For a city with a reputation for fitness freaks, Boulder, Colorado likes its drink.
No doubt the fact that there are 30,000 students out of a population of 100,000 helps. As does the fact that this one small city boasts 20 breweries, six wineries, and at least seven distilleries – new ones are opening all the time.
One of the newest is Geek Spirits, Boulder’s first rum distillery. Founded by husband-and-wife team Greg and Sherial Starr, the distillery opened in March 2015. “I’m the geek,” admits Greg, who worked in high-tech businesses and has a PhD in Electrical Engineering.
“Almost seven years ago I read an article in an inflight magazine on a plane about micro-distilleries and I thought: ‘That’s what I want to do.’ What I like about distilling is that a huge portion of it is science, and then on top of that there’s the creative side.”
And why rum? “Because I love rum!”, enthuses Greg. “There are a few other rum distilleries in Colorado. Some use cane juice, which is easier to use but you don’t get as much flavor, I don’t think. We use the kind of molasses a baker might use. We’re different from anything else in Boulder but that wasn’t planned, it just happened. We’re doing what we wanted to do. We’re doing rum because we wanted to do it, not because no one else was doing it.”
That “I’ll do what I want” attitude is shared by the two guys behind J&L Distilling, which opened June 2013. Seth Johnson is a physicist and Justin Lee is a chemical engineer.
“We met through the Boulder Home Brew Club,” says Lee. “We were the only two distillers in the club! That was back in 2000 but when federal law changed in 2006 and made it easier to distill alcohol, we started to talk about having our own distillery.”
One look at the distillery and you can see it’s been put together by practical guys who like tinkering and improvising. Their column still soars high like the Empire State Building. “We use a column still that is randomly packed with pol rings,” Lee explains, “which means that every six inches you get the equivalent of one distillation. We do continuous distillation. When people talk about three times distillation or five times distillation it’s meaningless because it’s continuous distillation. You could say it’s distilled a thousand times.”
The partners make all their own spirits, as well as the mixers and syrups for their tasting bar. “People in Colorado are hungry for locally-produced anything,” says Lee, “especially in Boulder.”
Their first products included SNO Vodka distilled from sugar cane, and SNO Gin, as well as a beet-infused gin which makes a fabulous Beet Down cocktail, that looks as good as it tastes. And business is definitely on the up.
“We’re doubling our square footage at the end of the summer,” says Lee, “so we can also produce bourbon, whiskey, rum, and absinthe. The first bourbon into the barrels will require two years of aging. But we may have some rum by Christmas.”
Along the street from J&L is Boulder Distillery, whose story goes back a lot further than most, as owner and distiller Steve Viezbicke explains. “The distillery started in 2008. Before that I made my own wine and beer for many years,” recalls Viezbicke. “I was an audio engineer for twenty years. When they gave me the cut in 2008 I thought , ‘Screw it. I’ll do what I want to do’.”
The family tradition of distilling goes back to Steve’s grandfather, Pete Viezbicke Sr., who came over to the USA from Poland in 1907, bringing with him a trunk that’s on display at the distillery.
“He was 16,” notes Viezbicke. “His worldly possessions were in that trunk and I found a recipe in it. I translated ‘potatoes and water’. I thought at first maybe it was potato salad, or a soup! I saw yeast and then thought maybe it was potato bread. Eventually it dawned on me that it was a vodka recipe.”
Planes hanging from the ceiling of the distillery were also made by Steve’s grandfather, and they all fly. The distillery has a quirky charm; in addition to tastings, they hold poetry and music events.
“We do a potato vodka and the first potato whiskey [both named 303 for the Boulder area code] to be sanctioned in the USA,” notes Viezbicke. “We use Colorado potatoes from the San Luis Valley. Colorado grows more potatoes than Idaho! I’m also the only whiskey maker in Boulder. I’m making a Rocky Mountain whiskey, not an American whiskey.”
Viezbicke won’t be the only whiskey maker in Boulder for long. A couple of miles away at Vapor Distillery, Scotsman Alastair Brogan has a single malt whiskey maturing, made in a Forsyth still using Scottish grain.
“I looked for grain in America but I ended up buying in Scotland because it’s better and cheaper,” explains Brogan. “We also have a traditional Scottish spirits safe, which cost us £8000! But we’re not copying Scottish whisky, it is definitely a US-style whiskey.”
Brogan came to Boulder with his American wife after selling his business in Glasgow. They came for a month and never left.
“We do a Western style gin,” he says, “a pumpkin cordial, a barrel-aged gin, and a vodka. We’re going to do a Navy-Strength Gin, at 57%. Then a London Dry style, and a Jenever. We want to be seen as a gin specialist.”
Drinks Report acknowledged Vapor’s as the Best Cask-Aged Gin in the World, while J&L were voted Best Distillery in Colorado at the New York International Spirits Competition.
“When we opened two years ago,” says Justin Lee of J&L, “there were four or five distilleries in Colorado. Now there are about 65.”
Like many communities where “local” is a by word, Boulder has embraced its spirits entrepreneurs and, as a result, business is booming. Not only is the spirits industry a bastion for the geeky types, it’s also a haven for those who want to feel closer to nature and one’s own ability to create. In Boulder, there is most certainly no lack of creativity. From gin to vodka, whiskey to rum, Boulder, Colorado is on the rise.