Woody Creek Distillers, Colorado
A Return to Real.
Along the valley to Aspen and in the last town before reaching the world famous resort, the road into Basalt is truly wonderful in the fall, with shimmering Aspen trees ablaze in shades of gold. The distillery on the other hand was not as expected, and that rather than being a rustic old wooden shed surround by Aspen as envisaged, it is an ultra modern construction, all be it, with a rustic aspect being clad in rusted sheets of steel.
Woody Creek are keen to emphasis that not only do they distill all their own spirit rather than adding flavor to bought-in neutral grain spirit, but that they go the extra mile to cultivate their own or source the finest produce from Colorado. They are already gaining an enviable reputation for their potato vodkas, with the premium Reserve Vodka being made from the Stobrawa potato, which they introduced from Poland. The potato has a greater starch content and produces a more characterful vodka.
The people behind this ethos are Mark Kleckner and husband and wife Mary and Pat Scanlan who first saw the potential for a premium vodka made from potatoes over six years ago. With a pair of gleaming copper Carl column stills, each towering 21 plates high, and with David Matthews overseeing the day to day running as Master Distiller, the operation is slick and polished ensuring the expected highest standards can be achieved. David had done some distilling prior to Woody Creek, both with fruit spirits in France and potato vodka in Maine, but Woody Creek has been a whole new ball game.
When I visited in early October, the distillery was in full operation, distilling vodka from the newly harvested potato crop. Keen to work with the potatoes as quickly as possible from the field, they mashing about 20,000lbs of potatoes a day. Working with the crop only when it is fresh means that two months are spent making the potato vodka during the harvest period. The remaining ten months are largely spent making whiskey along with the occasional batch of rum or Brandy.
Interestingly, their whiskey is fermented over five days, which is longer than the normal three. This is because very little reaction takes place after three days but David is keen to allow the fermentation to run until its exhausted in order to extract maximum flavor.
A tall 23-plate stainless steel column still is used to strip (wash) the mash from the fermenters to produce the low wines at 70% proof. (the plates are not engaged for this process). The low wine is then distilled through one of the two pot stills. The whiskey, (brandy, and rum) run through a short four plate column with the plates only engaged during the heads cut, while the vodka passes through the beautiful 42 plate rectifying column, which has been set up in parallel due to the height.
Due to the dry and extreme weather conditions, custom temperature controlled warehousing has built with Beetle kill pine cladding and humidified to encourage consistent heavy breathing of the wood. While the majority of the whiskey is matured in standard 53 gal American white oak barrels, some smaller 5 and 10 gal barrels are also used. Using the smaller barrels speeds up the oaking process and gives David the chance to see what a test batch might be like much sooner than having to wait two years or so. The used casks are also popular with bars that are now making oaked cocktail in the used casks.
‘We have a lot of whisky in barrels in the warehouse’ says David. ‘At the moment our Straight Rye is about 2 ½ years old. When it gets to three we will probable hold it there. We have Bourbon at 4 years old but not enough to release till next year.’ ‘Will are holding a percentage of bourbon back until its 6 or 8 years and likewise with the rye, although I personally don’t think it will benefit by staying in the barrels after five years.’ ‘I do have a whole load of other weird stuff in barrels including high rye bourbon.’ ‘There is also some single malt now maturing in used bourbon barrels.’ They have also experimented with used wine casks on a very small scale, but the focus is very much on their flagship products including the Rye and soon to be released Bourbon.
I found the potato vodkas to be sweeter that those made from wheat and a marked difference between the two potato varieties with the Stobrawa being remarkably characterful for a highly distilled spirit. The Rye was peachy with sweet fruit notes, not particularly spicy. Straight Rye only needs to be 51% rye, but Woody Creeks is from 100% rye.
Woody Creek 100% Potato Vodka
Woody Creek Colorado Gin
Woody Creek Straight Rye
Woody Creek Bourbon (to come in 2017)