Ghosts of craft whiskeys past
Halloween in 2015 gave me some insight into how it is Donald Trump wins people over to his legion of foolhardy followers. Surrounded by ghosts and sauced on Dancing Pines rum, I stood inside the pitch dark banquet hall of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park (the one from Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining) and desperately try to find my fiancé so we can get the hell out of there. Camera flashes riddled the room like a strobe light.
I found her bent down over a small mirror in the corner of the room, attempting to take a reflective photo. Supposedly, with the right lighting (or lack there-of) and a mediocre mastery of your smart phone camera, you can see the ghosts that haunt the hotel. The only thing I’d seen myself was a bunch of Midwestern tourists running around in the dark like we were kids playing ghosts in the graveyard. Which I guess isn’t that far off.
After about twenty minutes we were escorted to the music room. Following the guide’s wholehearted affirmation that the hall’s most famous spirit had been caught on camera by one of our own, I had spent half our time in the banquet hall hiding out in the bathroom after an open prayer session broke out.
The hotel may very well be haunted. I have no evidence to counter that claim. But I’ve seen enough paranormal shows to suspect that Apple doesn’t install sixth sense technology into the iPhone 6 and that 30 years of watching college football and the nightly news doesn’t qualify anyone to be a seer of the unseen.
As we walked through the lobby to the next shrine of the undead, the general consensus stood that we were on the trail of the spirits. I was ready to join the trail of spirits back to the bar. I needed to continue drinking away tonight’s re-affirmation of the anxious gullibility of mainstream America. And these people are moving to Colorado by the droves.
Fortunately Alisha was on the same page. We split from the group, and after wandering the hallways of the hotel and stopping in front of room 217 for a photo opp, we bailed and headed for a drink. Downtown Estes Park was crowded on this holiday weekend. Tourists and Denver weekend warriors filled the restaurants and pubs. We find a corner table at Ed’s Cantina and Grill and commence one of the art forms that Colorado natives do best - commiserating about all the damn transplants in our state over some of the fine local beverages that helped bring them here.
The rising population isn’t all bad though. A craft renaissance is also growing on the Front Range. Beneath the greed and socio-economic implications of rising housing costs and renovated neighborhoods, abandoned warehouses are being transformed into havens for artists and craft connoisseurs.
Back in Denver, halfway between I-25 and the railroad tracks running through the Lincoln Park neighborhood, a couple guys sit at a table behind an open garage door. From a distance they appear to be bums taking cover in this old industrial neighborhood that boasts no foot traffic to speak of. Few cars venture past these parts aside from employees of the nearby embroidery and auto parts store.
But instead of a squatter’s paradise, this old warehouse building is home to a diverse community of artists, clothiers, and as of 2014, Blank & Booth Distilling. Far from transients, the two guys are Nick Booth and Joel Jackson, engineers turned micro-distillers. This old warehouse where they sit at a table made from wood pallets, sipping a stiff drink, is home to their operation.
By Colorado law, distilleries must be industrially zoned, which is why so many of them are in warehouse districts. “We’ve been here for a year and a half almost,” says Joel, pointing to their small collection of stills and fermenting tubs.
The tasting room, separated from the distillery by a row of pallets, is open for special events and parties thrown by Booth and Jackson. The lack of foot traffic prevents the two from running regular hours. “We do Mardi Gras, St. Paddy’s, all the big days,” says Nick. They also do private events and parties promoted through social media.
Blank & Booth showcases three very diverse whiskeys and one vodka (simply named ‘Booze.’) Their debut product was a white whiskey called Ripple, named after the Grateful Dead song. 80% corn, 10% rye, 10% malt, coming in right at 90 proof. It hits the tongue with a bite and finishes clean, with flavors of rye and sugar standing out. Jackson recommends tasting it straight to get natural feel, then dropping a cube of ice in to burst open the flavors.
I pause for a moment, letting the Ripple coat my mouth. There is something beautiful in this. I am looking at the still that the whiskey was made in while I drink it, speaking with the guys who created it (and who make up the entire company). “It’s not being altered through time or travel, you’re getting the real taste here,” I say.
Next they pour me a taste of their Hot Mess, flavored with Hatch green chili. Being a true Coloradan, I like green chili with anything and whiskey is no exception. Nick and Joel describe a Moscow Mule made with Hot Mess that is poured by Blake Street Vault downtown. I talk them into making one for me now.
Distilling came naturally to the two, whose first ‘experiment’ back in early 2013 came out of a converted keg at 140 proof. “We’re both engineers, we work together,” Nick says. “Joel asked about starting a brewery, but there is just so much going on there. So we were looking for another branch. Distilling is something we naturally understand because of our background.”
They signed a lease on a smaller room in the same building they currently work from in July of 2013. Test runs started in November and the first bottle release went out in May 2014 - 60 bottles of ripe corn whiskey.
This is the definition of craft. Their passion borders on full-fledged geekiness. At least three times I was told about how awesome it is to run the still and how when they have events in this space, they will often turn on the still just because of the excitement it stirs among the people in the room. I don’t know if there is any scientific evidence behind this but knowing how much care Nick and Joel put into their spirits seems to make drinking them that much more enjoyable.
“One thing we do a little different here is run open fermenters,” Joel says. They show me a bubbling broth of soon-to-be Benchcraft whiskey roiling in a 500-gallon open wood fermenter that resembles an old chalet-style hot tub. This corn whiskey is named, according to the distillers, in honor of artists and builders like themselves.
Currently their products are available in a collection of fine liquor stores and bars in the Denver area, many of whom Joel and Nick hand built a relationship with while their product was being born. Hugo’s, Molly’s Spirits, and Mile High Wine Cellars jumped quickly on board.
“We had a number of small liquor stores in town that we knew, that we grabbed beers from,” Joel says. “We’d be down here working and go in covered in mash and stock and they’re like ‘Dude, when’s the distillery gonna be up!’ They didn’t know our product but they saw that effort and that led to them picking up our first couple cases.”
This past summer, Joel was working a night shift on the still. Around 6 AM, hanging out with the garage door open and Grateful Dead booming from the stereo, he noticed a couple guys coming towards him. “The suns coming up, I’m hanging out listening to music and I look out and a couple guys come walking out of this field over here,” he says. They approached and asked for some water. Turns out the guys were rail hoppers on their way down to the San Luis Valley for a party. “I started talking to them. I made them some cocktails, I was interested in their story. Sticks was one of the guys’ names. They’d been sitting on the rails since 11 pm waiting for the next train. It was amazing to me that these guys knew where all the trains were going. Then, all of a sudden, they bailed. They saw a caboose pulling up.”
Joel gave them the rest of the bottle they had been drinking on for the road and went back to work, not thinking too much of it. “That night we had an event, we were in here. I got a notification on my phone. Sticks had friended us (on Facebook) and wrote a note- “The bottle of Hatch green chili whiskey is no longer on this earth. It has been consumed by us. Thank you brother, we’ll see you the next time we pass by.”
I finish the rest of my Moscow Mule, my faith in humanity somewhat restored.