Founded during Colorado’s gold rush in 1859, Breckenridge is no stranger to distilling. Stills kept miners’ thirsts quenched during its first heyday, and now the town is home to the original Still on the Hill event. Activities for the festival include a poker run and bar mix-off at restaurants and bars throughout town, a historic saloon tour, shot glass art, a spirited cooking class, an open house at the Breckenridge Distillery, the Grand Tasting with distillers from around the country and a Hangover Brunch.
TOURS AND POKER
The Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival kicks off Friday, Oct. 24, with a pair of tours led by theBreckenridge Heritage Alliance. Discover the ghost town and gold mine of Preston in the morning, weather dependent, or join the Historic Saloon Tour in the afternoon. The saloon walking tour highlights the historic brewing, distilling and saloon features of Breckenridge’s mining heritage.
Indulge your creative side by designing your own personalized shot glass at the Ceramic Studio in the Breckenridge Arts District. Watch local artists throw shot glasses off a large hump of clay. During the demonstration, you are invited to personalize your own pre-made ceramic shot glass using colorful glazes. Each creation will be fired that night and ready for pick up on Saturday, Oct. 25, during open studio hours from 5 to 8 p.m.
The evening closes with the fifth-annual Poker Run and, new this year, Bar Mix-off, showcasing Breckenridge bartenders’ creativity with a cocktail throwdown utilizing craft spirits as a base. For the Poker Run, contestants will depart on self-guided tours of saloons, restaurants and taverns in Breckenridge, drawing playing cards at each stop, and then present their best five-card hand the following day at the Poker Showdown at the Still on the Hill Grand Tasting.
The highlight of the weekend is the Grand Tasting on Saturday, Oct. 25, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Riverwalk Center, which will showcase the various products of 30 craft distillers. The public can meet the distillers, try the various spirits and vote for their favorite spirit. Many of the distillers make up cocktails featuring their spirits so that guests may experience how the products can be used.
Artisan snacks will also be served during the Grand Tasting, and the Honey Gitters will play background bluegrass music. Tickets include a tasting glass and entry to the Grand Tasting (must be 21 to enter; this is a no-pet event). The party moves to the Gold Pan Saloon at 9 p.m., where the Honey Gitters will play with their full band sound.
Wrap up the weekend with the Hangover Brunch on Sunday, Oct. 26, when various restaurants around town will be featuring craft-spirit cocktails and brunch menus.
A couple of craft spirits producers have come under fire lately for the way they are presenting their hooch. Separate class-action suits have been filed against Templeton Rye, in Iowa, andTito’s Handmade Vodka, in Texas, each alleging that the respective distilleries are misleading consumers with claims that its products are small-batch and hand-made.
Consumers are increasingly demanding to know where their food and drink come from, and for many, the factory-sourced whiskey Templeton is bottling and the mass-produced vodka Tito’s is cranking out aren’t making the cut of “craft spirit.”
It boils down to perception versus reality, but the issue has many elements that make it more complex, from honesty in marketing to the realities of supply and demand.
ALL ABOUT HONESTY
Victor Matthews, owner, founder and master distiller at Black Bear Distillery in Green Mountain Falls, said there are two sides to every story. To say it’s right to control the process from grain to bottle and wrong to tweak a mass-produced base spirit oversimplifies the debate.
“On the one hand, you’ve got the fact that you buy stuff from Kentucky or Illinois and process it in some way and, in a way, that’s cheating,” he said. “On the other hand, if a computer is programmed to generate words and writes a poem and it’s read by someone, is that art? The point is, if the stuff in the bottle tastes awesome and everybody likes it, in a way, who cares?”
The main issue Matthews perceives is a company such as Tito’s claiming to make 10 million bottles of vodka on a “little old pot still.” That isn’t physically possible, he said.
“The problem isn’t the product; it’s the producer’s honesty,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with someone buying bourbon based in Kentucky and putting their own label on it and making some awesome product that they age for a couple of years, and they tell everybody, ‘We have our base from Kentucky, but we do it our own way.’”
