Spirits of the mash

Early alchemists had a name for the immaterial vapor that rose from the corporeal mash when heated. This essence was called its “spirit.” Today, craft distillers continue to conjure “spirits” from creative mashes of fermented liquid to create their signature whiskeys, bourbons, bitters, vodkas and other hard alcohols. 

“People are infusing local peaches, berries, and chilies in spirits,” said Corry Mihm, who chairs the planning committee for the Breckenridge Crafts Spirits Festival, taking place this year October 21-23. “It’s creating a cool connection between the local food and craft spirits movements. We want to help support this still young but growing movement in the state.”

In fact, the festival was one of the first of its kind in Colorado.

At Saturday night’s headlining event—the “Still on the Hill” Grand Tasting—36 distilleries offer up tastes of pure spirits as well as mixed drinks made from them. This year, Breckenridge Distillery plans to bring its famous Breckenridge Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys, its Breckenridge Gin, and possibly some small-batch surprises, according to spokesperson Grace Gabree. Some of the distillery’s flavored vodkas are also likely to find their way into specialty cocktails for the event.

It’s “a trial and error process” to create a new spirit, Gabree explained, one that involves everything from a specialized gin still and particular whiskey-aging barrels to alpine flora used to flavor bitters. “It comes from the distillers’ passion for creating it—from their palettes and the way they experience different flavors,” she said. “It’s just like any other art form where you are passionate about something and get really good at what you do.”

“Our inspiration will usually come from a flavor—whether you’re out to eat and it strikes you, or drinking another spirit, or on a hike,” said head distiller Jordan Stielow. “Inspiration to start a new spirit comes from anything. Actually perfecting it can take a very long time.”

“What we do is organic chemistry,” he explained. “You’re essentially putting together a theory and then testing it. The science will get you 95% of the way there. The art side is knowing when to make your cuts, when to add this and that, and what to add.”

Colorado is at the forefront of the craft distilling movement, and many of the distillers coming to Still on the Hill are Colorado-based. In addition to the tasting, Saturday’s event features a live acoustic set from The Honey Gitters bluegrass band, and voting on favorite cocktails. Tickets to Still on the Hill are available at breckenridgecraftspiritsfestival.com until they sell out.

The larger Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival offers a full weekend of activities presented by the Breckenridge Restaurant Association. The fun kicks off Friday with a themed craft activity at the Breckenridge Arts District; there’s an open house at Breckenridge Distillery Saturday; and the party continues late into the night at The Gold Pan Saloon. Other weekend events include seminars on craft spirits, a Bar Mix-off where distillers join local restaurants to offer cocktails made with their spirits, historic saloon tours by the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance and Sunday Bloody Mary brunch specials at participating restaurants.

Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival // breckenridgecraftspiritsfestival.com
Breckenridge Distillery // breckenridgedistillery.com Breckenridge Restaurant Association // breckrestaurant.org

Photos: Art Balluff and Jessie Unruh / Breckenridge Tourism Office