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High Country whiskey makers

Alex Miller
summit daily news
Summit Daily/Mark Fox
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It doesn’t take long when visiting Breckenridge Distillery to discover how easy it is to geek-out over the process of making booze. Bryan Nolt, CEO and Jordan Via, head distiller, are visibly impassioned about their enterprise, and they’re happy to have folks pop by just about any time for a tasting and a tour of their facility on Airport Road just north of Breckenridge.

Both men have backgrounds in chemistry, and Nolt is an MD – a radiologist who works at a hospital in Pueblo. He makes the trek to Summit County several times a week to look over the operation he started several years ago with the help of investor friends and Via – the creative force behind the high-end whiskeys, vodkas and liqueurs the small craft distillery is turning out.

Nolt, 39, and Via, 34, met several years back when Nolt – a self-proclaimed whiskey lover – attended a class at the American Distilling Institute in California where Via is an instructor. Later, when Nolt was fishing in Summit County, a friend put the idea of a distillery in Breckenridge in his head.

“At first I laughed, but then I thought about it,” Nolt said. “If I could get the proper instruction I could totally do it. So I studied and studied – and then I met Jordan.”

With Via acting as a consultant, Breckenridge Distillery was born about three years ago. And when it came time to hire a full-time distiller and Nolt asked Via for suggestions, Via ultimately suggested himself and made the move to Breckenridge. Since it takes a good three years for a bourbon to age enough to be ready to drink, it was just this past October that Breckenridge Distillery opened its doors and started making product available to the market. Now, the business is working to expand its distribution channels and make its products available around the state.

Stepping into Breckenridge Distillery on a production day, visitors may be surprised to note that it doesn’t smell all that different from one of our local brewpubs. After all, Via explained, when making whiskey, first one essentially has to make beer. It’s what happens after that initial phase of brewing in the mash kettle that turns the fermented grain into distilled alcohol. Imported from Kentucky and custom-made for Breckenridge Distillery is a pot-style copper still that towers above the production room floor. Looking like something out of a Jules Verne novel, the $140,000, 500-gallon Vendome still is the engine behind the business. With its multitudinous valves, feeder pipes, gauges and porthole-style windows, the still has an other-wordly feel to it – new though it is, it still looks like it was transported here from the 18th century.

“Every shape, every bend affects the flavors,” Nolt said. “There were other stills we could have gotten and ones that weren’t all copper, but we wanted this one – a real workhorse.”

Since they’re busily making batches of whiskey and vodka every week, the distillery is already starting to run out of room. Nolt said they’re going to open a new barrel house nearby later this year to store whiskey as it ages. While still a few years away from being able to offer their Scotch-style whiskey, Nolt and Via both maintain it’s going to be “huge.”

“Our single-malt will be ready in another two years, and we won’t be able to keep it in stock,” Nolt said, adding that a lot of it is already sold by whiskey-philes who know of Breckenridge Distillery’s product and are excited about its upcoming single-malt.

“We’re cramming as much flavor as possible into one bottle of whiskey,” Nolt said.

Like many High Country businesses, Breckenridge Distillery claims to be the “world’s highest,” but in the case of distillation, it’s more than just a marketing phrase. Via explained that making whiskey in Breckenridge really does have its advantages. For one thing, the water:

“When Bryan sent me samples of the (Blue River) water and I did the first analyses, it was honestly unbelievable,” Via said. “The water here is so pure, so rich in minerals and vitamins.”

Most distilleries have to do a fair amount of treatment of their water to add things like phosphoric acid to bring down the Ph for fermentation. In Breckenridge, Via said all he has to do is use a carbon treatment to strip out some of the municipal water additives like chlorine and bromine.

“It’s gorgeous water,” he said.

Another plus is the lower pressure at higher elevation puts less stress on the yeast, while water boiling at a lower temperature simply uses less energy. On the other end of the process, Via noted that the extra-cold water that comes in from the tap allows the condensation process to go faster.

“We just use less water in the process of cooling the gas back to a liquid,” Nolt said.

Currently, Breckenridge Distillery has a very nice winter release sipping vodka, although that’s almost gone. Also out is the winter bourbon – a whiskey Via flavored with various herbs and spices. But there’s plenty of the regular release vodka and bourbon, as well as some of Via’s specialty liqueur concoctions with names like “Monkey Fist” and “Zeitgeist.” There will also be some kind of special release for Ullr Fest, Via said.

Breckenridge Distillery already has a variety of other products for sale ranging from T-shirts and shot glasses to cocktail shakers and a special wobbly highball glass Nolt said he can’t keep in stock. The price for a 750 ml bottle of vodka is $27; the bourbon is $39.

Oh, and a rum is on the way in a few months as well.

“We just want to have a bunch of unique, interesting things that just say ‘Breckenridge,'” Nolt said. “When our single malt comes out, it’s going to be ridiculous.”


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