Todd Leopold tests apple whiskey at the Leopold Bros. Denver distillery on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
It doesn’t matter what the calendar says: Once the sun begins to shine and the spring downslope wind stops blowing, it’s porch drinks season in Colorado — a season that lasts until you put the grill away for winter. And what better way to make a spring or summer cocktail than the products of Colorado microdistilleries?
You know that you don’t have to work very hard to find a microdistillery; there are so many to choose from within these square state lines that it’s hard to keep up with new openings and new releases. So here’s a strategy to keep bewilderment at bay: Love the booze you’re with. Visit a microdistillery that’s close to where you live. Ferment a creative relationship with its product line; buy a bottle or two, and just keep playing in the kitchen, the garden, the grocer’s, and the farmer’s market. You’ll make some kind of mixologist out of yourself before you know it, and you don’t have to buy 15 kinds of bitters or even learn to make them (though that’s certainly not a bad thing).
Here’s our “love the booze you’re with” strategy, applied to four Colorado microdistilleries — and the spring-into-summer cocktails that resulted from those explorations.
Where: Just north of Interstate 70 and south of the corner of 56th and Joliet, the Leopold Bros. distilling operation is tucked in a quiet (on the weekends) warehouse district.
What: The distillery is fronted by a tasting room, but not a bar or restaurant (so plan to eat before or after). There are 23 different spirits: a vodka, three gins, several whiskies, abundant fruit liqueurs, an absinthe, an herbal liqueur, a fernet and an amaro.
The story: Leopold Bros. offers one of the best technical tours around. The company produces its own neutral grain spirits and malts its own barley, which means a big tour crowd has room to stand around on Malting Floor No. 1. It also ferments in open wooden vats, which give you something to look at before the 10 products that you’ll taste on tour begin to take effect. The tour takes 90 minutes, costs $20 (reserve online; includes a $10 discount on any two bottles), and ends up back in the luxurious tasting room, by which time you will know your fellow travelers and a good slice of the product line.
The backstory: Brothers Scott and Todd grew up in Littleton and wanted to open a craft brewery in the 1990s in Boulder that would take a sustainable approach to scarce resources like water – but with three craft breweries in town, the market was deemed “saturated” back then. So off they went to Ann Arbor, Mich., to earn their beer fame in another college town. When the landlord wanted to raise the rent, they brought their new expertise back to Colorado to join the craft distillery market.
Top taste: Three Pins liqueur, with its spicy, coriander-forward bite and its mellow, orange-y aftertaste, would make a fantastic tea cocktail – or paired with bourbon in a hot toddy.
Also-rans: The cherry liqueur was pure Michigan Montmorency cherries; the gin a nice compromise between juniper-forward and botanically focused. We wouldn’t kick the bourbon, American Small Batch whiskey or Apple whiskey out of our bar carts, either. The Summer Gin is a special seasonal release, due soon.
When to visit: Check the website for an event or class that happens once the outdoor garden is blooming (the brothers’ father is a landscape architect).
Other details: Tours on weekends; to be sure of a spot, reserve online at leopoldbros.com
The cocktail: Three Pins Iced Tea
Liquor is more potent at altitude, so this treat goes light on the octane so you can have a second one. Makes 1.
- 6 ounces brewed English Breakfast tea
- 1 tablespoon turbinado sugar
- 1 ounce Three Pins liqueur
- 1/4 ounce bourbon (just a splash)
- 4 dashes Angostura bitters
- Twist of orange peel
Sugar the rim of an old-fashioned glass with turbinado or brown sugar. When the black tea is hot, sweeten with 1 tablespoon sugar. Combine sweetened tea, alcohol and bitters in a cocktail shaker with ice. Pour over more ice into the sugared glass. Garnish with a twist of orange peel.
The cocktail: Leopold Toddy
- 6 ounces hot, brewed Earl Grey tea
- 1 tablespoon or more local honey
- 1 ounce Leopold Bros. Three Pins liqueur
- 1 ounce Leopold Bros. bourbon
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- Lemon wedge for garnish
Pour boiling water into a mug to keep it hot; set aside. In another mug or glass measuring cup, combine hot tea, alcohol and lemon juice. Empty serving mug of the hot water and add honey. Add the tea-alcohol mixture and test for sweetness; add more honey if needed. Garnish with lemon wedge.
Where: The far north end of Old Town
What: Small distilling facility connected to a lively, cozy tasting room serving cocktails and food and offering a pile of board games. Two unflavored vodkas (Virtueux, clear, and Vicieux, black); two rums; a whole shelf of infused vodkas including bacon, lavender, honey and dill, and horseradish; coffee and amaretto liqueurs. Plus whatever else takes the owners’ fancies – there are banana and chocolate liqueurs on the way, the website proclaims.
The story: Colorado State University engineering students Jason Hevelone and Heather Trantham met, fell in love, got their degrees, wanted to make beer, thought they were crazy, had a family, grew to love wine, had a gin and tonic made with local gin, and boom! The two decided they wanted to make potent potables after all. Jason is still your tour guide in their small distilling room. But you can also just skip into the restaurant and buy flights of the various spirits, a craft cocktail and dinner or snacks after a movie at the Lyric or a long summer bike ride.