Matthews will soon be releasing his first product, MountainShine, which he will be creating from scratch in his small cabin distillery outside Colorado Springs, but he said he wasn’t about to judge anyone who was taking a different route.
“If I was going to make MountainShine, I could get that white dog from basically anywhere,” he said, adding that at one point he was approached by a mass liquor producer. She said she could get him a 6,600-gallon stainless steel tanker truck full of anything he wanted. “Any recipe, any age. How different is that from making it, except that 6,600 gallons is going to take me years to make?”
HANDMADE FOR VARIETY
Jamie Gulden, chief monkey boy and jack-of-all-trades at Feisty Spirits in Fort Collins, said his distillery focuses mostly on whiskeys, and at any given time, there are typically 20 different versions of the spirit available in the distillery’s tasting room. Because of the variety of grain bills used to create these products, it wouldn’t make sense to outsource the base spirits.
“We distill all of our own spirits; we don’t buy any distilled spirits,” he said. “The only place we get something from somebody else is when we’re doing collaborations. We do a lot of collaborations with breweries, Fort Collins Brewery, Horse & Dragon Brewery. We’re getting essentially a beer from them, which we distill. But the majority of everything we sell, we do the fermentation, mash, distilling and aging.”
Gulden and co-founder David Monahan started Feisty because they wanted to create a high-quality product that they believed in, and part of that is doing every step from start to finish.
“It also gives us a lot more flexibility,” Gulden said. “We have 20 different types of whiskey usually, and you can’t do that if you’re buying it from somebody else. We use a lot of different grains to get different flavors, and you’re starting from the grain. To get those different flavors, you have to do it all, and that’s the way we want to do it.
“It just seems to us like it’s a lot more fun, for one thing. We also started this company to have fun, and we’re trying new things all the time, and that’s part of what makes the job fun for us. We’re not really looking at it as the business of how to maximize money.”
Copper Muse Distillery, also in Fort Collins, attacks the creation of its rum products and its vodkas from two different angles, said Jason Hevelone, owner and distiller.
“Like everything, honesty is the best way to go,” Hevelone said about divulging his distilling processes. “Be forthright about what you do. Ours is a combinational strategy. For our vodka products, we source a neutral grain spirit for that and combine it with our water here in Fort Collins. Our rum products we ferment and distill here on site.”
Copper Muse is also starting a program for whiskey, which will be 100 percent made and distilled on site, and will be introducing a gin, which will start with an outsourced neutral grain spirit distilled with juniper, anise and coriander at the distillery.
“When I look at vodka, you’re distilling it until it’s like pure ethanol and then you cut it back with water,” Hevelone said. “That’s why vodka doesn’t have a discerning taste to it; you go to pure ethanol and add water to it. From a distiller standpoint, being able to impart any interesting, craft flavor profile, there’s really nothing there to do. You aren’t aging it; you are really doing nothing but adding water to it.”
Hevelone said having limited resources when the distillery got started, it didn’t make sense to focus on distilling vodka, whereas, with his other product, rum, he can bring in black strap molasses or cane sugar and control how much of that comes across in the final product.
“We have a bourbon-barrel-aged rum, where we use used bourbon barrels and impart more of those whiskey notes, those tannins and vanilla notes,” he said. “It’s in the selection of barrels I use, and I can impart more of the heart into the spirit. I felt with my limited amount of time and resources I have at hand, that’s where my time and resources should be focused.”
The same applies to the whiskey products the distillery is crafting. Hevelone said it was important to him to have more control over that process.
“Otherwise, all you’re really kind of doing is rebottling something some other guy is doing there,” he said. “You have some art with mixing different types of whiskeys, but I’m not interesting in that with that product. For the gin, it’s about the type of botanicals you are putting in there. With the exception of juniper, there’s a wide selection of herbs and botanicals — that’s where you get the differentiation.”
Tim Harland, national sales director for Wyoming Whiskey in Kirby, Wyoming, said people care about what they are buying and what they are consuming, and ingredients are an important part of that. He said all of the ingredients that go into Wyoming Whiskey’s small-batch bourbon, from the Bighorn Basin wheat and barley to the water from a mile-deep, limestone aquifer, are sourced from within 100 miles of the distillery.
