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Thursday, July 16, 2015

@timwenger1: Craft, Ska and Colorado's Real Drinking Town


The hangover bell rings loud and clear in my head as I lift a 70 pound guitar cabinet into the back of a white 2000 Ford Econoline XL. Rain falls lightly. I am running on only a few slovenly hours of sleep but despite the pounding head, my mood is jovial. My band mates and I recount the night before over and over. In the world of ska music, there are few bands more respected than Hepcat, and few bands more infamous than Mephiskapheles, and we just shared the stage with both in one night. It was also the kick off to the second leg of our spring and summer run- this morning we hit the road out of Denver and head for Durango, Colorado, where we’ll spend a week in the studio and follow it up with two shows in the area including a performance at the legendary Ska Brewing Company.

Alright.

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.


Tim Wenger is a Denver-based microshiner, journalist, musician, and avid snowboarder. Catch more of his work in Colorado Music Buzz, Snowboard Colorado, and his weekly talk show on worldviral.tv

Thursday, July 9, 2015

In Praise of Slowness and the 32 Hour Work Week

Considering that we humans have literally been to every place on the planet, its rather surprising to find that people are still in such a hurry.

That enigma is the essence of what inspires the Slow Movement, characterized in Carl Honoré's 2004 book In Praise of Slowness as “a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity."

Whether Slow necessarily equates to Quality is up for debate, but one thing is certain, microshiners subscribe to its doctrine. With no vast undeveloped wilderness remaining to harbor fresh prospects the best option is to turn inward, to begin to refine the human experience, to slow down and smell the roses, to literally lead a life, distilled. This is what it means to be a microshiner; to realize that what matters most in life is not waiting somewhere over the next horizon, but right there in front of you.

But most of us are hesitant to accept this reality. We rush about in an attempt to distract ourselves from the fact that the world really is that small, that life truly is this short. Citing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, we fancy that by moving faster than others we will outlive them, while in truth we merely end up leading a life half lived.

Not that there isn’t a need to seize the moment with timely action. To the contrary, this movement is about creating the space and awareness necessary for accomplishing great things. While others scurry about like rats in a maze, the microshiner or practitioner of Slow takes a more meditative approach. It is the classic lesson of the Tortoise and the Hare. Or in the words of Phil Dunphy, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

One person who gets this concept, and employs it, is Ryan Carson, CEO of Treehouse. Since 2006, Carson has maintained a four-day work week at Treehouse. He believes that ensuring balance between work and the life outside it actually makes employees more productive. More importantly, he feels its the right thing to do, for our time and his people.


And that is the thing that is most striking about an inquiry of Slow philosophy: that we now occupy a space in which we actually have the opportunity to practice it, if not attain the balance it proposes. Never before has humanity been wealthier or more at peace than the present, or our physical needs more fully met. There are fewer of us than ever spending our time engaged in meeting these basic requirements. There is no reason not to go Slow.

Microshiners know this. The craft movement is our response to it. Whether it is creating balance amongst our personal obligations, choosing quality over quantity in our purchasing decisions, or simply enjoying a great cocktail with good company, we understand there is much to be gained from a more purposeful and deliberate pace. Our goal is to revel in the moment, to proclaim it in word and deed, in art and experience, to realize as best we are able the amazing gift of our very existence.

We hope you will join us on this journey.





Sunday, July 5, 2015

How a MicroShiner Spends Father's Day

Ryan Montgomery is one seriously cool guy. Not only does he own and operate the exceptional Montgomery Distillery on Front Street in downtown Missoula, Montana, but he is also a big motorcycle enthusiast. When he isn't crafting spirits or touring whisky distilleries in Scotland, you will likely find him cruising motorcycle sites like Silodrome and Pipeburn, working with local shop Number 8 Wire on his latest custom build, or taking his son for a ride on their sidecar mounted BMW.

