Tour the saloons of Breckenridge's past and it becomes clear how big a role spirits played in Summit County history. "Distilling has been going on since the mining days here," said Corry Mihm, administrator for the Breckenridge Restaurant Association - so it seems only fitting that Breckenridge should be the birthplace of the state's first craft spirits festival.Now in its third year, the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival this weekend features tastings of specialty vodka, gin, bourbon, tequila, rum, brandy and whiskey from 20 distilleries, both Colorado-based and beyond, at its signature Still on the Hill Grand Tasting.Many of the featured spirits are infused with locally sourced products, like fruits or chili peppers, Mihm said. Peach Street Distillers in Palisade, for example, makes brandy infused with locally grown fruit.Breckenridge Distillery, which partners with the restaurant association to put on the event, is bringing its award-winning bourbon whiskey and vodka, local herb-infused bitters and spiced rum. Surrounding the tasting are a variety of events chosen to highlight local establishments, both past and present, as well as creative uses for craft spirits ranging from specialty cocktails to cookery featuring infused alcohol.
The festivities start Friday at 5 p.m. with a historic saloon tour hosted by the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. The walking tour showcases "the watering holes, saloons and early days of Breckenridge nightlife." A poker run to 20 local restaurants follows Friday evening; festivalgoers can pick up route maps at participating bars or the welcome center and tour the town, tasting spirits and gathering a hand of cards which, for the lucky, could be worth a bottle of craft spirits at the Grand Tasting Saturday. The poker tour features ambassadors from each distillery stationed at the bars to teach about their craft spirits. "It was a really good chance to get acquainted with some of the distillers," said Rachel Zerowin of the Breckenridge Resort Chamber on last year's event. "Then on Saturday I could focus in on what I liked or what I wanted to try." "They'll share what they're thinking; they're very accessible," Mihm said of the participating distillers. "It's not like you could go meet Mr. Jack Daniels. It's a very small, friendly, interesting group of people."
On Saturday from 2-4 p.m., the Breckenridge Distillery hosts an open house at its 4,000-square-foot distilling facility. The distillery won a gold medal at the 2011 International Wine and Spirits Competition for its bourbon whiskey, and its vodka and bitters are also award-winners. Part of what makes its products so distinctive is the local snowmelt water. "Sixty percent of what's in a bottle of alcohol is just clean water," said master distiller Jordan Via. "That beautiful snow serves more purpose than just sliding down the hill on planks of wood." "We try to work with local products," he said. This summer, Via pressed Palisade peaches for a batch of peach bourbon liqueur. At the open house, the distillery will present a watermelon vodka fountain and barrel-aged Manhattans. The weekend's centerpiece event, the Still on the Hill Grand Tasting, follows from 4-7 p.m. at the Riverwalk Center. Still on the Hill features samples of pure liquor as well as specialty cocktails from 20 different distillers, who will be on hand to talk products, pairing, mixology and more. "A lot of the distillers make up a craft cocktail with their product to make it more drinkable to the public, if you will," said Mihm. "So you can see how you would use the products in real life. That part is really fun because the personality of the distillers really comes out." Last year's event drew around 300 people, including distributors and hotel chain buyers. New to Still on the Hill this year is a people's choice award, where guests can vote on their favorite beverage. There will also be acoustic grass-rock by the Honey Gitters, who later play the after-party at the Gold Pan Saloon starting at 9 p.m. Commemorative glassware and Colorado-themed artisan snacks round out the event.
On Sunday, participating restaurants whip up creative brunch options, many using craft spirits featured at the festival. "The restaurants are tying into what the festival is all about," Mihm said, indicating that several local restaurants already order specialty batches of craft spirits from the Breckenridge Distillery. The Breckenridge Heritage Alliance will offer Historic Walking Tours at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, and a sidewalk sale runs today though Sunday too. Local restaurants will extend the celebration through Oct. 14 by offering meals, many featuring craft spirits, for $18.59 in homage to the date Breckenridge was founded. For example, Briar Rose will offer a choice of three $18.59 entrees with Colorado distillery influences, Mihm said. The Warming Hut will offer lamb and eggplant moussaka.
"Colorado is a very friendly environment for craft distilling," Mihm said. Similar to what's happened with craft brewing, the industry is growing - and with the first craft spirits festival in the state (to organizers' knowledge), and its own award-winning distillery, Breckenridge is at the forefront of it. "There really are some good products being made in Colorado by craft distillers, and the awards that are being won are demonstrative of that," she said. "We're fortunate to have the Breckenridge Distillery, and the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival is just a great way to showcase a local business and the craft distilling industry that is growing rapidly, especially in the state of Colorado." Info/Grand Tasting tickets: www.breckenridgecraftspiritsfestival.com