Colorado's Woody Creek Distillers
Colorado's Woody Creek Distillers
Visiting the independently owned, award-winning distillery just outside of Aspen
Only last week a panel of expert judges convened for the annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition—arguably the most prestigious and analytical booze assembling in the States. While the complete results won't be formally announced until 4 April, it's already known that Colorado's independently owned Woody Creek Distillers (located just a 20-minute drive from downtown Aspen) won double gold for one of their newer releases: a tasty small-batch Colorado Straight Rye. It's a follow-up victory after their vodka won double gold last year. The distillery launched back in late 2012 and continues to grow its own potatoes for their vodkas on fields abutting Hunter S Thompson's estate. As recent lore goes, when Johnny Depp blasted Thompson's ashes from a canon, they actually dispersed across the Woody Creek fields. And while that won't impact flavor, our recent tour of the facility with Distillery Manager David Matthews makes clear that all these little details do yield something rather extraordinary.
Potato makes for a common vodka source material—though much less common than wheat and far more expensive to produce. Woody Creek takes it a step further, though, as they mash them fresh—within hours of digging them up. "We make all vodka for the year in two or three months," Matthews explains. "The advantages of growing the potatoes ourselves are multiple, not least of which being that can we chose the varieties we will use." Woody Creek uses two different varietals: Rio Grande potatoes comprise their signature vodka, while Stowbrawa potatoes make up their reserve iteration. Stowbrawa is a starchier potato, meaning the final product has a creamier mouthfeel. Most important, however, is the fact that they are fresh. These are not supermarket seconds, but potatoes for vodka.
Inside the distillery state of the art equipment, overseen by the staff, guides the fermentation and distillation process. They also use a stripping column in distillation, featuring two tall towers of copper often heating its contents to boiling. "Potatoes are a lot of work," Matthews adds, but the end result is refined. The location, of course, also has its impact. "With increasing altitude, the azeotropical point [boiling off point] moves to the right, so we often get our vodkas off the stills here above 96.5 proof," he shares. That means the spirit starts off strong. Woody Creek only distills once. They don't chill filter and everything is additive free. Basically, it comes out of the still, gets bottled on-site and is ready to go. As we've mentioned before, vodka is not an odorless and flavorless spirit. There are tremendous variations in flavor profiles and consistencies. Woody Creek's vodkas are veritably burn-free, smooth and crisp with a nice sweetness that's never over the top.
The rest of the year the Woody Creek team makes gin and also whiskies from grain, but they frequently explore the production of other spirits: rum and brandy among others. (They've been producing a bourbon and a single malt whiskey which aren't on the market yet but aging for a later release.) Their straight rye is on the market and, beyond the award it just won, it is in reality one of the best produced in the States. Small-batch production turns Colorado-grown grains to a handcrafted wonder. At present, it's only aged for a minimum of two years, but that youth makes it both fresh and bold. Woody Creek doesn't grow the grain themselves, but they do know all the farmers who are—and this is important because the grain really drives the flavor, just as much as new American oak aging.
Woody Creek spirits are presently sold in 14 states, but will be in 20 by the end of 2016. The Woody Creek distillery has a tasting room on-site, located at 60 Sunset Dr, Basalt, CO. It's open to visitors Tuesday through Saturday.
Images by David Graver