It's the Rocky Mountain State's version of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Colorado has long been known for its beer, from the original Coors brewery that opened in the town of Golden back in 1873 to the countless craft operations that have sprung up over the past few decades. Today, there are almost 350 breweries in the state, placing it second after California for most breweries in the country, and local brands like Odell, Oskar Blues, and New Belgium have gained popularity nationwide. But it’s not just about the beer. In Colorado, the craft spirits industry is booming, too.
Enter the Colorado Spirits Trail. Launched in February of this year by the Colorado Distillers Guild, the trail makes it easier than ever to taste all the great booze the Rocky Mountain State has to offer. Think of it like the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but more diverse, because it showcases makers of whiskey, vodka, gin, amaro, and agave spirits. Here’s how it works: print out a map from the website, or pick one up at the Denver airport, and peruse the 45 different distilleries that dot almost every corner of the state. Visit a distillery and you'll get a stamp after purchasing something. Ten stamps gets you a t-shirt.
According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau (TTB), there are over 100 federally licensed craft spirits “producers and bottlers” in Colorado today, placing it fourth behind New York, Washington, and Texas. And there's a good reason. Colorado laws have been friendly to distilleries, allowing them to make and sell their products in the same place.
Local distillers also like to think there’s also something about the rugged character of Coloradans that has contributed to the rapidly growing spirits industry. “I think in Colorado everybody has that kind of entrepreneurial spirit already,” says Rob Dietrich, master distiller for Stranahan’s. He goes on to explain that this ambitious mentality is what led to the state’s many craft breweries, which were a natural transition into distilling. Sean Smiley, president of the Colorado Distillers Guild and owner of State 38 Distilling, adds that Coloradans like supporting local producers. “Personal preference is what makes craft so powerful,” he says, “and to be in a state that embraces the craft community in such a strong way is why Colorado has enjoyed one of the largest craft distilling booms in the U.S.”
With so much to try, it's not wonder that the trail has already proven popular, not two months in: 25 people have completed it so far, and the first round of 10,000 maps have already run out. (The map also highlights the various outdoor activities Colorado has to offer, so in addition to finding out where to sample local whiskey or gin, you can also find a good hiking or mountain biking trail nearby.)
If you're looking to hit the trail, here's one possible route:
A good place to begin the trail is in Denver, which is home to at least seven distilleries. One of the best known is Stranahan’s single malt distillery. The American single malt category is growing, but still lags far behind bourbon and rye in terms of recognition. Stranahan’s was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, an effort to lobby the federal government to create an American single malt category. “We feel this is important so we can be recognized globally, just like when you see Japanese single malt you automatically know where it’s from,” says Dietrich. “We also want to create sub-categories [like they have in Scotland] which vary based upon terroir, water, etc. – for example, Rocky Mountain single malt.”
Next, head over to Leopold Bros., also in Denver, which was one of the first craft gin makers in the U.S. “When we started, it was Leopold's Gin and Junipero [from Hotaling & Co. in San Francisco], and that was just about it,” says co-founder Todd Leopold. “Since we started, several hundred gins have arrived with all the new distilleries.” In addition to their small batch gin, the distillery produces whiskey, liqueur, absinthe, amaro, and vodka. Leopold Bros. also claims to have the only traditional floor malting facility in Colorado, which is more commonly found in Scotland (although even there it’s becoming rarer). Here, grain is laid out to germinate with workers turning it by hand before it's dried in a kiln.
Drive about 30 minutes West of the city and you'll hit Golden, where you’ll find State 38 Distilling. Smiley started the distillery five years ago when he realized that nobody was really making an American agave spirit. “Even though we buy our raw Weber blue agave from Jalisco, the tequila region of Mexico, we can’t legally call our spirits ‘tequila’ because we ferment, distill, barrel and bottle in Golden, Colorado,” he explains. “Mexico ‘owns’ the name tequila, much like Champagne for the Champagne region of France, or Scotch for Scotland.” The Colorado flavor profile also differs from the Mexican version because of the proprietary yeast strain and copper stills that he uses.
From Golden, head north to Boulder to visit Vapor Distillery, which makes vodka, gin, and bourbon. Or travel southwest through the Rockies until you reach Basalt, home to Woody Creek Distillers, and sample some potato vodka and 100 percent rye whiskey. Further south is KJ Wood Distillers, located in a town called Ouray just outside of Telluride.
Of cousre, there are many different routes you can choose, and visiting all of the distilleries on the trail will certainly take some time. But the journey will reward you with quality booze and beautiful views—and a real taset of the state. “It's not just about Colorado spirits,” says Smiley, “the trail truly embodies the Colorado lifestyle and scenery.”