“We’re supporting the local economy, local farmers, and people want to know what’s in their juice,” he said. “The recent things that are going on nationally, I think it’s good. I think people should know what’s in their bottle and what’s in their box.” As far as truth in marketing, Harland said his distillery is “as transparent as they come.”
“We’re proud of the fact that the process we use is traditional,” he said. “We wanted to make a traditional bourbon. … We have no problem with people blending and it’s kind of a business model that wineries have taken — get your juice and put your label on it — as long as people are open, transparent and own up to the fact that what they’re doing is what they’re doing.”
Harland said there’s a kind of cowboy creed of honesty in a lot of the mountain states, and Wyoming Whiskey was fortunate to have owners who could wait four years before releasing their first bourbon in order to avoid importing any liquid to supplement or kick off the brand.
“It’s about being true to your word, your integrity and your honesty,” he said. “But we had the ability to make a pretty large craft distillery. We’re doing about 12,000 to 13,000 barrels annually, which isn’t small potatoes. So with the large investment that our owners had made, they wanted to make sure it was bourbon made the right way with local ingredients with someone who had a pedigree of making fine quality spirits. We know that’s not the only way to do it, but that’s the way our owners chose to enter the market.”
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Matthews said sourcing mass-produced base spirits has actually allowed the craft spirit industry to remain solvent and even grow.
“When you get an explosive, massive demand, how are you supposed to keep up with that when you’re running a 50-gallon still in a warehouse somewhere?” he said. “Would we rather have had all of the craft distillers get hit by a wave of desire and all of them come up short and all of America give up on craft spirits because no one can keep up? Or have people fill in the blanks and blend where they have to, to keep the ball rolling.
“No one talks about that. They either want to support the purchasing and blending, or they want to make those guys look bad to make my product look better. If I have a true label and everything is true, then I look better than someone else who isn’t doing that. So am I going to try to disparage them to make myself look better?”
Outsourcing stems from supply and demand and, on a much simpler level, limited resources — two huge problems, Matthews said.
“We don’t want the demand to outrun the supply because then everybody gives up,” he said. “If you go to the store to get your Coors Light and there’s none, then go to the store again and there still isn’t any, by the third time, you’re drinking Bud Light, and you’ll never drink Coors Light again because now you love Bud Light. We don’t want a shortage, but we want to yell at people who blend. That doesn’t work logically, which is why I don’t judge.”
A more specific issue for craft bourbon makers is a lack of barrels, Matthews said. In the last two weeks, he’s talked to every single producer of barrels in America and every single one has a six- to 12-month minimum lead time for production.
“If I wanted to make a bourbon, I have to get that stuff in a barrel right now. It’s got a four-year or six-year wait,” he said. “Lets say we added 20 to 30 craft distillers in Colorado just in the last year, which is way more than 200 nationwide. The question becomes, what are we going to do? If we go with the absolute honesty, start to finish product, we’re not going to make bourbon. We’re going to have to use used barrels and make whiskey, use smaller barrels, make it taste different.”
Eventually, the lack of barrels is going to push many distillers to buy, blend and bottle from the big bourbon manufacturers in Kentucky, Matthews said, or they are going to have to pause and there will be a year where there are many craft distillers who have no bourbon, thus losing market share and customers.
“In my opinion, concerning whatever they do — blend, make it themselves, buy it and reprocess — more power to them,” he said. “I pray for everybody; I pray for their survival, their ability to produce what they want to produce the way they want to produce it, but we have a big problem and nobody’s talking about it.”
Lodging is looking good. The record-breaking summer for both occupancy and revenue among western mountain resorts is carrying positive momentum into the winter.
That trend information comes from DestiMetrics, a Denver-based organization that tracks lodging bookings at 19 mountain resort communities in six western states.
The company recently announced that, as of Sept. 30, winter bookings for November through March showed an aggregated 7.4 percent gain in occupancy for the upcoming season compared to the same time last year. Aggregated revenue is also strong with a 15.5 percent increase for the first five months of the 2014-15 season.
