The Western Slopes of Colorado create interesting microclimates that have led to a perfect climate for growing fruit. While most local businesses are farms and orchards, a couple entrepreneurs saw the opportunity to use leftover fruit and ferment the sugars into craft spirits. Here’s the story of two artisnal local businesses that took drastically different approaches to distilling.
Peach Street Distillers (Palisade, Colorado)
For as long as anyone can remember, Palisade, Colorado has been known for its peaches. The two-block main street in the town center is dwarfed by dozens of orchards snuggled up against mountains at an elevation of around 4,700 feet. Here, a unique high desert micro-climate exists, with intense daily sunlight followed by cool nights leading to high concentrations of sugar in the fruit. This creates sweet peaches to rival even the famous fruit in Georgia.
Peach Street Distillers began when the owners of Ska Brewing Company in Durango started experimenting with distilling in an old farmhouse. The initial experiments seemed to go well so they moved into an old peach packing plant in Palisade, where there was plenty of fruit available because of the thriving agriculture industry. When the owners first asked local farmers if they could collect the fruit they were ready to discard, the farmers thought the entrepreneurs were crazy; however, they happily donated their ripe fruit and the boys started turning old peaches, pears and grain into bourbon, gin, brandy and grappa. They channeled inspiration from European peasants could not access the alcohol they helped produce and instead, got creative with with the leftovers.
The whole operation encapsulated a punk rock spirit where they “bootstrapped everything with blood, sweat and punches” with a “we can make it” attitude. One of their famous first beverages is their The Goat Vodka crafted with a custom-made copper German pot still and local Olathe sweet corn. They continue to make the light, aromatic drink in small batches, producing about 200 bottles at a time.
Local fruits, harvested at the peak of ripeness and fermented in the open area, are used to make award-winning peach and pear brandies.
They were never interested in making anything typical, and constantly experimented with whatever local produce was available in whatever equipment they could get their hands on. These self-titled “creative distillers” and “artisan experimenters” are always creating new products with unique, unexpected and fearless flavors. They have developed over 20 small batch craft spirits and are currently developing a soda line that could serve as mixers or a drink for the kids.
Owner Moose Koons joked, “We’re so weird. We’re such dorks. We’re messing around with molasses-based, low-cal sodas.”
The company still maintains a high appreciation and close relation to local farmers. Their causal tasting bar in the center of town has a barbershop atmosphere where the farmers come for a drink after work, sipping cocktails in mason jars and staring at mounted jackalopes on the wall. The décor is hillbilly-meets-skater punk, which embodies the spunky spirit of the place.
Moose Koons, explains, “We’re not really pretty. We are more of a Distiller’s distillery. We care about our customers but we really care about our spirits.”
The locals rave about the cocktails, especially the Bloody Mary which is surprisingly strong despite having an entire salad of vegetables hanging out of the glass. While Moose acknowledges most people come to the tasting room for cocktails, “every one of our spirits is meant to be drunk on ice.”
Despite having achieved official recognition for its high quality products, Peach Tree Distillers retains a stubborn sense of humility and no desire to sacrifice its freedom to experiment for widespread commercialization. The spirits are distributed in California, New York, Boston, England and Sweden but Moose says the company does not plan to grow significantly despite increasing popularity. Instead, they plan to continue trialing homemade sodas and age its projects longer.
Don’t pass up the opportunity to visit their playful tasting bar in Palisade and try their famous cocktails or stock up on bottles of their spirits.
Peak Spirit Farm Distillery (Hotchkiss, Colorado)
One hour away resides another area famous for its fruit growing: the North Fork Valley. Tucked between mountains to the east, the Grand Mesa to the North, and the canyons and high desert of the west county, you’ll find a temperate climate that supports several peach, cherry and apple orchards. The owners of Jack Rabbit Hill Farm knew Europeans made brandy out of these fruits and decided to use their equipment and knowledge about fermentation to try the same thing. Thus, they began Peak Spirits Farm Distillery on their biodynamic farm to make CapRock, small batch certified biodynamic and organic spirits.
For owners Lance and Anna Hanson, the whole operation has always been an outgrowth of their love for high quality, biodynamic farming. In fact, Hanson regularly gives talks about organic and biodynamic agriculture, and hosts wine dinners at nearby restaurants that serve consciously-grown food.
In order to fund their farming habit, they started growing grapes on site to make Jack Hill Farm wine then craft distilling was a natural next step. The Hansons already had most of the equipment and knowledge from their winemaking business at Jack Rabbit Hill. The owners use high mountain water to cut their spirits, inspiring the name of their flagship brand “CapRock,” as well as certified organic or biodynamic fruit. They use a “chitty chitty bang bang” copper still from rural Europe which channels “farm distillery” model that inspired their operation.
In 2007, they began by making Eaux de Vie, a pure and clear European style brandy, by distilling whole ripe fruit mashes. They also started making grappa, an Italian brandy, distilled from the skins and seeds of a biodynamic winemaking grape.
One of their most popular products is a full-bodied gin blending fruits, flowers, seeds and spices that speak louder than the juniper and citrus which are the prominent features in many gins. Organic Jonathan apples from a nearby orchard and organic Romanian winter wheat grown on site form the base of the spirit, enhanced by a blend of 12 different whole fruits, flowers, seeds and spices without using any extracts or concentrates.
Just as the gin and spirits place fresh fruit and food flavors in the forefront, their tasting room features their love of the land, sitting in a cozy barn surrounded by sheep, chickens, vines and produce. Plan a visit to North Fork Valley to arrange a visit to their farm and tasting room. You can also find their spirits at local restaurants and distributors in California, Arizona, Colorado, Maryland, New York, South Carolina, Washington DC and some places in Europe.
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