by Eric Elkins
Every western flick has that moment when the hero wanders through the swinging doors of a dusky saloon, smacks a heavy, indeterminate coin on the bar, and demands a whiskey. The barman sidles over with an unlabeled bottle, pours a shot into a dirty glass, and is about to walk away when the dusty visitor says, “Leave the bottle.”
The bartender shakes his head in mild bemusement and leaves the whiskey behind before wandering off to (always) take a rag to a beer mug at the other end of the bar.
These days, with more than 70 craft distilleries in Colorado, you can have a similar experience. Drink a bourbon (or a gin or vodka or absinthe or something equally delicious), and then take a bottle (or several) with you.
With distilleries spread out around the state, you’ll want to bunch up your visits (and bring a designated driver or get your ride sharing app warmed up), eat something along the way, and drink a full glass of water with every cocktail.
The LoHi neighborhood in Denver has a couple spots where you can taste the spirits and eat something delicious while you do it.
The Family Jones Spirit House serves up brilliant cocktails and killer small plates. You’ll have to reserve a distillery tour and tasting in advance, but just sitting in the gorgeous restaurant and making your way down the drink list is a warm and cozy experience.
Mythology Distillery opened over the summer. It’s a bar and distillery all in one, and their small-batch spirits are lovingly mixed into a fun range of classic and innovative cocktails. Their bottles are gorgeous works of art.
Up in RiNo, you could spend a day tasting local spirits and still not get to them all (not to mention the effect on your liver).
Start with Ironton Distillery for a “farm-to-flask” flavored liquor before wandering over to the Block Distilling Co. and their spicy Autumn Gin — fall flavors meet up with cinnamon and pepper in a smooth, balanced sippable spirit. You’ll want to grab a bite from a food truck at Finn’s Manor or a dish o’ pasta at Dio Mio before buckling down for serious tasting at BOOZ Hall RiNo, where you can try local spirits from several Colorado distilleries (and a winery, too!), then purchase your favorites to take home with you.
Downtown, Mile High Spirits is an experience unto itself, with a massive tasting room/event space and back patio, and a mindboggling, dynamic array of infused spirits behind the bar. Hang out for live music or trivia, and be sure to try their Fireside Bourbon, which is like liquid butterscotch.
Out on the edges of the Denver Metro area, you’ll taste some of the best spirits you’ve ever had. Stop in at Colorado distilling pioneer Leopold Bros. on your way to or from the airport — take a tour, taste a flight, buy a bottle of their New York Apple Whiskey (or their Fernet Amaro — holy crap, it’s herbaceous and delicious). Tighe Brothers, also en route, is new to the Colorado distillery scene, and you’ll love their gorgeously rustic tasting room.
To the south, you’ll want to make a pilgrimage to Stranahan’s to see where their legendary whiskeys are made before heading over to Laws Whiskey House for their wellaged, grain-to-glass Four Grain Straight Bourbon and spicy Secale Rye. If you’re still sober enough to continue your journey, get over to Bear Creek Distillery and try a range of whiskeys, vodkas, and rums.
Even further south is Colorado’s classic Downslope Distilling, which has won a slew of awards over their last decade-plus in business. Their Double Diamond Four Year Whiskey is finished in a cognac cask, which gives it an extra sparkly richness.
To the west in Golden, commit serious time to Golden Moon Distillery. Make sure you take your daily dose of liver-reviving milk thistle before stopping in at Golden Moon Speakeasy, because you’ll want to try everything, from their floral-noted gin, to their award-winning Gun Fighter Bourbon, to their Redux absinthe, Dry Curaçao, and Crème de Violette. It’s all so delicious, and their cocktails will change your life.
Boulder and its environs are home to their own spirit makers. Vapor Distillery (which used to be Roundhouse Spirits) is the oldest legal distillery in the county. You’ll often find partners Ted Palmer and Alastair Brogen in the cozy bar or at work on their Boulder Gin or Boulder American Single Malt, which won the Beverage Testing Institute’s 2018 North American Bourbon & Whiskey Competition.
Deviant Spirits, founded by three smart pals, does up small batch gin and vodka, and nearby Ellwood Distilling has a complex single malt whiskey that’s won several awards in the past couple of years. Both have tasting rooms, but be sure they’re open before you head over.
Just up the road from Boulder, in Lyons, is Spirit Hound Distillers, with their award-winning whiskeys and their very own “Colorado Sambuca.” Taste away any day of the week, but they don’t serve food so make sure you stop by The Regional before or after (or bring something with you to nosh as you sip).
I would be remiss if I didn’t call your attention to Elkins Distillery (no relation) up the way from Lyons in Estes Park. Not only do they have the best name, ever, but you get to taste their array of spirits while taking in one of the most gorgeous mountain views in the region. Their white Corn Whisky is surprising in its sweet sippability, and their experimental Colorado Whisky is oaky goodness.
Spending time up in the mountains? Buckle up.
If you already love Breckenridge Bourbon, you won’t want to miss visiting Breckenridge Distillery, where you can take a tour and taste several of their spirits in addition to their popular whiskey. I’m partial to their Breckenridge Bitter, which is the perfect aperitif on its own or in a variation of a boulevardier or paper plane. The Breckenridge Distillery restaurant is a full-on experience of its own, with Beard award-winner Chef David Burke at the helm.
The tasting room at Woody Creek Distillers is just west of Aspen, in the town of Basalt. Much of the produce used in their small batch spirits is grown on the family’s and neighbors’ farms. In fact, waste from their raw products goes back to the farm as compost, or to nearby ranches as livestock feed. You won’t want to miss their locally grown, batch-distilled potato vodkas.
I love Steamboat Whiskey Company. Jessica and Nathan Newhall, the husband-and-wife team who built and run the distillery (and work it every damn day) are some of the friendliest people you’ll meet. A former Navy SEAL, Nathan developed Warrior Whiskey as a way to give something back to our nation’s veterans — proceeds from every bottle are donated to related support organizations. The whiskey is delicious, and their tasting room and bar is small, warm, and welcoming. Be sure to stop by if you’re in Steamboat Springs.
Just as I can’t possibly write about every distillery in the state, you won’t be able to visit them all. But if you want to try, the Colorado Spirits Trail (coloradospiritstrail.com) has a directory and map of at least 52 tasting rooms around the state. It’s a fun and informative way to track your drinking adventures.
Saddle up, partner!
Eric Elkins loves to belly up to the bar all over Colorado. He’s CEO of WideFoc.us Social Media, celebrating 11 years in business, and writes young adult novels on the side. Track his epic eating adventures on Instagram at @ericelkins.