A Mile High, But Miles Ahead

I think it’s a rather widely misunderstood facet of the modern day spirits craze that most craft gins are indeed “crafted” much like your typical “homemade” spaghetti sauce. I’m putting those two words in quotes because they’re not necessarily untrue in this circumstance, they’re just relative in terms of what we constitute as rustic these days. For example, I’ve “made” my own spaghetti sauce hundreds of times during the course of my life; a recipe taught to me by my father. I generally head to the grocery store, purchase a large can of San Marzano roasted tomatoes, crush them into a thick liquid, then add in various herbs and spices to season that base as it cooks over a low heat. I’ll usually add garlic, oregano, red chili flakes, some bouillon cubes, and parsley; as well as healthy dollops of salt and pepper. After an hour or so of slow simmering, I’ve got my “homemade” spaghetti sauce. To some people, that process is a hell of lot more rudimentary than simply dumping a jar of Prego over some boiled noodles, so they’re impressed by my work. To the more professional cook, however, the term “homemade” means starting from scratch, and using canned goods is perhaps stretching the definition of the word a bit. To the purist, however, calling a sauce “homemade” can go so far as to mean “farm to table,” as in one must first plant their own tomato seeds, tend to the resulting vines, and harvest ones own fruit in order to truly claim origin. But I still know many people who would constitute my recipe as “homemade,” thus they’ll likely have little issue with how most craft gin is crafted today.

And how is that gin made, you ask? In most cases, by running grain neutral spirit through a still within which hangs a botanical basket brimming with twigs, and leaves, and other dried stuff. The boiled alcohol vapor passes through the collection of juniper and various herbs and spices, and—after it condenses back into a liquid—carries the essence of that particular recipe in its spirit. However, much like my “homemade” spaghetti sauce, most craft distilleries start by purchasing their base spirit from larger grain alcohol distilleries. When they say they’re crafting a gin, what they’re really doing is taking another producer’s base material (just like me with my can of San Marzano tomatoes) and flavoring it to their particular liking. The really hard part has already been done for them. They’re not harvesting grains, processing the starch into sugar, and running that sweet liquid through a large column. They’re just finalizing the recipe; they're adding a few sprigs into the so-called sauce. Not to imply that there’s little skill or creativity in creating a gin that way because a number of my favorite gins are made in such a manner. It’s just to say that when I hear about someone actually “crafting” something “by hand” in “small batches” (oh…so many great buzz words!), it would be nice to know if they’re actually starting from scratch. Take the Leopold Brothers for example, two guys who not only make their own base spirit, they also distill each botanical separately and then blend the individual distillates together much like a blended whisky, in true small batch fashion.

Not only is the Leopold Brothers gin truly crafted, it’s one of the great American gins on the market—period. You'd think that would be an easy sell to most consumers, but—alas—Todd and Scott are the Screaming Trees of the grunge rock gin era. They’re like the Pixies, or the Cocteau Twins of alternative distillation—the guys that everyone loves and strives to imitate; the T-shirt you wear when you want other people to know you’re pretty knowledgable about underground booze—but who for some reason never go mainstream and achieve the huge commercial success they fully deserve. But maybe that’s the way they want it. They don’t really need the credit. Everyone knows they’re one of the original craft distilleries (back when that term actually referred to making something more interesting on a smaller, more nuanced scale), committed to creating better spirits via more artisinal methods. The Leopolds floor malt their own rye and barley just like all Scottish distilleries used to do. They work with local farmers to revive interesting and flavorful strains that haven’t been grown since Prohibition. They mill their own grains, ferment their own mash, and everything on site is done by hand (literally, not just for the sake of putting the word on the bottle). They’re also pretty damn good at making just about everything: vodka, rye whiskey, single malt whiskey, liqueurs, absinthe, aperitifs—you name it. I’ve been trying to get out and see the distillation mecca they’ve created in Denver for years, but the opportunity never seemed to materialize until this week. So, once again, I’m on a plane. I can see the Rocky Mountains from the window. I’m ready to hit Colorado running. I’ve just got to get in and out before the Broncos home opener.

We’ve got dinner plans tonight. If Todd’s making spaghetti with homemade sauce, I’m pretty sure it will be from scratch.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll