Personally, I am excited for more than one reason. I went to school in Durango, but it’s been six years since I’ve lived there and from what I can tell, the drinking scene has only gotten better. A new craft distillery just opened up, and the number of breweries has jumped from 4 to 6 (All this in a town of 17,000. Fort Collins gets the glory, but at over 150,000 residents, are their 14 breweries and 3 distilleries that impressive? Which is the real drinking town?)
I contemplate this and other pressing issues to pass the time on a 7 hour haul over the Rocky Mountains. As we climb in elevation, my mood levels off. It always does when passing time in the van. Whether I am headed somewhere new or somewhere I’ve been many times, as long as it’s light outside touring has always had a bit of a weird vibe to me. The late nights, the shows, the people, the free drink tickets - that is what it’s all about and what makes it worth it. The rush of playing a good show is matched by no drug or other experience I’ve ever had. But during the day, driving through the middle of nowhere to the next town while getting further and further away from your personal life back home, the anxiety creeps in.
Maybe it’s because I’ve never been in a band at a level where touring was our income. I’ve always had to hurry back home after each run and get to work in order to keep the bills paid. Right now, it’s about 9:30 on Monday morning. Everyone I know (except the three guys sitting here with me) is at work, or walking the dog, or heading to the bank, something normal.
Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a level of awesome to all this. I’m never going to be a ‘company man.’ I knew that by the time I hit high school. I take a lot of pride in what I do for a living and for a hobby. But the older I get, the harder I find it to relate the stories of the road and the stories of the pen and the stories of so many nights passed in rock clubs to people who are my age but haven’t had a night out in months. The word ‘baby’ means something entirely different to them.
As Vonnegut would say - So it goes. We pull into town just in time for happy hour but unfortunately the liquor store will have to suffice for tonight; we’ve got to get to the studio. Tomorrow I will have the opportunity to experience some of the actual culture of this town I’ve missed so much.
Tuesday morning I am walking down Main Avenue bright and early in a leisurely search for a cup of coffee and a paper. Part of me feels like a Texan, stopping to gaze into each store window as I pass by and then actually purchasing, after looking around to make sure no one I know is in sight then ducking quickly into the storefront, a “Durango” t-shirt. I’ll have to bury this down in my backpack so my bandmates never see it. I justify the window shopping and eventual purchase as a mere way to pass some time before my scheduled meeting with some real locals, the owners of Durango Craft Spirits, at 10 o’clock.
I walk into the tasting room to meet owners Michael and Amy McCardell. Immediately I can tell that the duo lives by their motto and are ‘Inspired by the true spirit of Durango’ - It is only 10 am but the room is full of bluegrass music and the McCardell’s beckoning call for a drink. Michael handles the distilling of what is currently their sole offering - Soiled Dove Vodka, made from a mash of 60% native grown, non-GMO white corn they get directly from the Ute Mountain Tribe of Ute in Towaoc, Colorado (just a little over an hour from Durango). His soft voice, with a bit of a country tinge, makes even a short sentence sound well-rehearsed and wise. Perfect for telling stories, and I’m guessing he has a lot of them.
Lucky for me, Michael is not at all shy about telling the story of Durango Craft Spirits, his pride and joy.
It is, I learn quickly, Durango’s first post-prohibition, grain-to-glass distillery. “We’ve got a couple friends over at Ska, Dave (Thibodeau) and Bill (Graham), that opened Peach Street (Distillery, in Grand Junction) years ago and one day I met the old distiller and Bill brought in one of their first bottles of gin, along with a bottle of Bombay Sapphire,” Michael says. “It was just unbelievably so much better. That first opened my eyes to craft distilling.”
This was only about ten years ago, and until that day Michael had no plans at all of going into the distilling business. “A couple years later, I’m hiking around a piece of property up north with the county assessor, and he said ‘I gotta tell you this story. There’s a buddy of mine who thought he found some ancient Anasazi ruins on his property and he wanted me to come check them out. They hiked up there on a cliff to an Anasazi looking wall and there was an old still sitting back there.’”