Early season patterns show a “robust advanced booking pace,” said Ralf Garrison, director of DestiMetrics, “but when it is this early in the season, the role of Mother Nature and the recent volatility of economic and global conditions give rise to a note of caution.”
Data for western resorts is analyzed from a sample of about 290 property management companies, representing about 27,500 rooms across Colorado, Utah, California, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming, and DestiMetrics says it may not reflect the entire mountain destination travel industry.
The company also analyzed the data from a regional perspective comparing the Rocky Mountain resorts in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming to the Far West resorts in California, Nevada and Oregon.
Snow conditions from last season, or “snow equity,” a phrase coined by Garrison, is having a different impact on bookings for the two regions. While the Rocky Mountain resorts are tracking 8.9 percent higher in occupancy with a 16.4 percent increase in overall revenues, the Far West resorts are experiencing the opposite effect. As of Sept. 30, their aggregated occupancy was down 6.5 percent and related revenues down 7.7 percent.
DestiMetrics also closely monitors economic variables and analyzes trends and indicators to see how they may impact the industry. In the October Mountain Market Briefing distributed Oct. 15 to DestiMetrics’ subscribers, the economic assessment carried a more cautionary note than in recent months.
Reporting that as of Sept. 30, the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined a scant 0.3 percent, it did mark the second decline in the past three months. More significantly, the briefing included a Dow Jones update after recent volatility in the stock market and a sharp drop of more than 900 points.
“The recent dramatic drop in the financial markets may simply be the start of a long overdue correction in an overvalued market,” said Tom Foley, director of operations for DestiMetrics. “However, we have a lot of national and international variables that are also impacting investors with the European market tilting toward a fresh recession overseas while the Ebola crisis in West Africa has now appeared outside of the region. When we include an increased U.S. and international commitment in the Middle East conflict it is not surprising that markets are waffling about the future.”
The sharp decline in the Consumer Confidence Index (CCI) during September was also cited as cause for concern. The 7.9 percent decline in September took the index below 90 points for the first time since June and was the first decline recorded since April.
One optimistic indicator was the two basis points decline in the unemployment rate to 5.9 percent to reach its lowest level since April 2008 as employers’ added 248,000 new jobs.
DestiMetrics concluded that while skiers and riders are loyal and committed mountain travelers even in tough economic times, weather and global geopolitics will be factors this season.
“At this point, we’re seeing skiers and riders taking up right where they left off last year because of snow equity,” Garrison said, which is working to the benefit of Rocky Mountain destinations but challenging Far West mountain resorts. “A major break in the drought or a few good early season snowstorms would be a powerful antidote for what ails them.”
Drivers traveling on the Interstate 70 corridor this winter may notice a number of changes on the roads this season. Some of the changes are subtle, but may make for a faster, safer trip — that’s what the Colorado Department of Transportation hopes.
CDOT and a number of other state agencies and concerned groups — the Colorado State Patrol, towns along the I-70 corridor, and skiing, lodging and tourism groups — have been working on a plan to make the stretch between Glenwood Springs and Denver a better place to drive in the winter. Last year brought pass closures that lasted for hours, frequent pileups and standstill traffic.
CDOT’s strategy to improve upon last winter includes a number of subtle and not-so-subtle changes that will be announced in its I-70 Winter Operations Plan later this month.
Big changes with few dollars
The winter plan comes alongside some big-ticket projects that are already underway, including the widening of the Twin Tunnels, which should be completed in December, and the addition of a right shoulder toll lane from Empire to Idaho Springs. Among other measures that aren’t obvious to the casual driver are $8 million of improvements on the corridor that includes better signs and more road maintenance staff. A full-time “corridor commander” was hired specifically with the task of improving travel on that I-70 stretch.
Less costly, but more noticeable changes that are part of the winter plan will include more snowplows on the passes more often, and for the first time, the holding of commercial trucks farther west in times of bad weather on the passes. A larger truck chain up area is also being planned along I-70 near East Vail.
