Lift Your Spirits: Woody Creek Distillers Elevates the Art of Homegrown Hooch
Last October Woody Creek Distillers took delivery of two loads of potatoes from a central Colorado grower. The three-person team of distillers—Mark Kleckner, Pat Scanlan and David Matthews—ran the potatoes through the various mash tanks and fermenters, all sparkling new and top of the line. When the liquid was clear and pure enough—when it was 80-proof vodka—they sipped their creation. And declared it undrinkable.
“We’d give it to someone to run lawnmowers, kill weeds, make charcoal,” Scanlan says. “We wouldn’t sell it. Absolutely not.”
Was this test run of the new multimillion-dollar facility a heartbreaking disaster? Not at all. The distillers were, in fact, encouraged to learn that the essential building block of their vodka—the potatoes—played such an unmistakable role in the quality of the end product.
Their plan had never been to import potatoes, even from a regional farmer. Woody Creek Distillers’ vodka will be made only from potatoes grown in Woody Creek, eight miles away from the Basalt industrial park that is home to its facility. A fundamental aspect of the operation is to get the tubers out of the ground and into the tanks within a day’s time. That, the distillers believe, will yield super-premium vodka that they are anxious to put up against the world’s finest.
“Potatoes are so organic. They dry out; they change,” Kleckner says. “We’re using potatoes the day after they’re harvested.”
Woody Creek Distillers is keeping an uncommonly close eye on its potatoes. Many of them are grown on Scanlan’s own 300-acre Chaparral Ranch; others come from small neighboring farms. All are free of pesticides and herbicides. The most common potato grown is an indigenous variety called Rio Grande. The distillers are also in the midst of a multiyear process, with the assistance of Colorado State University, to grow Stobrawas, a potato of Polish ancestry reputed to make the best vodka. The first crop of Stobrawas recently went into Woody Creek’s reserve-label vodka. These potatoes are nothing like those customarily used for vodka making.
“Usually they’re dehydrated, rubbery, cellared for up to a year,” Scanlan says. “They’re the potatoes that don’t make it to the grocery store.”
The fact that Woody Creek Distillers is using potatoes at all is evidence of what sort of vodka the company aims to produce. “Potato farming is so labor-intensive,” Kleckner says. “It’s so much easier to use grain. You mill the grain and it’s done. Potatoes are a magnitude of additional effort.”
For guys who are putting their lives into vodka, Kleckner and Scanlan aren’t big admirers of what is already out there. “Grain vodkas tend to be medicinal in taste, lacking in character,” Kleckner says. As the gold standard, though, the two point to Poland’s Chopin vodka, which they describe as having a silky-smooth mouthfeel. Chopin is made from Stobrawa potatoes.
Despite the fact that the potatoes are coming literally from Scanlan’s backyard, Woody Creek Distillers is no mom-and-pop enterprise. The first batch of what the team expects to be a 10,000-case-a-year run is timed to be ready for the American Distilling Institute convention in April, a major gathering that happens to be scheduled for Denver this year. “That’s our coming-out party—a gathering of everybody in the industry,” Kleckner says.
The ambition is apparent upon entering the premises, a striking, wood-dominated space featuring a tasting room where the distillers can pour their products for the public, collaborate with local chefs on spirits dinners and sell their wares: the vodkas, aged brandy made with Paonia apples, pear brandy and a “baby bourbon.” (Gin is planned as well, and the team is also making whiskey and bourbon from Colorado grain—it’s undergoing a two-year aging process and will be ready by 2015.) The bathrooms feature museum-quality art; Pat and his wife, Mary, a co-owner of the distillery, are collectors.
Things are no less impressive behind the scenes. The massive tanks, from the German manufacturer Carl—“the Mercedes of stills, handcrafted by the family going back five generations,” according to Kleckner—are gorgeous to look at. The aging room for the whiskey is high-tech to the degree that it can mimic the temperature and humidity conditions of Louisville, Kentucky. “That’s the cradle of American whiskey and bourbon. Our goal is a whiskey that can compete with those,” Kleckner says.
Probably the only part of the operation that fails to dazzle is the resumes of some of the distillers themselves. Scanlan and Kleckner, who both happen to be electrical engineers, claim more expertise in drinking spirits than in crafting them; Scanlan has the added background of having owned a liquor store, Jimbo’s in Basalt, for nine years. Their experience in making spirits extends back only two years, when they started a crash course—certifications from Cornell (and Michigan State for Kleckner) plus an internship at Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane—to prepare for launching Woody Creek Distillers.
Yet what they lack in experience they make up for in equipment, enthusiasm, a thirst for quality—and the finest raw materials the earth can provide.
“We’ve learned why Woody Creek was once the potato capital of Colorado,” Scanlan says.
GO FIND IT!
Woody Creek Distillers
60 Sunset Dr., Basalt
Tasting room open Tuesday–Sunday afternoons.
Tours available upon request. Call or see website for details.