While you can almost always find one of several Montgomery-liveried bikes Ryan has built parked downstairs in the distillery production space, the time when they really shine is the third Sunday in June. With another stroke of his typical brilliance, Ryan has gifted throttle twisting, alcohol fueled dads of the area with the perfect event: Spirits & Spokes - a Father's Day of Cocktails and Motorcycles.















Friday, July 3, 2015

Privateer Rum - the Spirit of Independence

The Fourth of July, America's Independence Day, is not only an iconic date in our country's great history, but has also come to epitomize the season of Summer and the joys of vacation. While the rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in air may serve as reminders of a hard-fought revolution, those fireworks will undoubtedly be shining down on some serious revelry this weekend as patriotic parties from coast to coast take advantage of the long holiday break. To assist with those festivities, Privateer Rum has a seemingly tailor-made spirit in their True American Silver Reserve.

Distilled in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Privateer Rum is the creation of Andrew Cabot, a man who shares not only his name, but also his penchant for rum production, with a Revolutionary War-era ancestor. Andrew Cabot of the eighteenth century was noted for his exploits against the British Navy during the Colonies' quest for independence, and his modern-day descendant has infused that noble spirit and early American heritage into his Privateer offerings.

Drawing inspiration from pre-Industrial techniques, Cabot and his team begin with high quality ingredients such as pale amber cane juice crystals and boiled brown sugar. One of the mottos around their New England distillery is that merely “good enough” is never an option, and so the selection and utilization of their sugars and yeast is driven by a desire to create the purest product possible. In that vein, the integrity of their Silver Reserve Rum is maintained along every step of its development. The distillation is kept unadulterated by being allowed to mature in isolated steel tanks, and each batch is bottled and hand-numbered without filtration. Perhaps most importantly, the people at Privateer never add any artificial flavors, coloring or sweeteners to their spirits, thus insuring that their label serves as a seal of authenticity for some of the truest rums available today.


This dedication to purity is evident as soon as the cork is removed from the bottle, as the aroma of the Silver Reserve is one of the cleanest scents a hard liquor can possess. While the rum is a bona fide 80 proof, the alcohol content is barely noticeable to the nose, instead giving way to a fresh, sweet smell that brings to mind the late-blooming bouquet of flowers on a sultry Summer night or even that crisp, ionic air one encounters in the wake of a thunderstorm. In the glass, this Privateer is crystal clear, leaving long, lean legs that reveal just a hint of viscosity, and not the overly syrupy consistency found in many other silver rums. The pleasant odors and texture are just a prelude to the main attraction, however, as the flavors of the Silver Reserve are a true delight.

Unmistakably floral, and even a bit fruity, this True American Rum brings to mind the sweet treats of childhood Summers past without sacrificing its assuredly adult edge. It has bite, but very little burn, and can be enjoyed neat without concern of acquiring a pair of sticky lips. Over rocks is an equally satisfying experience, but Silver Reserve is particularly well-suited to some of the simple, seasonal cocktails that have become staples of the warmer months. A traditional daiquiri, a bare-bones piña colada and especially a fresh mint mojito all benefit tremendously from the clean flavor profile and lack of artificial additives present in Privateer Silver Reserve.

As Americans across the country prepare to celebrate another year of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, the distillers of Ipswich remind us all that while said pursuit is rarely an easy task, staying true to your goals and remaining dedicated to seeing them through can produce some truly sweet results.

Friday, June 26, 2015

#DrinkBetter: Domino from Crescendo

James Bond, by any measure, is a man of exceedingly fine taste. His suits are impeccably tailored, his automobiles exquisite, and his choice in female companions, shall we say, enviable. However, when it comes to the contents of his ever-present cocktail, even a member of Her Majesty's Secret Service can occasionally fall short.

As craft continues its steady conquest of the world, we are confident that the 007 of the future will undoubtedly be a microshiner. Rather than Gordon's, Smirnoff, or even the current contender, Belvedere, Subsequent agents will most assuredly defer to the local terroir, enjoying libations native to the exotic locales their intrigues conduct them.

