Message in a Bottle
Wood’s High Mountain Distillery raises the bar for making signature small-batch spirits
“I couldn’t afford to move!” P.T. Wood is telling me the story of how Salida became home, over 30 years ago. The Boulder native and former “ski bum and raft guide” moved to the 19th-century railroad town in 1989 to guide trips on the Arkansas River, never imagining he’d one day be a lauded, self-taught small-batch distiller (he owns Wood’s High Mountain Distillery with his brother, Lee), vice president of the American Craft Spirits Association, former president of the Colorado Distillers Guild and, as of November 2017, mayor of Salida.
“When I got here, it was virtually a ghost town … the [now grandly restored] Palace Hotel was basically a flophouse—I lived there for $25 a month.” Wood laughs as he recalls his early years in Salida. Now a youthful-looking 52, with his handlebar mustache and full beard he looks like an outdoorsman, with a dash of Old West barkeep.
Wood’s genial personality has been instrumental to the success of his business (Lee, he says, “is the guy who keeps us in business,” handling administration, and distilling on occasion), but he also possesses an innate talent for distilling distinctive spirits. His whiskies and gin have received numerous awards, including 2016 Colorado Malt Distiller of the Year from the New York International Spirits Competition.
The Wood brothers were on a 21-day river trip in the Grand Canyon when they first discussed the idea of making whiskey. It was the 1990s, and micro-distilleries were almost unheard of in the United States. In 2012, after years of red tape and research, their first batch of whiskey was distilled in a former auto body shop in downtown Salida, with the aid of a 19th century German pot still nicknamed Ashley.
While Wood’s High Mountain spirits may define what most people think of as “craft” production, P.T. Wood eschews the term. “It’s lost its meaning and power. We [he oversees head distiller Beck Ceron, and refers to himself as “head alchemist”] say ‘handcrafted’ on our labels, but ultimately I want people to buy our stuff because it’s interesting and good,” he says. “To succeed in [small-batch production], you need to make a great product, as well as have a personal signature on your spirits. I wanted to make something that’s distinctively mine, by using ingredients in unique ways.”
To wit, there’s Mountain Hopped Gin—a blend of botanicals including locally foraged juniper and organic Colorado-grown Cascade hops, which give the resulting spirit a bright, floral, citrusy profile. Fleur de Sureau, a lovely digestif made entirely from Colorado products, is made with distilled Muscat and Riesling wines infused with wild elderflowers and sweetened with raspberry-blossom honey from a nearby apiary.
The distillery has always used a “grain-to-glass” approach for its whiskey production (see sidebar), but high-quality spirits start with the water: The local supply has a high mineral content, which fosters the growth of yeast.
“This spring, we’ll also start doing our own gin base, using local corn,” says Wood. “We want to support regional farmers and plan to use grain and potatoes [the latter for a vodka] from the San Luis Valley, but it’s also about giving us more control over our product and the ability to create something with more terroir. For our whiskey, we experiment with different grains, malting and smoking, but our 10-year plan is to build a malting floor. It opens the door to more mistakes, but it’s also about showcasing your skill over the entire process of making a handcrafted spirit.”
Blending, macerating and aging spirits are art forms in their own right—ones for which Wood’s High Mountain Distillery has achieved international acclaim. “The thing about barrelaging and blending spirits is you get a different result every time,” says Wood.
The distillery’s signature Tenderfoot Whiskey is made with three barley malts (including a cherrywood smoked variety) and a small quantity of rye and wheat, which add a bold edge. Aged 18 months in charred new American oak, it has tantalizing notes of toffee and dark chocolate. Alpine Rye, made predominantly with malt rye supplemented by barley malts and aged for two years, has a similar flavor profile, tinged with notes of coffee and orange peel.
While the distillery was initially known for its whiskey, these days Wood is enamored of gin. He makes four varieties, with another awaiting FDA approval. The spirits are vapor-distilled, a more gentle process in which botanicals are placed in the vapor stream between the still and condenser, rather than directly into the still.
The flagship Treeline Gin has a traditional juniper-forward profile, with a peppery, earthy finish; Treeline Barrel Rested Gin is aged in new, charred American oak, which lends a spicy intricacy to the spirit. Wood calls it a “gin for whiskey lovers,” adding “The beautiful thing about gin is the complexity of the botanicals and infinite styles and palate preferences out there. A lot of people are afraid of gin because they’ve had a bad experience, but I think it’s one of the best spirits for craft cocktails.”
The distillery’s exposed-brick and cement-walled tasting room is a favorite landmark—it’s where locals go for a date, a business meeting or to seek out conversation. There’s an appealing, thrift-store-meets-rec-room vibe, thanks to a mishmash of vintage chairs, tables and sofas. An antique wooden kayak and old townie bike are suspended from the original ceiling beams, which recall the turn-of-the-century building’s roots as a woodworking shop. There’s a nook with a turntable and stacks of records, board games and books. Every Sunday, crowds gather for the Bloody Mary Bar, augmenting their drinks from an array of garnishes.
There are also free tours offered on most days: Part of Wood’s philosophy as a business owner is to operate with transparency; this same viewpoint made him a popular mayoral candidate. “Community involvement is incredibly important to me,” he says. “I’ve owned various businesses here over the years, and I’ve been on a lot of councils, including the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area Citizen Task Force, Arkansas River Trust and FIBArk [a local whitewater festival]. I have a lot of interest in local government and appreciate the attributes of the town, so people started asking me to run.”
While being mayor will keep him busy, Wood has no plans to slow down when it comes to his distillery. “I love being a part of this town, from serving on boards and commissions to providing a fun gathering place and a tasty dram to cheer our friends’ and neighbor’s successes and challenges. I’m definitely having a blast.”
GO FIND IT!
Wood’s High Mountain Distillery 144 W. 1st St., Salida 719.207.4315 Call ahead for tour information. WoodsDistillery.com