He decided to do some research and try to figure out what kind of distilling was done in the area. “I started reading a few books about distilling in the area, and there was quite a bit done,” Michael says. “Especially turn of the last century when the silver market took a crash. A lot of the miners took to cooking booze in the mines.”
With his interest piqued, Michael attended three distilling schools and landed himself an internship at Wood’s High Mountain Distillery in Salida, CO, with the intention of opening his own show in Durango once he learned about the operational side. Both Michael and Amy had spent years in the local hospitality industry managing hotels and a golf club.
As their current jobs came to end due to sell offs, the decision was made to go full-steam with the distillery concept. Step one, securing a location. Where They landed right on the corner of 11th and Main, in the heart of downtown, and opened in January of this year.
Their setup is pretty simple - tasting room in the front, still setup and work area in the back (visible to guests), and office off to the side. Nice and cozy. “We go grain to glass right in the building with all regional grains,” Michael says. “We’re real proud to mash, distill, and bottle right in house.” I had been sold on their concept already, but at this point I could not continue the interview without trying some of their product.
Amy, generally in charge of the tasting room and PR, hands me a pour from behind the bar. I stir, smell, and sip. Then I gasp.
I am not a vodka drinker. My taste for the stuff was ruined by too much Smirnoff as a teenager. But this morning I am happy to make an exception. This stuff is good. Smooth, one of those spirits that you know would be perfect in a cocktail but it almost seems like a sin to dilute it, like a fine scotch. Until you realize that a vodka of such high quality could finally allow you to drink those plastic-bottle vodka infused party concoctions you swore off in your mid-twenties because you can’t stand the headaches any more, without the headache. “I use a pretty strange recipe for the vodka compared to other distilleries, and it gives it a pretty unique flavor.” That, I agree, is easy to notice.
“The product is tied to Durango’s history,” Michael informs me as empty my glass. “Soiled doves being a Victorian term for the prostitutes of the town. They operated into the 1960s in Durango and were fined heavily, with the fines helping to cover the cost of the schools, the police department, and the fire department.”
The McCardells pay homage to these lovely financiers on the back of their bottle. The cocktails served in the tasting room are also related to the town’s history, an effort that has most certainly allowed the curious tourist to feel more accomplished in his imbibing. The distillery looks to release an unaged whiskey this fall, with barreling scheduled to begin this month. The vodka is currently only sold within 150 miles of Durango. “We are being (probably) too cautious about our growth,” Michael says. They do, however, plan to expand further across Colorado. Not bad for a true mom-and-pop and operation.
I like to think that my band is a mom-and-pop operation. I guess it would be a quadruple-pop operation. Like Michael and Amy, we have grown our small company from nothing into nothing less than an amazing life experience, with no real guidance other learned experience. We have made plenty of mistakes over the last eight years but have slowly made progress come from each of them. We’ve dealt with marriages, jobs, mortgages, kids, operational disagreements, and an old van catching on fire on the road, and as life has happened, we have found a way to happen with it. Back in the early days, circa 2007-2010, I put all of my eggs in that basket. I was willing to work crappy kitchen jobs and live in dilapidated apartments so that I would in turn have the flexibility to leave town when I needed to and be able to keep my financial overhead at a bare minimum in order to play music multiple nights a week. I cared about nothing other than making the band succeed. I lost relationships and friends.
The other guys, at least the two I started the group with, did the same. And then, in the fall of 2010, we crashed and burned hard. So hard, in fact, that over the next two years we did next to nothing with the group. We had no money, our leases were up, and we had nowhere left to go. For a while, we went our separate ways. Our biggest lesson, and one of the most important things I have ever gotten out of life, is that you have to have options - you have to have more than one card to play. As we’ve grown up since then, we have found ways to have other priorities in life while still being able to come back and execute with the band when it’s time.
While the band was on ‘unofficial hiatus’, I filled the musical craving in another group, but I was also able to take the experiences I had with the band, mix them with my college degree, and create some kind of shit show career path based on music business and journalism. Five years later I feel I can see it blossoming. To me, the craft lifestyle embodies that same spirit - live life, take what you’ve got, mix in a heavy dose of passion, and throw it to wind. It takes awhile, but when it finally comes full circle, it tastes so damn good.