One such example is this drink from Crescendo Organic Spirits, inspired by James Bond's personal martini recipe, the Vesper, but using Limoncello instead of Lillet.

DOMINO

3 oz local craft Gin
1 oz local craft Vodka
0.5 oz Limoncello
Ice

Shake & Strain into a chilled martini glass

Garnish with a thin lemon peel


Thursday, June 25, 2015

@TimWenger1: 300 Days of Craft

Rays of piercing sunlight emerge from behind thick clouds and illuminate the misty glow of afternoon rainfall on the streets of the Mile High City, hiding the morning’s urban smog and accentuating a smell of anxious freshness as the evening settles in. From my vantage point, standing in an unpaved parking lot behind a rock club on the corner of Broadway and Iowa, I am forced to squint as I look westward toward the snow-capped mountains. No trace remains of the late-season snow that still held its ground in shaded grassy areas and dark alleys just a few weeks ago.

Ah, summertime in Colorado, our bipolar state where the famed ‘300 days of sunshine’ legend scores a good 100 consecutive points because the daily thunderstorm apparently doesn’t count as rain if it only lasts for seven minutes. Just long enough to sizzle on the blacktop and inject a quick load of regret into the hordes of tourists who didn’t think to put the tops up on their rented convertibles.

In my left hand is a plastic rocks glass half full of melting ice and diluted Maker’s Mark, as good as a cocktail as I was able to muster from behind the bar at Herman’s Hideaway, the dive-y old rock club where I spend my weekday afternoons booking concerts and extinguishing rock-star sized tantrums. It’s 5:30 and I’ve got ten minutes to kill before jumping the train downtown to the Ogden Theatre to catch the latest in a never-ending stream of young indie-rockers trying to capture the attention (and open the wallets) of the growing horde of millennial hipsters that have moved in and promptly overrun, by my calculations, a good 65% of the city. 40 minutes if I decide to veer up the street for a quick drink at Bear Creek Distillery, which given the fact that I’ll be swilling the equivalent of rat piss at the show tonight seems like a fine idea.

One of the first things I learned in college is that you should always get your buzz going on the good stuff before moving to the crap. Which of course assumed that you actually had something good - certainly not always the case - which makes me, for a fraction of a moment at least, take some joy in having a few years under my belt. In moments like this, recalling the fear of turning 30 seems worse than having actually hit the mark.

I walk into a quiet scene, a good place to pass some time before the rushed, sardined experience of a rock show. As I see it, the best part about this place is the presentation - they clearly spent some time on the tasting room during the development phase. Two 16 foot glass garage doors provide me with a view of the still where the silver rum I am sipping was created.

Distiller Jeff Dickinson and his partnership crew at the Bear are a small group of long-time buddies that grew up together and who share a love of drinking and a desire to put handcrafted spirits, produced grain-to-bottle at their Denver facility, into the mouths of thirsty microshiners. I’ve been meaning to check them out for a while.

“We all went to junior high and high school,” says Jay Johnson, one of the four partners and PR aficionado at the distillery. “We four, as friends, started our drinking careers in high school together.”

While Bear Creek itself sits a bit west of town, the team was happy to settle into their south Denver location.

“We wanted to be in Denver proper with our distillery, and as close to a main street as we could be,” says Johnson. They ended up at 1879 S. Acoma, a stone’s throw from Broadway and right in the heart of the Old South Pearl district, one of Denver’s most unique neighborhoods.

The distillery is fast approaching its fifth birthday, fueled by relentless passion and a growing craft scene in Denver.

“Jeff and I quit our jobs and threw ourselves headlong into this,” says Johnson. Researching everything from distilling to marketing and visiting tasting rooms across the country, they took what they learned and are now doing their part to push the craft scene forward in Denver. “I really feel like we’ve managed to create a unique experience where we are.”

