Sometimes plans fall apart. Thankfully I’ve learned that Plan B can be surprisingly better.
That was the case for a scheduled August trip out West for Pops and me. Plan A included a Saturday stop at Wyoming Whiskey in Kirby, Wyo., but about 36 hours before our scheduled arrival, the distillery requested a reschedule for October.
OK, done. But that left us some scrambling to do, because the second half of Plan A—a Sunday visit to Breckenridge Distillery in Breckenridge, Colo.—was still on. Considering our options to backfill our Saturday arrival in Denver, I knew who to call: The good people at Laws Whiskey House, a distillery I visited last year. They were excited to host us and told us to be ready to taste some whiskeys.
Key to Laws’ excellent whiskey flavors is its exclusive use of Colorado grains and the terroir that makes them great. Grown at altitudes between 5,500 and 8,000 feet, rye, wheat, barley and corn thrive in arid conditions that require irrigation using Rocky Mountain snow melt plus late summer rains. Though the UV light absorbed by those plants is much higher than those in lower altitudes, they’re not challenged with unrelenting nighttime heat and humidity common to Kentucky and Tennessee farmland. While field temps at high altitudes exceed 90 degrees in the day, they can plunge into the 50s at night. That daytime stress and nighttime respite from the heat, according to Laws’ grain suppliers, helps create unique and discernible fruit and floral notes in whiskey, beer and breads made from them.
Those notes are especially vivid in Laws’ rye whiskeys, which pack loads of herbal notes without the spearmint and peppermint like eastern ryes. (I like those, too, mind you, but Laws’ are completely different animals.) Made from 100 percent heirloom rye, they’re citrusy and herbaceous in the savory sense and also tropical fruit-forward. In a word, terrific.
Laws’ standard rye release line includes a 3+ years 95 proof bottling, a bottled-in-bond bottling, and a cask strength bottling. Having enjoyed a 7-year-old version of this last one, I vouch for its awesomeness. It’s a unicorn worth having and drinking.
Its four-grain bourbons—95 proof, 3+ years, 8-year bottled-in-bond and cask strength, 3+ years—use a fully heirloom grain bill containing 60 percent corn, 20 percent wheat, 10 percent rye and 10 percent malted barley. The barley is malted in Colorado and, when delivered to Laws, is often still warm.
“Oh, the smell of that when it arrives!” Laws said. “And when we’re cooking wheat, it smells like a bakery in the distillery.”
We toured the recently expanded distillery that, since I was there before, has a new and larger cooker and pot still, as well as more fermentation vats. Capacity is higher and more full barrels are moving to off-premise rickhouses.
“The City of Denver is uneasy about having a lot of barrels stored in town,” Laws said of a 4,000-barrel rickhouse about a short distance from the distillery. “On one hand, I understand, but that we have to take them so far away … (he shrugs) … it’s certainly not convenient.”
After a few quick tastes of the distillery’s base products, Laws asked, “Ready to go to the warehouse?” We were, and little did we know what awaited us.
Laws is an energetic and entertaining host who loves his work, his products and sharing them. Stainless steel thief in hand, he proceeded plundering what, in our best estimate, was at least 15 barrels—in addition to pours from special release sample bottles. Among them ryes exceeding eight years old, robust bourbons finished in cognac and port barrels, wheat whiskeys, Origins blends and so much more.
Aware our 90-minute drive to Breckenridge lay ahead of us, lots of spitting and dumping out of delicious samples outnumbered, sadly, the few full swallows.
“You don’t know how much fun this is for me,” Laws said after more than an hour of sampling in the rickhouse.
“We love all our visitors, regardless of whether they know anything about whiskey. But to taste all these and geek out with people who spend time studying and writing about this stuff is a blast.”
A neighbor who lived in Colorado advised me prior to the trip about adjusting to altitude: “Drink plenty of water, take some ibuprofen ahead of time, and be careful about drinking alcohol. It plays tricks on you up there that high.”
We followed that advice, but when we arrived at our rented condo, Pops and I guzzled multiple glasses of water. I don’t recall being that parched in, well, ever. Not only was it late, I’d been up since 3:30 a.m. to catch my 5 a.m. flight, and I was beat. Though sleep came easily, it didn’t last. Despite onboarding all that water, my thirst wasn’t slaked, yet I awoke multiple times to visit the bathroom. Go figure.
The next morning greeted us with azure skies, 55-degree temps, truly vestal air and wildlife. I’ve seen lots of foxes in Kentucky, but none as sleek and hat worthy as the one that approached the deck on which I was standing 10 feet above the ground. Its tail was so fluffy and thick it looked coiffed. This animal was Wild Kingdom camera ready and cock certain its breakfast lay within some deep grass nearby. After a few dive-bombing crows convinced the ginger-coated fox to move along, I was left to watch a bald eagle glide above me instead. I wasn’t disappointed.
At least until breakfast. Long lines for coffee and morning bites were standard most anywhere you looked in the tourist village of Breckenridge. Surely 30 minutes passed before we got ours, but what a pleasure it was to enjoy those goodies outside while admiring at the snowless ski slopes carved into the mountain forests.
Our visit to Breckenridge Distillery began later that day with a tour. Our guide, Davis, was entertaining and generous with a tasting that regular tourists don’t get. (Yay, whiskey media!) Lots of delicious bourbons in secondary casks—rum, port, PX, Madeira, cognac—the legendary Dark Arts malt whiskey, bitters, aquavit and, yes, haters, even some fine gin. Having had no Breckenridge spirits to that point, I was impressed and fired up about the next morning’s single barrel pick.
