Like its flagship bourbon, Breckenridge Distillery just keeps getting better with age
The founder of Breckenridge Distillery is celebrating 10 years in business this year, a nice milestone for Bryan Nolt, a doctor-turned-distiller who was only looking for a hobby when he started it.
Since coming online in 2007 and releasing its first vodka and bourbon three years later, Breckenridge Distillery has quickly become an award-winning producer of fine spirits, earning Bourbon of the Year and Distillery of the Year awards, in addition to being designated one of the top three whiskies in the U.S.
Led by its flagship bourbon, the distillery’s products are available in 48 states. The business employs almost 100 people from California to New England, and Nolt can boast having the largest distillery in Colorado. This year, Nolt expects to sell about 140,000 cases. That’s after doing about one case a day when the distillery first opened.
How it all came to be, however, stems from a mix of just the right ingredients, a hint of luck and a deep love for quality whiskey. None of it might have happened, however, if not for a fishing trip.
With a successful medical practice at the Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo, Nolt was feeling quite accomplished as a radiologist, even though the demands of the medical industry had worn him thin.
Over a decade of medical school, training and work, Nolt’s weeks were long even before he moved to Colorado in 2003. After coming to the state, little changed in Nolt’s hectic life. He remembers months would go by in which he never really got to see the sun.
“We were turning and burning,” he said of the medical center. “Radiology is about productivity, and we were a very productive group, but man, it wears on you. You usually don’t realize you’re in a bad state of health mentally and physically until it’s too late.”
Looking back, Nolt knows he was “a mess” at the time but couldn’t see it. Working day and night, weekends and holidays, he knew he needed an outlet, he said. The good news was that, as a doctor, he had the resources to pursue it.
“I think that, when you’re in a position like (I was), where you’re working that much and making great money doing it, your hobbies get kind of weird,” Nolt said. “My weird hobby became whiskey.”
The doctor soon fell into a whiskey club of like-minded individuals. They would get together three or four times a year, in which they were always trying to one-up each other with increasingly rare, unique whiskies, the kind of stuff you can’t get in the U.S., Nolt said.
As the story goes, Breckenridge Distillery might not have happened had it not been for a fishing trip to the Mohawk Lakes near Breckenridge, shortly after Nolt had returned from Scotland, where he had searched for those super-rare spirits.
Nolt remembers this particular day as beautiful. After a nice hike and the best day of fishing he’s ever had in Summit County, Nolt and his buddy, also a doctor, weren’t exactly on the same page. The friend was feeling weighed down by the medical profession, much like Nolt was, except for the biggest difference between the two might have been that Nolt’s friend could admit it.
“The whole time, he was like, ‘Dude, I want plan B,” Nolt recalled, remembering that he himself was so pumped after the trip to Scotland that he could only think of whiskey. As fate would have it, his friend’s discontent and his focus on whiskey were the right combination for an idea.
“I can go into a lot of detail about that day and how epic it was,” Nolt said, “but hiking down, the light went off. It’s not like I found salvation, but I found an inspiration.”
He noodled on the idea for a few weeks before mustering up the courage to tell his wife. After promising her he wouldn’t get in over their heads, his wife was receptive to the plan, Nolt said.
“The real question was: Can I get to the point where I could establish this business as sort of my second passion after medicine and not lose my ass completely?” Nolt recalled.
In his mind, with a few employees and Breckenridge’s amazing water, there was a clear opportunity to make great spirits and “just revel in it.” He figured they’d start small, take their time and he’d have his outlet.
“I didn’t expect it would replace my career by any means,” said Nolt, who still practices medicine on a limited basis. “But that was the motivation behind it.”
About four to five months into the venture, Nolt said, he saw he could cash flow the distillery. He didn’t see a clear way to make a profit or return dividends, but he could keep the business afloat.
“If it didn’t work out, I could always take a haircut and sell stuff off,” he said. “That’s where I was at that point in time.”
Starting up a distillery was a learning process too, Nolt said, explaining that even though he came into it as “a whiskey nerd,” he quickly began taking distilling courses. During one of those classes, he met a key piece of his operation in instructor Jordan Via.
Needing help with the distillery, Nolt reached out to Via early on in hopes Via might recommend a good master distiller. As it turned out, Via was interested in the job himself, and Nolt said that’s when things really started to take off.
Now, Nolt sees the distillery coming of age after transitioning from the mom-and-pop business he started with into an entity that functions like a finely tuned, publically traded company.
“All we wanted to do was make great whiskey,” he said of then and now. “That was really the goal. I wasn’t trying to get rich or market some crazy story. I just wanted to make great whiskey.”
This article originally published Nov. 13, 2018. It was featured in the 2019 spring Explore Summit magazine.
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