The sweet science

Boulder’s J&L Distilling’s approach to liquor

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Susan France

It sounds like the setup to a bad joke — two scientists decide to make their own booze — but it’s not. It actually is happening right here in Boulder. And what excellent liquors they are making.

J&L Distilling is the brainchild of two former University of Colorado graduate students who separately decided to create their own booze, while studying for their respective degrees. Seth Johnson (the J in J&L) graduated with a master’s in physics in 2006 and Justin Lee (the L in J&L) graduated with a master’s in chemical engineering in 2003, and both began working in their respective fields. But they kept hearing the call of creating their own spirits, and in late 2012 the two pooled their resources, opening J&L on a nickel and a prayer.

“We did everything, from building the equipment to creating our tasting room,” says Lee. “We completely financed it ourselves, so we had to be creative during our opening and put a lot of sweat into it.”

They decided to forgo the conventional route to making clear spirits — buying their base booze from a wholesaler.

“Most craft distillers just repackage someone else’s spirit with their own twist on it — we don’t. We decided from day one to create everything inhouse,” says Lee. “It makes sense — both of us grew up in laboratories.”

Utilizing sugar cane molasses as the base for their clear spirit was a logical choice since it is a natural source of food for the yeast used in their primary fermentation. It allows J&L to minutely control temps during the initial cooking, and leads to an exceptionally clean ferment.

Being the scientists that they are, there still is a one-of-a-kind creation; something that looks like it should be in an NCAR lab, not a distillery. The handmade, 17-foot tall packed column still allows for their signature spirits to distill approximately 34 times as it rises towards the heavens. Factor in that they run each batch through three times and you are looking at over 100 separate distillations per batch of vodka or gin. It creates an exceptionally smooth product.

After almost a month of distillation the neutral spirit is ready for its next life — as their signature vodka, SNo. It has a distinctive, crisp taste, yet none of the after burn commonly associated with many types of vodka. A multiple medal winner, it also forms the base for their deliciously delicate SNo Gin.

“Most people don’t realize it but all gin is just flavored vodka,” says Lee. “So the better the beginning spirit, the better the gin. Since we have such a pure base to start with it allows us to impart distinctive flavors through our vapor infusion process.”

Lastly their FYR Liqueur is the thinking man’s after-dinner drink. With hints of cinnamon, vanilla and herbs, it is the perfect pallet cleanser.

Luckily for Boulder, and the rest of the state, J&L is doubling in size this year with the addition of two more of their unique column stills. It will cut the time needed for each batch of booze in half. The scientific duo also is planning on adding rum, rye, bourbon, limoncello and absinthe to their repertoire. They should be particularly good and complex.