new relationships, Breckenridge Distillery seems to be applauding its Breckenridge home and acknowledging its debt to the mountain’s entire watershed district.
If you go
1925 Airport Rd
Breckenridge, CO 80424
Open 7 days a week
11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Every half hour from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Main Street Tasting Room
137 S Main St.
Breckenridge, CO 80424
Open 7 days a week
11 a.m. to 9 p.m.