Right now Bear Creek Distillery has a silver rum available and two types of vodka - a 100% rye and a 100% wheat. By 2017, they will have bourbon and whiskey selections as well as a spiced rum to offer both in the tap room and off-site.

“We’re going to be one of the few places in the state manufacturing a spiced rum,” says Johnson. These new products, he says, should help the company continue to up their placement count, which currently sits at 50 different establishments. “The hardships that I’m having approaching accounts is that, a lot of times they will really enjoy our product and realize that it may in some cases be a superior product, but companies that came before us (already) have their products in there. As the landscape in distilling changes, I really feel like we will have a leg up on that.”

The landscape here in Colorado is changing, and Johnson notes that one of the biggest challenges he faces when meeting with an establishment to sell them on his product is that other micro-distilleries have already filled any vacant spots behind the bar. “Limited shelf space is something that we deal with,” Johnson says. A good sign in many ways, as craft hunters like myself no longer have to head to high-end bars and drop $25 on a cocktail just to try something new. There are handfuls of restaurants and bars in Denver’s growing neighborhoods stocking craft spirits. Perhaps one day the music world will catch up.

At the Ogden, for example, I find myself in a dilemma of tastes. The beer selection is, considering the high-volume and quick-service setting, honestly not terrible - any respectable place selling drinks in Colorado will be quickly shunned if they don’t show love to the bulging craft beer scene. Spirits, however, are another story. In all of the nights I have spent at shows, not only here at home but around the country, it is rare to find a selection of, if any, small batch spirits in bars and clubs dedicated to live rock music.

Perhaps with some clever marketing by Johnson and his craft counterparts, that can change. One can only hope. With that in mind, I jump into the bar line at the back of the club, half of my previous drink still in hand to keep me company as I wait to order another.

Check out the release of Bear Creek Distillery’s cast-strength rum over the 4th of July weekend. Learn more at bearcreekdistillery.com





Tim Wenger is a Denver-based microshiner, journalist, musician, and avid snowboarder. Catch more of his work in Colorado Music Buzz, Snowboard Colorado, and his weekly talk show on worldviral.tv

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Game in Our Own Backyard

With all the attention that major American sports championships receive, its easy to forget about the local minor leaguers playing in our own backyard. The NBA Finals series may be tied 2-2 going into Game 5, but for a MicroShiner, that is only scratching the surface.


Certainly, there is nothing wrong with being one of 110 million people who watched the Super Bowl. But how many people in New Hampshire know that the Manchester Monarchs won the franchise's first ever Calder Cup championship with a 2-1 win over the Comets at the Utica Memorial Auditorium on Saturday night? Hopefully more than one might think.


All across America, while people sit glued to televisions watching competitions between teams they have no reason to care a whit about, there are minor league teams playing their hearts out in half-filled stadiums. Are these games any less important, meaningful, or exciting than the majors? Doubtful, and certainly not to those who have invested the energy in playing or following them.


And this disparity isn’t confined only to traditional North American sports such as baseball and hockey. Take, for example, the bastard stepchild of athletics in America, football. No, not that football. The one we call soccer. 2 million people viewed the MLS Championship, yet there are over 4 million registered U.S. Soccer players. So perhaps that isn’t the best example, because there are likely 8 million soccer parents screaming on the sidelines somewhere. Tough to sneak a cocktail in past them though.


But consider minor league baseball, once the national pastime. While major league interest has flagged, attendance in the lower tiers has been growing in strength for many years. Season attendance for the MiLB was over 41 million, more than half of what the MLB saw. Its another sign that more and more often people are turning to their own surroundings to provide what they need and desire.

So dig up a local sports league to support (the Osprey, the Maulers, and the Hellgate Roller girls are some around here) and enjoy some honest competition. You may have to drink beer at the game, but afterwards you can talk about how much fun you had over a cocktail of your favorite craft spirits.