There's a good chance that when you hear the word "distillery," images of Pappy, tucked away in the woods with his homemade still, come to mind. While this image certainly has some basis in fact, the art of distilling has been around since the first century A.D., courtesy of Greek alchemists. The process has been used on various liquids and, except for the invention of the continuous still in the 1800s, the basic process of distillation hasn't really changed since the eighth century.
But modern distilleries have come a long way since the early days, with improvements in sanitation being one very notable advance. With the explosion of craft breweries in the United States, craft distilleries have also been popping up, creating small batches of vodka, bourbon, gin and other spirits (including moonshine), much like alchemists of old.
To date, there are more than 1,000 distilled spirits producers and bottlers with permits in the United States. But, as we all know, everything tastes a bit better at altitude, perhaps after a long day of skiing, snowboarding, biking, rafting or fishing. So, to tempt your taste buds after an epic day, check out these distilleries and their "spirited" offerings for a tasty mountain treat.
Using 100 percent Alaskan ingredients, Truuli Peak Vodka from Bare Distillery is made from Delta Barley, wildflower honey and Alaskan glacial water. Unfiltered, with a smooth finish, we recommend sipping this vodka after climbing its namesake, Truuli Peak, or perhaps after an epic day at Alyeska Resort (just 40 miles away).
They say that the best ideas come with a little fresh air. For Alan Dietrich, CEO of Bendistillery, his brilliant idea came during a run in the woods around Bend. He noticed the massive amounts of juniper growing wild and it dawned on him that juniper makes gin. Brilliant! Distilled in an American style versus the more common London style, Crater Lake Gin is made the way people used to make it themselves (though the bathtub is no longer used as a still) and is clean and crisp, perfect for concocting cocktails. But perhaps even more popular than the gin in Bend is the pepper vodka -- it's the must-have ingredient in Mt. Bachelor's Bloody Mary.
Tahoe Moonshine Distillery
South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Though Tahoe is known for its spectacular lake-and-mountain recreation, it's hardly the first place that you'd think of for moonshine... until now. Tahoe Moonshine Distillery, which opened in 2011, is already distributing its products around California and Nevada with the same fervor that you might find on a powder day. The distillery creates vodka, gin and two kinds of rum, but the Stormin' Whiskey is the showstopper. Utilizing organic ingredients and local Tahoe water (from the tap, then filtered), this whiskey deserves to stand in the spotlight, instead of surreptitiously sipped like in the olden days.
Woody Creek Distillers
Woody Creek Distillers is taking the idea of "farm to table" and translating it to "farm to bottle." As the only craft distillery in the United States with total control over every element of its vodka production, WDC grows its own alpine potatoes at Scanlan Family Farm in Woody Creek, Colo., specifically for vodka production, and sources mountain spring water locally to produce its Signature Potato Vodka. More spirits are scheduled for availability in fall 2013, just in time for ski season. Because there's nothing like conquering the Highlands and then sipping craft vodka like the czar you are.
Don Quixote Distillery
Los Alamos, N.M.
In the picturesque Jemez mountains, about two hours from Angel Fire, lies Los Alamos, Ron Dolin and his wife Olha are using blue corn for something more exciting than tortilla chips: whiskey. Utilizing organic New Mexico Blue Corn, the folks at Don Quixote Distillery create Blue Corn Bourbon Whiskey, a soft and smooth bourbon, perfect for sipping rather than shooting. In this case, the altitude adds to the end product. "I designed and built my whiskey still to operate at our high elevation; cooking at elevation allows me to separate the alcohol from the mash at a much lower temperature, which leads to a softer spirit," Ron explains. Unlike Don Quixote's jousting knights, this bourbon whiskey is the real thing.
It's a story that many mountain folk can appreciate: chucking a 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. job to do what you love. That's what John FK Walsh and Brian Facquet, cofounders of Prohibition Distillery, did back in 2008, leaving Wall Street to start a distillery. With its Bootlegger21 vodka (named after the 21st Amendment, which repealed the ban on booze), John and Brian have created a spirit that is smooth enough to be sipped, pure enough to be mixed into any classic cocktail and "goes down easier than your 401(k)." With a new home nestled in the Catskills in Roscoe, N.Y., it's easy to stop by Prohibition Distillery after a day of fishing (Roscoe was named Fishing Town USA in 2011) or after carving some turns at Bellyare.
Up in the mountains of Montana, Willie's Distillery is taking the North Dakota state fruit, the chokecherry, and creating something so delicious that they've got the locals harvesting the berries for them. "There is a brief one- to two-week window of harvesting, before the birds and bears get them," Willie Blazer says. "Seriously. Wax-wings will pick a bush clean in a few hours and several locals have told us that 'the bears got to them first, and I'm not fighting a bear.'" Even with the bears getting their fair share, Willie and his wife Robin usually acquire more than 600 pounds of berries and commence with creating their Montana Wild Chokecherry Liqueur, based off of Robin's family recipe. Excellent over ice on a hot summer day or warming you up during the winter, Willie's Wild Montana Chokecherry Liqueur is just the start of this story. Willie and Robin are planning on making Chokecherry Moonshine this fall in addition to the Montana Moonshine, Montana Honey Moonshine, Bighorn Bourbon and a few other smaller batch spirits they're currently producing.
These are just a few of our favorite mountain distilleries -- and more are opening as we speak. Don't believe us? Check out this map of every distillery in the United States. You're welcome.
By Katie Coakley, Katie on the Map