“One of the biggest changes is that they will be staging trucks down in Dotsero in bad weather,” said Vail Town Council member Dale Bugby. “I know it’s hard to go against the Colorado Motor Carriers, but I think that will help a lot. The truckers need to understand that keeping I-70 passable benefits them as much as the general public.”
The Colorado State Patrol has begun doing chain checks and plans to more strictly enforce chain laws for commercial trucks. Variable message signs will warn truckers earlier down the road that they need to put on chains, and the messages will also give drivers earlier warning of delays.
Drivers can also expect the return on metering on heavy traffic days through Summit County. Cars will be fed onto the interstate intermittently in order to avoid backups at Eisenhower Tunnel. CDOT also has a plan to use “snowplow escorts” to clear the steepest, iciest parts of the passes ahead of vehicle traffic on the snowiest days.
Then, there is driver education. The town of Vail and hotels around town are working to give guests fliers explaining what kind of tires and vehicles are needed for getting over the passes. Local tire stores are also pitching in by offering snow tire discount coupons, distributed by municipal and state law enforcement. Other efforts are encouraging drivers to change their driving habits and leave the mountains earlier or later.
Changes you won’t be seeing yet
While town of Vail officials say they are pleased with the steps the state has taken to alleviate road conditions, they also say they hope that subsequent years will bring even more changes on the legislative level.
Some legislators have made promises to take up the cause, including state representative Diane Mitsch Bush, who wants to introduce new enforcement legislation, and state gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez to consider another four-lane highway to access the mountains from the Front Range.
Industry and municipality leaders have suggested keeping commercial trucks off the interstate during peak times, but CDOT officials say that’s not possible.
“Federal law does not allow for limiting trucks on an interstate based solely on time of day or time of year,” wrote CDOT executive director Don Hunt in a recent letter to Vail Mayor Andy Daly regarding I-70 traffic. “However, CDOT will use its authority to hold commercial motor vehicles when adverse weather combines with significant congestion to create public safety concerns.”
Daly said he would like to see state lawmakers set up stricter laws and harsher penalties for drivers without proper tires or equipment.
“I’m hoping that in the next several years there will be more aggressive enforcement, tickets or fines for not having proper tires,” he said.
Without warning or a “pardon me,” they let rip a mixture of heavy metals such as aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, manganese and zinc. Like adding ice to absinthe, streams change colors, from milky blues to melted-caramel oranges and browns.
Fish and insects can’t survive long in the toxic soup. Humans wouldn’t want to drink it either.
Cleaning up the disastrous environmental legacy left by a century of mining activity has been, and will likely always be, at the top of Summit County’s to-do list. However, over the past two years, a series of legislative benchmarks and newly forged partnerships have enabled the county to deal with the problem more effectively than ever before.
And now the county is asking taxpayers to lend their support on Election Day. Part of ballot initiative 1A calls for increased funding over eight years for water quality efforts, including scrubbing the toxic mines that dot the backcountry.
Of the money raised by item 1A, about $630,000 a year would go toward environmental protection efforts, including mine reclamation projects.
“It’s a really conservative ask,” County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier told the Daily earlier this month. “We could spend truly billions of dollars to actually clean up the mess that we have.”
A summit MILESTONE
On Friday, Oct. 17, Stiegelmeier was one of several federal, state and local officials marking a milestone for the centerpiece of the county’s current mining cleanup efforts — plugging the Pennsylvania Mine.
About 8 miles east of Keystone, the abandoned mine is Summit County’s biggest mess. The mine, considered the worst in the state, spews toxic heavy metal concentrates and acidifies water flowing into the Peru Creek, a tributary of the Snake River, which feeds Dillon Reservoir. Peru Creek is without fish, insects or other aquatic life. The Snake River has life, but it’s sparse and found only in the lower reaches. In 2007, a burp of acidic water from the abandoned mine killed fish all the way to Keystone, county officials said.
This past week, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety finished installing one of two bulkheads, massive plugs of concrete and steel built about 500 feet inside the mine.
According to project manager Jeff Graves, once both bulkheads are installed, toxic burps and blowouts will be a thing of the past.