But before that, we had a dinner date with Jesse Unruh, marketing director for Breckenridge Distillery. Kentucky has some excellent distillery restaurants at Bardstown Bourbon Co. (Kitchen & Bar), Maker’s Mark (Star Hill Provisions) and Jim Beam (The Kitchen Table), so admittedly, my expectations weren’t high for a small spot like Breckenridge.
Silly me, and I mean really silly me. I was wrong. Double wrong. This spot is as good as any distillery restaurant I’ve been to and on par with a lot of great restaurants. Click here to see Breckenridge Distillery's restaurant menu. We trusted Unruh to do the ordering—no food allergies with these two boys—and saw chili buttermilk chicken and toybox tomato salad arrive to the table. Their disappearance was rapid. Second, came a Fred Flintstone-sized wet-aged tomahawk ribeye, grilled perfectly medium rare, flanked by garlicky braised button mushrooms, sweet and spicy carrots with gochujang and maple, and charred broccoli with duck egg emulsion. That Unruh told us detailed stories about Breckenridge’s founding and its current pace of business without choking on all that exceptional food was a minor miracle.
Fattened and happy, we retreated to our condo to sleep off the feast and be ready for our 9 a.m. barrel pick. No one had to convince us to go to bed, and I rolled in for what would be my last three hours of sleep for the next day and night.
I awoke at 2 a.m., heart pounding and wondering why. Thinking I’d just fall back to sleep, I lay there with high hopes that my mind would retreat to silence. At 3 a.m., I knew those hopes were worthless, so I started reading … and surfing the web … and reading some more before realizing it was 6 a.m. Wide awake and also short of breath, I actually became a tad concerned.
When I looked up the symptoms of altitude sickness on the web, sleeplessness and shortness of breath were high on the list. Figuring my neighbor back home was awake, I texted her about it. Her reply: “What’s the chance you had a big meal and did some drinking last night?”
Telepathic, this woman! “Exactly,” I responded. “That’s not even a good combination at sea level.”
So, I showered, got dressed and packed to leave for our barrel pick thinking, “I’ll just spit my whiskey this morning. I don’t want this to get any worse.” And that strategy went mostly to plan.
Blame those parts that didn’t on head distiller Hans Stafsholt, who led through a six-barrel lineup of some great whiskeys. Chuckling over our 9 a.m. start, we asked how early in the day he starts tasting.
“Some days it’s much earlier than this,” he said, grinning. “It’s part of the job, but it’s not a hard part. Tasting warm gin samples in the morning: that’s hard.”
As we nosed and sipped our way through barrels 4 to 7 years old, there was no mistaking them for Kentucky products. All had unique grain character due likely to terroir and high rye percentages—36 percent to 38 percent—in their nearly identical mash bills. They also showed intriguing minerality, which made me wonder if that was due to mountain spring water.
Stafsholt said no, that all water used for their whiskeys comes from snow melt.
Breckenridge’s barrel-entry proof is also interestingly low at 115 proof, which explained cask proofs in the low 120s for all except a 7-year-old barrel, which clocked in at a robust 131.
After six barrels, we’d pretty well narrowed down our pick, so I slipped off for a bathroom break. When I returned, Pops said, “Here, taste this.” Thinking I was finished and not interested in anymore whiskey, I declined, but he insisted.
“No, this is another barrel. You have to taste it. You’ll want to taste it, trust me.”
In my brief absence, Stafsholt presented one more option: a barrel unlike the others, a seeming ace in the hole, and it was a clear winner. No spitting for me on that one. (This final barrel, containing only Breckenridge Distillery whiskey, comes in at 132.6 proof and is almost eight years old. It's fantastic and not something you typically find in the market. If you want to learn how to get your hands on a bottle, take a closer look at our DrinkCurious community and its single barrel program.)
With our work done, I bid goodbye and set out for home. The driver hired to haul me back to Denver was a good dude who said, “You’ve got a lot of time before your flight, so would you like to take some side roads along the way?” Of course, I accepted, and he took me to mountain pass lookouts above 14,000 feet and around massive water reservoirs dotted with kayakers and small sailboats. I was humbled to see cyclists up that far, people who, the driver assured me, “rode their way to the top. Surely some people drive up and ride down, but most do it the hard way.”
Thankfully, none of his high passes aggravated my minor altitude sickness, but it wasn’t assuaged either when I arrived in Denver. Frankly, I didn’t mind not having an appetite, and being wide awake allowed me to get some work done at the airport. When I arrived in Louisville at 11:30 p.m., I thought I’d surely collapse in a heap when I saw my bed, but I was still wound up. Though still awake at 1 a.m., I figured I’d give sleep another shot. Thankfully, it returned—23 hours after it fled without permission. But believe me, uncomfortable as it was, it was worth it to see those two distilleries and meet those people.
If you’re a distillery visitor, put Breckenridge Distillery and Laws Whiskey House on your list. You won’t regret it.
Steve Coomes is editor of BourbonBanter.com. A Louisville restaurant industry veteran turned award-winning food writer, he has edited and written for dozens of national trade and consumer publications including Pizza Today, Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living over his 31-year journalism career. As a spirits writer, Steve's work can be found in Bourbon Plus, Bourbon Review, Bourbon & Banter, WhiskeyWash.com and other publications. In 2014, he authored the book, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and has authored other titles as a private ghostwriter.
Read Steve's full profile.