Last weekend saw me celebrate my fortieth birthday and, coincidentally, attend a wedding in Golden, Colorado, a small, very American town outside Denver. My wife and I of course had to explore the burgeoning drinks scene, focusing mainly on Boulder, a well-to-do town at the foot of the Rockies and just under an hour's drive from Denver airport. With Colorado having around 250 breweries, both big (including Coor's) and small, the state is best known for its craft brewing scene. There are also 80 distilleries - up from nine a decade ago - and, perhaps most surprisingly, 150 wineries, meaning that any visitor to Colorado will not go thirsty.
Straight from the airport, we drove to the Prost brewery just outside downtown Denver. As the name suggests (prost means cheers in German), the beers follow German styles and we were lucky enough to arrive in the middle of the brewpub's Oktoberfest, with staff dressed in Lederhosen. There are plenty of choices of regular beers on tap, but we chose a Märzen straight from the keg and served in one-litre steins. This is a beer traditionally made in March (which is what Märzen means in German) with plenty of hops so that it could be served in October after the hot summer months when it was difficult to make good beer. The beer was excellent, malty and lightly hoppy, refreshing and very drinkable at under 6% ABV (✪✪✪✪✪). Even better, the one-litre stein was just $5 - a marked contrast to California where less than half a litre of an IPA is $7. The pub doesn't serve food, but just as we were finishing our first stein a food truck pulled up, serving weighty sandwiches - a different food truck is outside the pub daily
In the evening, after the wedding we stopped off for a cheeky beer near our AirBnB in downtown Golden. Mountain Toad is a young brewery (again served daily with a food truck), with a vibrant atmosphere. We were a little tipsy by this stage, so I have no idea what the beer we drank was called - but it was very good!
On Sunday morning, we drove half an hour to Boulder to visit J&L Distilling, which has been going for three and a half years, producing 600 cases a year of vodka, gin, and a liqueur. This was quite an experience. Owner and distiller Seth Johnson is something of a mad scientist, having trained and worked as a physicist before turning his distilling hobby into a career. He's built his own column still, with wires all over the place connecting the still to his computer which can send him text messages when he's not there. This shows his dedication to detail, which runs through every aspect of his business. Unusually, the vodka is made from molasses, which he has shipped from Louisiana, as he feels that they give a creamier, weightier mouthfeel. He also puts the vodka through a high level of rectification to take away the characteristic bite that vodka has. The result is one of the best vodkas I've tried; reminiscent of a rhum agricole, the SNO vodka ($32; ✪✪✪✪✪✪) has a subtle green, underripe banana nose, and that creaminess on the palate balances the alcohol. Johnson also makes a gin with a number of botanicals, placed in separate, layered trays at the bottom of the still, to create an intensely flavoured but very nuanced spirit (also called SNO; $36; ✪✪✪✪✪). FYR ($35; ✪✪✪✪) is a liqueur also based on the vodka, made with a range of herbs and spices, dominated by cinnamon. It's sweet, rich (at 50% ABV), with cinnamon, cloves, and herbal aromas. It's certainly a winter drink, well suited to Colorado's cold, snowy winters.
We also visited another Boulder distillery, Vapor, which is a larger operation. They've been going for ten years (they used to be called Roundhouse but changed the name for legal reasons), building their reputation on gin. They make two gins from about ten botanicals - Rhok ($35-45; ✪✪✪✪) is an unaged gin, a little too sweet for me with not enough juniper, while Ginskey ($50-70; ✪✪✪✪) is a barrel-aged gin which as the name suggests tastes like a whiskey. They've recently expanded to whiskey-making, and are even going to make a single-malt whisky from a huge copper still they've bought from Scotland (it took three and a half years to make, showing the investment that's going into this distillery). Their new Bourbon is good, though a little hot and obvious (✪✪✪).
Both distilleries have tasting rooms where guests can sample the spirits and also drink cocktails, which I think is a great idea. At J&L, we tasted their most popular cocktail, based on the gin infused with beets for a month and it was delicious and tasty. Even better was the take on a mojito, made with the vodka instead of a rum (a natural substitution given the vodka's made from molasses) and basil instead of mint. This was wonderfully refreshing and the basil integrated with the vodka very well. At Vapor, we tried the gin mint gimlet, which was very nice and beautifully presented.
We didn't go to Colorado intending to taste wine, but on the recommendation of Seth at J&L we visited Settembre, a winery also based in Boulder. Colorado's climate makes grape growing difficult, with snowstorms often arriving just as the vines are budding. But the high altitude does lead to a naturally long growing season, which means that there is some potential for the state's wines. The main AVA is Western Slopes, which is 1,700m high, leading to cool nights and good air circulation.
sweet wines still dominate young wine-making states
Settembre is a winery founded ten years ago by former electrical engineer and UC Davis-trained Blake Eliasson, and with small production he is determined to make the most out of Colorado's vineyards. What I particularly liked about the wines we tasted was their age - the wines from the winery's first vintage, 2009, were drinking particularly well. Chardonnay, Riesling, Sangiovese, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon are all made, with a rosé from Cabernet Franc too. The Cabernet Sauvignons we tasted from the 2011 and 2012 vintages were far too green and underripe, suggesting that those cool nights make it difficult to get Cabernet fully ripe. The other wines were uniformly excellent though. The 2011 Chardonnay ($27; ✪✪✪✪✪) had tropical fruits, cinnamon, and a very refreshing acidity given the wine was five years old. The 2011 Sangiovese ($30; ✪✪✪✪) was also still very alive, with smoke, red fruits, spices, and firm tannins, although the 15% ABV was noticeable (the 2010 Sangiovese, which we didn't taste, is 16%!). Also noteworthy was the 2010 Reserve Syrah ($50; ✪✪✪✪), which was juicy, fruity, and spicy, with a balanced, tannic structure.
All the wines were marked with high acidity, making the whites refreshing and the reds ageworthy. Those reds also had firm, gripping tannins - keeping those tannins in check in a climate with such diurnal variation seems to be one of the big challenges for Colorado winemakers.
We were only in the area for two days, yet managed to pack a lot in. I definitely want to return; Denver and its environs are relaxed, easy-going places and, as one would expect from an area where so much drink is being made, there are some great restaurants and up-scale bars (we had Sunday brunch at The Kitchen in Boulder). The drinks scene is young and vibrant and going in very interesting directions - watch the Colorado space.