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Sep 30/13

Breckenridge Bourbon Takes Distilling to New Heights Posted by: Dan | 0 Comments

The first time I was in Denver was before they got their baseball team. Coors Field was under construction — Todd Helton was in high school in Knoxville and Peyton Manning was still dreaming of wearing the green and white of the Isidore Newman School. And late one evening, in the Ship Tavern of the Brown Palace Hotel, a fearsome and swole-knuckled Irish drunk offered me a job. 

I took it, and it took me out West to Arizona for a couple of years, though I always knew I’d come back, like every Southerner does eventually, even if it’s in a box. It was the sort of job I needed then, I was coming off a bad marriage, and I needed the money it offered and to get away from the scene of my crimes. Arizona is still a wild and raw sort of place, kind of like Florida would be if you ran it through a jerky maker, full of weird conspiracy nuts and gun runners and sunglassed evangelists convinced that wealth is a sign of the Lord’s favor. The air was hot and dry and it made you aware of every breath you drew in your lungs. I needed that for a while.

Arizona was a showroom where you could inspect crazy close up and decide whether you wanted some or not. I took my time looking it over, but decided I wasn’t buying and came back home, no hard feelings on anyone’s part, though I dreaded telling Michael — for that was the Irishman’s name — that I was going home. He wasn’t above sucker-punching the occasional recalcitrant employee, and in those days, we both probably could have used our indoor voices a bit more frequently than we in fact did, but when I rapped on the wall outside his office door (his door being literally forever open to transverse that particular Rubicon) and walked in and his Tibetan Mastiff lifted his head, Michael just smiled and asked if a little more money would make me stay.

And a little more didn’t (though a lot would have), and so two weeks later I found myself in the company of a few of the sweetest and artsiest weirdos I have ever known in a windowless bar on Grand Avenue called Chez Nous, drinking rye and cola and sucking in second-hand Gauloise smoke. And about midnight, about the time my eyes had adjusted to the smothering darkness of the joint, in strolled Michael, with a bottle of Bushmill’s Black and box of Cuban cigars for me to take back to “whatever hickneck Dixie town would have me.”

I hugged that burly man and said my goodbyes. And the next morning drove straight through to Van Horn, Texas; genuflected near the spot where Ben Hogan met that Greyhound, slept a couple of hours in the Jeep, and from there back home.

A few years later Michael would call me up to ask if I wanted to work for him in New York City. I came closer to accepting his offer than he’ll ever know.

But anyway, Denver is what we were talking about, and where I’m calling from just now. I think my girl and I could just about live here, in the summertime at least, the streets are clean and wide and while the air’s a little thin it has that cool biting scent I associate with mountains and certain less objectionable men’s grooming products. It’s got bars and a respectable football team that employs Archie Manning’s middle boy.

It also seems an oddly spruce place, like a city that was put together by a high end kitchen and bath remodeler, the sort that wears a starched denim shirt to work and carries a little tack hammer with a polished peen and a pearl handle. (“Tick tick,” he goes on the cabinetry, and you’re down another hundred dollars. “Tick tick.”)

It’s full of expat Southerns, like the aforementioned Messrs. Manning and Helton, and it definitely likes its bourbon. The Ship Tavern has on its menu a drink they call the “Colorado Crisp” which is made from honey-infused Breckenridge Bourbon, basil and red pepper. The honey comes from the bees who swarm on the hotel roof, so I don’t expect you’ll be able to find the infusion in your local dram shop, though plain old Breckenridge is popping up here and there around these parts and might be worth your time if you aren’t married to the idea that your bourbon got to be from some particular somewhere to be authentic.

What I know of Breckenridge is that its distillery claims to be the world’s highest, at 9,600 feet, and that it produces all sorts of small-batch spirits, including gluten-free vodka and bitters as well as a bourbon that can hold its own with most Kentucky thoroughbreds. It’s another one of those science project bourbons (like the Arkansas Young, I was telling you about awhile ago), in that it’s aged for only two to three years.

While that might matter to those who are comforted by the thought that their whiskey has lain around for 20 years or more, all that really matters is how a bourbon tastes (and, to be honest, how it makes one feel) and in my highly unscientific taste tastes (which consist of me pushing shots at friends of varying degrees of discrimination and saying — perhaps unnecessarily — “try this”) it is one of the most-favored sipping bourbons presently residing in my liquor cabinet.

And my friends aren’t the only ones who discern a certain quality in the quaff — Breckenridge Bourbon has picked up a few accolades in the tippling press, and won one of only three Gold Medals handed out for Bourbon at the 2011 International Wine & Spirit Competition.

Myself, I detect a certain rye-ish fire herein, which may be explained by the mash bill comprised of 38 percent rye and 56 percent corn with the remainder made up of un-malted barley. Part of the marketing story is that the water they use comes from Rocky Mountain snowmelt from the glaciers atop Mt. Quandary. For the record, they argue that snowmelt “provides pristine water with a unique ph balance which lends a distinctive flavor and texture.” (Maybe so. If Walter White can make a better product by foregoing traditional methods and cooking with phenyl-2 propanone, maybe water that’s been really cold does make a difference.)

Oh, and they also distill it in a traditional copper pot still.

Anyway, got nothing against Denver. But I’m a little leery of this Arizona bourbon I’ve heard about. It’s probably distilled with rattlesnake venom.

 

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Dale Smith is an artist, musician, writer and dog person who lives in the South.


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