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Breckenridge Distillery Takes Whiskey to New Heights

Most people look at Breckenridge, Colorado, and see a great place for skiing, hiking, mountain biking, and maybe a vacation home. Bryan Nolt, founder and CEO of Breckenridge Distillery, looked at this mountain village and saw a future of award-winning whiskey. Thank goodness for vision.

HISTORY

Photo by Becca Howard

Breckenridge Distillery was founded in 2007, born of Bryan’s love of single malt whisky and vision of high-altitude whiskey excellence. “Bryan is a huge Scotch nerd, a complete geek about it,” laughs Erin Solomon, retail manager at Breckenridge. “He did a month long tour of Scottish distilleries, came back, and said, ‘There’s no one doing anything like this in the U.S.’”


Bryan’s day job as a radiologist didn’t give him the skills he needed to make his whiskey dreams a reality, so he took a course on distilling. Afterwards, he struck up a conversation with the instructor, describing his dream of starting a Scotch-style single malt distillery in the mountains of Colorado. The concept must have resonated, because that instructor, Jordan Via, ended up becoming Breckenridge Distillery’s first master distiller.


From the beginning, Bryan knew Breckenridge had some special attributes going for it. The altitude, first and foremost, impacted their process in some unusual ways. As anybody who’s ever tried to bake a cake or make hard boiled eggs in a mountain vacation rental knows, cooking is different at high altitude, so Bryan and Jordan had to fine-tune their copper pot stills to function properly nearly two miles above sea level.


Then, they had to face a tough reality: The super-dry air of the Rocky Mountains meant that the angel’s share—the name for the quantity of whiskey that evaporates from the barrels every year—was much higher than in Kentucky or Scotland. But there’s a silver lining to that quirk: Breckenridge Distillery’s whiskey ages more rapidly, developing those concentrated dusky notes of age in less time than distilleries closer to sea level.


Third, and perhaps most importantly, Breckenridge Distillery has access to some of the cleanest, purest water in North America. Located right on the cusp of the Continental Divide, Breckenridge’s water filters through the summits of the Rocky Mountains before percolating to the surface, filled with minerals and boasting a crisp, crystal-clear taste.

BLENDS

Inspired by producers in Scotland who have elevated blending to an art form, blending has always been at the heart of what Breckenridge Distillery does. The idea that blending produces an inferior whiskey is one of the most common misconceptions in whiskey; virtually all whiskeys, from Kentucky bourbons to your favorite single malt, are combinations of multiple barrels, selected to combine harmoniously into a cohesive whole.


One of the reasons blending is so important is the natural variation in whiskey flavor profiles. So many factors influence the way whiskey tastes, from the variety of grains used, to the source of the oak in the barrels, to the climate of the aging warehouse, that making the same exact barrel twice is virtually impossible. No matter how careful distillers are, each barrel of whiskey tastes a little bit different.

Photo by Becca Howard

This poses a challenge for distillers: If they want to create a whiskey that tastes similar to a previous bottling, they’ll have to achieve that through blending, a process that takes time, skill, and training, as well as deep stocks of maturing whiskey to draw from.


At Breckenridge, the distillers source whiskey from producers throughout the United States, including Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana, and also produce their own whiskey onsite in copper pot stills and, as of this year, a brand-new Vendome column still that increases their capacity by a factor of 10 (woo hoo!). Finishing casks, including sherry, port, dessert wine, and other styles, are another way the distillers at Breckenridge add more options to their blender’s palette.


Breckenridge blenders test, tinker, and taste hundreds of potential blends before settling on a final combination for each and every release, with the exception of single barrels, which, by definition, aren’t blended at all. For every release, they’re striving to achieve what they think of as their house style—a spicy, full-bodied bourbon—in a way that’s immediately recognizable to their fans. That means selecting a mix of barrels from four different types: Oaky, spicy, neutral, and fruity.


“Blending is a huge, huge part of our business, and a big part of what we’re proud of here,” says Erin. “We’re constantly inventing. Hans, our current head distiller, is working on a barrel-aged gin and a rum cask finished whiskey. We’ve got a Sauterne cask finished whiskey that we’re going to be giving to some of our whiskey club members. We’re always trying new stuff; it’s a very frontier, Old West, cowboy mentality.”


While Breckenridge Distillery might have launched to make malt whiskey, right now, it’s their bourbon that’s getting the most attention. Breckenridge uses a high-rye mash bill to create a bold, spicy flavor profile that takes to high-altitude aging like a snow bunny to fresh powder. In addition to their flagship Breckenridge Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys, which combines whiskeys from Colorado, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana, they also produce a range of special releases finished in unique casks or bottled at higher strengths.

HIGH PROOF BOURBON

Recently, Taster’s Club had a blast selecting our very own High Proof Bourbon to share with club members. Breckenridge says the High Proof is the best way to get a sense of what the distillers really experience during the blending process, since they’re evaluating barrels at cask strength instead of watered down to 86 proof. Every sample we tried was delicious, but ultimately we settled on one with a unique dry, earthy flavor profile that just seemed to speak to the Wild West origins of Breckenridge Distillery.

Photo by Meredith Austin Photography

Breckenridge Distillery’s unique location, focus on blending, and commitment to amazing quality seem to be paying off. It’s one of the most award-winning distilleries in North America, and earlier this year, it was named Brand Innovator of the Year by Whisky Magazine. Clearly, there was something to Bryan’s initial dream of bringing whiskey to the Rocky Mountains.


But for the folks at Breckenridge, making great whiskey is just one more way to show off how special this part of the world is. “There’s a really exceptional lifestyle that characterizes Breckenridge the town, and the distillery in particular,” says Erin. “Our location is unparalleled. Where else are you going to be able to ski and mountain bike and kayak? It’s sort of a joie de vivre: we eat well, we drink well, and we live well here.”

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