Whiskey cocktail

A rare whiskey in the Colorado wilderness

OSince then, at an upscale whiskey bar in Chicago, a friend of mine spent $100 on a steal of Pappy Van Winkle, one of the most expensive bourbons on the market. That $100 got us pouring three half ounces of bourbon, basically a normal drink. My boyfriend said it was worth it, to taste something he had never had before.

The real question though, is it really worth it beyond bragging rights? A subjective question only has subjective answers.

After sampling Pappy Van Winkle and other allotted bourbons, I can say I’m glad I tried them, but I’m not eager to spend the kind of money needed to taste them again.

My favorite foods and drinks almost always come with strong memories. A perfect date, a moment shared with friends or a highlight of a trip. Recreating that meal or libation is a way to capture it and savor that memory, even if it means going all out for it.

There’s a bottle of whiskey I’ll do my best to get. The rarity comes from limited production and distribution, but its search has always been worthwhile. Born in the mountains and rivers of Chaffee County, Colorado, the spirit is as bold and rich as the lands it hails from. Beyond that, the whiskey itself is rooted in memories of a very snowy, very hungover camping trip with my friend Pappy Van Winkle.

I picked up this bottle of rye at a tasting festival in Denver, just before I went camping near Breckenridge. We spent most of the two-day camping trip under a cloud of snow, but the whiskey was there to keep us company. We both agreed it was one of the best bottles we’ve had, and I’ve kept my eye on it ever since.

Hailing from Salida, Wood’s High Mountain Distillery produces a variety of gins and malt whiskeys just steps from the Arkansas River. Having sampled most of Wood’s spirits over the years, I can tell you that I haven’t had a drop that I didn’t enjoy, but their Alpine Rye remains a go-to for me. While planning my route for a family trip, I knew it was a good excuse to search for the bottle and see if it stood up to my memories, and to argue with the makers and wrest secrets from them.

Rare whiskeys are often rare because they are assigned – a distributor determines the amount of stock sent to different regions, retailers and restaurants. For smaller producers, like Wood’s and other Colorado distilleries, scarcity comes from limited production.

Distillery founders and brothers PT and Lee Wood kindly shared with me some of the secrets of their whiskey making, rye in particular. Altitude definitely has an impact, says PT, starting with the distillation itself. Water boils at a lower temperature the higher you go, which means the heart of a distillation begins to evaporate at a cooler temperature and brings rich flavors with the ethanol.

The aging process is not directly affected by altitude, but certainly by dry climate. In humid places like Kentucky, Ireland, and Scotland, the humidity in the air helps keep barrels inflated. The whiskey goes into barrels to age, the chemistry sets in and a drinkable spirit emerges a few years later. More alcohol evaporates, called the angels share, which gives slightly less proof than what originally went into the barrel.

In a dry climate like Colorado, with cold winters and hot summers, the angel share presents itself differently. There’s more speculation than scientific study, says PT, but Colorado whiskeys come out of the barrel at a higher strength because more water evaporates than alcohol.

“I think it certainly produces unique spirits at altitude,” he says. “I think our rye is a fine alcohol to drink.”

This is certainly the case, in the opinion of this author. Rye whiskey is known for its pungent and spicy flavor on the palette. Alpine Rye has that signature black pepper bite, enhanced with a fullness that comes from a blend of malts. Chocolate and caramel envelop this bite, softening it and adding a robust, velvety texture that makes for a round, full-bodied whisky.

Rye is a limited release, the Wood brothers explain, partly because of the long fermentation process. While many whiskeys have a three-day fermentation between mash and distillation, Wood’s ferments for eight days to extract more flavor and distillable esters from the process.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” says Lee. “It’s a very long fermentation, but that’s how we get the whiskey we love.”

This time, thanks to Salida, my timing was seemingly impeccable. The distillery had just released the last batch of rye the day before I arrived. I sipped a cocktail and took advantage of the lovely tasting room, making sure one of those bottles left with me.

Email the author at mattmaenpaa@gmail.com