Seth Johnson and Justin Lee were both University of Colorado graduate students at the same time, studying physics and chemical engineering, respectively. But that’s not where they met. They met as members of the Boulder Home Brew Club, where the duo found they’d both been hobby distilling since the ’90s.
After federal laws changed six years ago, dropping licensing costs from averages of $50,000- $60,000/year to $1,000/year, rates more feasible for smaller distilleries, Johnson and Lee decided to go into business together, creating J&L Distilling in Boulder.
But it turned out to be a lengthy venture.
Though they started planning the distillery in 2005, they weren’t able to find the perfect spot for seven years. In May of 2012, J&L took over its new space at 4843 Pearl St., getting their permit to operate in November of the same year.
It took nearly another year until their official labels were approved.
J&L finally started selling bottles and operating its tasting room in June of 2013.
It currently produces three spirits, SNO Vodka, SNO Gin and FYR — a cinnamon liqueur in the European style. They say that what sets their spirits apart is that they are fermented and distilled from sugarcane molasses, producing a cleaner, smoother, purer end product.
“Sugarcane molasses is a superfood for yeast, which turns sugar into ethanol — i.e. fermentation — and when you keep the yeast happy, it will produce less of the congeners,” Lee says.
Congeners is a fancy scientific term for the other substances that are produced during fermentation, substances like propanol, glycols and ethyl acetate, which a high-quality producer definitely wants to reduce. This is what helps the end product taste clean.
“There’s a huge focus on craft distilling right now, but distillation is a science. You have to understand both sides of things,” Lee says. “We’re focused on the science and the art to perfect the craft.”
Science is a key background component for another local distiller, Ted Palmer.
“I’ve been distilling since I was 10 years old, when I began learning in a garage in south Denver with my grandfather,” Palmer says. “I watched him do it, and it was like alchemy.”
When Palmer later studied chemistry, microbiology and botany, his higher education reinforced the hands-on education he was getting from family two generations before him. Using a hand-grinder, a Spanish copper still and American oak barrels, Palmer takes the art of the craft to heart.
Palmer’s distillery, Roundhouse Spirits in Boulder, was the sixth micro-distillery license in the state once the laws changed, making it the oldest in Boulder County.
The lower licensing fees didn’t just allow small distillers like Palmer to get in the game initially, but also let him invest more in his business itself, making a better space and procuring higher-quality staff and ingredients for a better product.
That has translated into a demand that is already straining the 5,000-square-foot space Roundhouse Spirits operates out of. Its four craft spirits — Roundhouse Gin, Imperial Barrel Aged Gin, Corretto Coffee Liqueur and their limited production Pumpkin King Cordial — are in high demand across the United States, and it’s also exporting to Italy, while also in talks with potential clients in Japan, India and Thailand.
It took Palmer three years to develop the recipe for the pumpkin cordial, and the process to make it is a special one. Made using organic Baby Bear pumpkins from Boulder’s Munson Farms, they are roasted the afternoon they’re harvested. The pumpkin then soaks in gin for three weeks, pumpkin pie spices are added, it’s filtered twice, and then sugar is added. A full pound of pumpkins goes into each 375 mL bottle. It makes for an exceptionally smooth and strongly fall-flavored cordial. After using 5,000 pounds of pumpkins last year alone, Roundhouse has already contracted two full fields of pumpkins from Munson Farms for this year’s production.
He says the high quality and intense coffee flavor of his Corretto Coffee Liqueur is due to his use of high-quality coffee, which he gets from another local source — The Unseen Bean in Boulder.
While most distillers want the flavor residue from the whiskey, brandy, rum or other spirits that have been stored in the barrels before, Palmer prefers to age his Imperial Barrel Aged Gin in new oak barrels for the requisite 10 months.
“So many barrels aren’t cleaned properly, and that can introduce mold,” he says. “We don’t want the possibility of that in our products.”
The maturing of spirits in oak — whether in new oak, or aged — is fascinating. When it’s warm, the spirit absorbs into the wood, and when it’s cool, it extracts back into the barrel, bringing with it the flavor characteristics of the wood, like vanilla, butterscotch and caramel. The 1 percent to 2 percent of the liquid that evaporates is called the Angel’s Share, and that evaporation also helps to concentrate the flavor.
There are many specific laws surrounding container types and the length of time that spirits are aged. For example, cognac can only be aged in oak casks from wood from the Troncais and Limousin forests in France. The United States requires straight whiskey to be stored in new, charred white oak for a minimum of two years. Bourbons must age in new American oak.
There’s another micro-distiller player in Boulder, but it’s rooted more in history than in science or tax law.
When Boulderite Steve Viezbicke’s grandfather Pete emigrated to the United States from Poland in the fall of 1907, he traveled with a steamer trunk containing the family’s potato vodka recipe tucked into its lining, though he didn’t even know it was there. It wouldn’t be discovered for 50 years, after Pete’s passing. The recipe his family found in that trunk became the basis for 303 Vodka, the flagship product for Viezbicke’s Boulder Distillery.
Boulder Distillery also produces 303 Whiskey to supply the pleasant burn of whiskey — considered the father of classic cocktails — essential to timehonored ones like the manhattan, old fashioned and boulevardier. American Indians referred to it as “firewater,” and that’s as close to an accurate description as you can get for it.
Distillation dates back to the 700s and is credited to the Arabs. The process itself, shrouded in secrecy, wasn’t divulged until 1286 by a Montpelier University professor.
Like bitters, spirits have been used as medicine since their inception. But it’s taken clever distillers and craft distillers to find ways to make spirits that taste great too.
And there’s no shortage of clever distillers in the region. With other noted local craft distillers like Leopold’s in Denver and Dancing Pines in Loveland, we are nearly as spoiled along the Front Range with craft spirits as we are with craft beer.