“That won’t happen again — it can’t,” he said.
The bulkheads prevent water from flowing through the mine. Water will back up inside, reducing the amount of oxygen the metals and sulfides are exposed to, which should improve water quality.
Though the more than $3 million project still has far to go, reclamation efforts seem to have had positive impacts already. Last year, the Peru Creek turned reddish-orange seven or eight times. That hasn’t happened once this year.
In addition to the bulkheads, new drainage ditches channel water away from waste-rock piles. Those piles have been capped. Eventually, they’ll be revegetated. Limestone has also been strategically added to raise the pH of the water, which could help filter out metals into settlement ponds.
Organizations involved in the project include: the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Safety, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service, Summit County Open Space and Trails, Northwest Council of Governments, the Snake River Watershed Task Force, the Blue River Watershed Group and the Keystone Center.
The alarm in Brian and Hilary’s — let’s call it Front Range — house went off some time around 4 on Friday morning.
Brian wanted to hit the snooze button but Hilary insisted that it was go time. They had a season to start.
“She’s a little more dedicated,” he later said.
By 5:15 the pair were first in line at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area — but without skis, snowboards or boots anywhere in sight.
The couple were reluctant to share their last name with the Daily. Not because they’d left their gear at home, but because they might or might not have called in sick to work in order to make the trip.
That their boots and gear were at home was fairly inconsequential. They were, after all, in line to join A-Basin’s beer mug club and had no intention of getting their on-hill season started.
Instead, with their car loaded up with bike gear, they were bound for Moab, Utah, for an end-of-season mountain biking excursion.
When the announcement came that A-Basin was opening, the two decided to kick off their road trip with a stop at the ski area to celebrate a slightly different season opening for their second year in a row as club members.
“We really didn’t think we’d be the first people,” Hilary said, surprised to find herself at the front of the line. By the time the 8 a.m. sign-up approached, the line of more than 100 stretched up the stairs and deep into the A Frame. By 10:30 only 178 of the club’s 472 mugs were still available.
So why get in line so early to skip skiing and get a mug? It’s simple. “You gotta get your mug and get ready,” Hilary said, clarifying that if it were a powder day it might be a different story.
But more than the mug, it’s the A-Basin community that they enjoy being a part of year after year.
“It’s like coming back to summer camp,” she said, describing the neighborhood feel of the bar. “We know more people up here than we do in our hometown.”
While the couple sipped their season-opening beers in the comfort of the A Frame’s bar, down on the snow the annual traditions continued.
To no local’s surprise, the man known only as Nate Dogggg — together with his “4G” crew — was once again at the head of the lift line. For Nate, it was year number 19 on first chair. Once again, he earned it the hard way, getting to the mountain two days prior to opening and camping out near the chairlift with a couple of friends. This year he even beat A-Basin’s official opening announcement by at least a few hours. It came Wednesday afternoon.
“Over 19 years we know what to look for,” he said, asserting he had no insider knowledge.
Friend Jeff Meyer explained that Nate’s annual ritual also includes “site visits” in the days leading up to an announcement to confirm his suspicions.
As 9 a.m. approached, an official from Loveland Ski Area congratulated A-Basin staff members on winning the annual opening day race, and with the traditional countdown the season got rolling.
The morning conditions, as expected, weren’t optimal, but that’s not what anyone was there for. By the time the sun had a chance to fully crest the Continental Divide the snow softened and those who braved the line were treated to spring-like corn.
Friday’s opening was the Basin’s third consecutive win in the race to be first to open in North America. Wolf Creek technically beat the Basin four years ago, but had to close before opening again for the full season.
Loveland officials said they still hope to be next in line to open, but warm weather the last few days has slowed their snowmaking efforts. Loveland’s communications manager, Dustin Schaefer, said the ski area is hopeful it will be able to ring in the new ski season next week.
A-Basin officials reported that they currently have an 18-inch base — the required amount to open — and also plan to continue snowmaking efforts as conditions allow.
Currently only the High Noon run is open, and ski area officials remind their guests to expect early-season conditions and that no beginner ski terrain is accessible for now.