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Thursday, January 12,2012

More than a local gin joint

By Clay Fong

From an early age, Roundhouse Spirits’ Ted Palmer had distilling in his blood.

At age 10, he was spending summer vacation at his grandfather’s house. His elder relative had mastered making wine and other spirits, and had decided to educate his young charge on the finer points of producing whiskey. This intrigued the young Palmer, but didn’t sit so well with his father. When his dad found out, Palmer recounts, “That was the end of summer vacation.”

But it certainly wasn’t the end of Palmer’s distilling experience, as his business card now reads “El Presidente” of three-year-old Roundhouse Spirits, now based in Boulder. One of approximately two dozen distillers in Colorado, Roundhouse, founded by attorney Alex Nelson, currently produces small batches of gin and coffee liqueur, with an agave spirit on the way.

Before achieving his distiller position with Roundhouse, Palmer served in both the Coast Guard and Navy. He was a navigator, a demanding job which included making sure the vessel safely sailed its way through treacherous minefields. In his off time, and particularly in venues where alcohol was verboten, he’d “make booze on board.”

Palmer became well-known for his “bilge wine,” canned juice fermented for a few weeks in a cool part of the ship.

Compared to vintages from other vessels, his tasted the most like real wine.

Palmer took pains to prevent bacteria from seeping in as well as to add just the right amount of yeast to facilitate proper fermentation. He says fellow sailors advised him to “quit the Navy and do this.”

Back in the civilian world, Colorado native Palmer ventured to Seattle, where he worked with Pyramid Brewing, and he also consulted with other microbrewers, including local favorite Upslope. But he could never shake those early distilling lessons, and Roundhouse provided him an opportunity to craft spirits, with the notable exception of vodka.

“I don’t drink vodka,” he declares. “I drink stuff I can taste.”

If not vodka, then what? “I’ve always loved gin,” he says. “It’s an easy way to get started. It’s a white spirit that you don’t have to age.”

But he’s quick to point out that despite this drink’s relative simplicity, not all gin is created equal. The key, Palmer notes, comes from the nature of the aromatics. He explains that gins that lead to numb noses and fingertips as well as harsh hangovers are the product of pesticide poisoning from the flavorings. Distilling concentrates these toxins.

To combat this problem, Roundhouse Gin contains 11 organic aromatics. But before explaining what these are, Palmer shares a brief history lesson, explaining that there are five styles of gin. The first is the original Dutch style, which was essentially a pharmaceutical beverage mixed by apothecaries. The English emulated the Dutch, although they relied heavily on readily available ingredients, namely juniper and coriander, which impart a woodsy flavor. Says Palmer, “It’s like licking a pine tree.” French distillers adopted a floral approach, adding aromatic blossoms for flavor. Americans mostly copied the English product, although the New World version distinguished itself through the addition of citrus.

For a beverage to be considered gin, juniper berries need to be the most significant ingredient by weight, and Roundhouse adds this to distilled neutral grain spirits. Other botanicals include the required coriander, as well as floral elements like hibiscus, lavender and chamomile. Asian star anise also contributes flavor, as does the most expensive ingredient, sencha green tea. The result is a more nuanced alternative to the British-influenced drink. Roundhouse’s product is an exemplar of the newest category of this beverage, known as New Western Gin, which applies to spirits in which the juniper is de-emphasized and other artisan flavors share the spotlight.

Roundhouse’s top-of-the-line product is Imperial Gin, which is barrel-aged.

Palmer eschews the fad of lauding the age of a particular gin, calling it essentially “meaningless.” He explains that a small barrel will reach peak flavor long before a larger one, so aging is size-dependent. That said, the charred sections of the white oak barrels containing Imperial gin are “where the chemistry changes things.” The barrel breathes, trapping and releasing the contents and allowing new flavors to develop, including, says Palmer, a cinnamon tone.

Roundhouse’s other signature product is Corretto, a coffee liqueur based on a family recipe from Alex Nelson. The critical element in this beverage is cold-brewed coffee from Boulder’s Unseen Bean, which Palmer lauds as the “best coffee around.” A lengthy cupping session with Palmer and Unseen Bean Master Roaster Gerry Leary led to the selection of a particularly smooth-tasting blend for Corretto. The coffee’s lack of bitterness reduces the need for added sugar in this spirit. Many distillery visitors acknowledge it’s free of the off-putting syrupy qualities of a certain java-based liqueur, and express a preference for this small batch product over its mass-market predecessor.

“It’s the Kahlua killer,” Palmer says.

Roundhouse’s beverages are available at eateries such as Salt Bistro and retail outlets like Liquor Mart. Distillery tours are also available at 5311 Western Ave., Suite 180, Boulder. Palmer himself leads the tours, which run from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays. Samples are included, and Roundhouse’s facility also serves $5 cocktails and $4 shots.

But be warned: A visit to the Roundhouse distillery may cost you.

Over the holidays, one gentleman sampled the signature gin.

“He hadn’t tasted it before,” says Palmer, “and he then left with a case to take to Nebraska.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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