The backstory: Hevelone is well-connected with local mixologists and their cocktail needs; the black vodka, Vicieux, was created at their request.
Top taste: If you can only buy one bottle, get the amaretto – it goes with everything, including just itself.
Also-rans: The gold rum; lavender vodka for floral-infused summer drinks; and, of course, bacon-infused vodka for the perfect Bloody Mary. Advanced mixologists will want to try the honey dill vodka in citrus drinks and shrubs.
The cocktail: Monochrome Martini
This sophisticated recipe from CopperMuse’s bartenders makes use of Vicieux Vodka, one of the sexiest bottles of alcohol you’ll ever purchase or see behind a bar. You can customize it with your choice of olive. Serves 1.
- 2 ounces CopperMuse Vicieux Black Vodka
- 1/2 ounce dry vermouth
- 1/2 ounce olive brine
- 2-3 olives
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until completely chilled, then strain into a martini glass. Garnish with 2-3 olives.
The cocktail: O’Keeffe
This delight, another CopperMuse concoction named for the famed artist of the Southwest, will make you think of New Mexico sunsets. Makes 1.
- 2 ounces CopperMuse Lavender Vodka
- 1/2 ounce simple syrup
- 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
- Seltzer to taste
Add the first three ingredients to a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Pour into a rocks glass filled with ice. Top with seltzer.
Where: Just north of this mountain town’s Bond Park
What: Small family distillery with two tasting rooms and a distilling facility in Berthoud (tours there are rumored to be in the works). At the Estes Park tasting room, you can buy a cheese board to savor along with your tastings. The line of spirits is small as well, but quality lives there. One bourbon, one rye, one gin, one vodka, plus a spiced rum. Then there are the stars of the show: the chai and black walnut liqueurs.
The story: Partners Kristian and Kimberly Naslund and Chris McNay got into the microdistillery biz in 2013. Their tasting room at the distillery in Loveland, right off the bike path through town, was a popular stopping place right up through Christmas Eve 2016, when another distiller bought it and nearly all its equipment. Their emphasis is on local, natural ingredients and no extracts – and caring for the iconic Colorado wilderness for which it is named.
The backstory: A feline with unique mousing abilities once patrolled the Loveland distillery, keeping the grains safe from marauders. The sale contract reportedly contained a rider to exempt the cat, who made the move to Berthoud.
Top tastes: The Chai liqueur is the bottle that put Dancing Pines on the map. But the Black Walnut liqueur is the one that’ll give your Old Fashioned new legs, or provide a base note to any summer drink.
Also-rans: The spiced rum, aged in bourbon barrels, will round out your liquor selection in fine form; so will the bourbon.
The cocktail: Rocky Stormy
What Colorado hiker worth their scraped knees hasn’t waited out a crash of lightning or two (or 50) on the way down a mountain? A newcomer, that’s what we say. Whether your hike was all blue skies or all surprise, this sweet, tart, twist on the (religiously trademarked) classic will make sure you’ve got stories to tell. Makes 1 cocktail.
- 2 ounces Dancing Pines Spice rum
- 6 ounces strong ginger beer (Rocky Mountain Soda or Cock and Bull work well)
- 2 ounces lime juice
- Spear of candied ginger (optional)
Combine all ingredients over ice; garnish with candied ginger spear if desired.
Where: In the shadow of that other place that makes a fermented beverage in Golden.
What: Two separate facilities; the Speakeasy is a highly reviewed place to relax and sample the wide range of products in cocktails or flights (or both!), along with light snacks or charcuterie boards.
The story: Co-founders Karen Knight and Stephen Gould are history hounds. They reportedly hatched their business plan after finding a case of vintage absinthe, and the Speakeasy is an homage to a time when all the spirits at such an establishment would be made in-house.
The backstory: The distillery tour is the one to pick if you adore antique stills.
Top tastes: If you like your gin on the flowery/botanical side, you’ll fall deeply, madly for Golden Moon’s gin. Add a dash of Crème de Violette to a gin and tonic and you won’t want to wake up from the garden you’re drinking.
Also-rans: The Dry Curacao, Redux Absinthe and Colorado Golden Moon Grappa are among the award-winners, and the Amer dit Picon liqueur is one you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in-state.
Other details: It’s about an hour walk from the distillery to the speakeasy. But on a beautiful Colorado day … .
The cocktail: Garden gin and tonic
Make up a few of these after a hot afternoon weeding and planting – or for any reason whatsoever. Wanna get fancy? Freeze sugared violets in ice cubes. Makes 1.
- 2 ounces Golden Moon Gin
- 1/2 ounce Golden Moon Crème de Violette
- 4 ounces high-quality tonic water (Try Q brand)
- 2 or more lemon wedges
- Sprig of fresh or dried lavender
Fill a tall glass with ice. Add gin; add crème de violette. Squeeze in one lemon wedge; taste to test – you don’t want the citrus to overpower the delicate florals. Add more if desired.