A rare whiskey in the wild of Colorado

High mountain spirits from Wood’s High Mountain Distillery

Wood's Distillery in Salida, CO

Once, at a high-end whiskey bar in Chicago, a friend of mine spent $100 on a flight of Pappy Van Winkle, one of the more expensive bourbons on the market. That $100 got us three half-ounce pours of bourbon, essentially one normal glass. My buddy said it was worth it, to taste something he’d never had before.

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

Having sampled Pappy Van Winkle and other allocated bourbons, I can say I’m glad I tried them, but I’m not anxious to spend the sort of money required to sample them again.

My favorite meals and drinks almost always have strong memories attached to them. A perfect date, a moment shared between friends, or a highlight from a trip. Recreating that meal or libation is a way to capture it and relish that memory, even if it means going far out of my way for it.

There is one bottle of whiskey that I’ll go out of my way for. The rarity comes from limited production and distribution, but tracking it down has always been well worth the effort. Born in the mountains and rivers of Colorado’s Chaffee County, the spirit is as bold and rich as the lands it hails from. Beyond that, the whiskey itself is rooted in memories of one very snowy and very hungover camping trip with my Pappy Van Winkle friend.

I picked up this bottle of rye from a tasting festival in Denver, right before heading out to camp near Breckenridge. We spent most of the two-day camping trip under a snowy cloud, but the whiskey was there to keep us company. Both of us agreed it was one of the finest bottles we’d had, and I’ve kept my eye out for it ever since.

Hailing from Salida, Wood’s High Mountain Distillery produces a variety of gins and malt whiskies a stone’s throw from the Arkansas River. Having sampled most of Wood’s spirits over the years, I can tell you I haven’t had a drop from them I haven’t enjoyed, but their Alpine Rye remains a standout for me. While plotting my course for a family trip, I knew it was as good an excuse as any to hunt down the bottle and see if it stood up to my memories, and to chat up the makers and pry the secrets from them.

Rare whiskies are often rare because they are allocated—a distributor determines how much stock gets sent to various regions, retailers and restaurants. For smaller producers, like Wood’s and other Colorado distilleries, the rarity comes from limited production. 

Distillery founders and brothers PT and Lee Wood kindly shared some of the secrets to their whiskey process with me, the rye in particular. Altitude certainly has an impact, PT says, starting with the distillation itself. Water boils at a lower temperature the higher up you get, which means the heart of a distillation starts evaporating at a cooler temperature and brings rich flavors along with the ethanol.

The aging process isn’t directly affected by elevation, but definitely by the dry climate. In humid places like Kentucky, Ireland and Scotland, moisture in the air helps keep barrels swollen. Whiskey goes in the barrel to age, chemistry occurs and a drinkable spirit comes out a few years later. More alcohol evaporates, called the angel’s share, resulting in a slightly lower proof than what initially went into the barrel.

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

“I think it certainly produces unique spirits at altitude,” he says. “I think our rye is a beautiful, drinkable spirit.”

It certainly is, in this writer’s opinion. Rye whiskey is known for a sharp, spicy flavor on the palette. The Alpine Rye has that signature black pepper bite, lifted with a fullness that comes from a blend of malts. Chocolate and caramel envelop that bite, mellowing it out and adding a robust and velvety texture that makes for a rounded and full-bodied whiskey. 

The rye is a limited release, the Wood brothers explain, in part due to the lengthy fermentation process. Whereas many whiskies have a three-day fermentation between mash and distillation, Wood’s ferments for eight days to draw out more flavor and distillable esters from the process.

“It’s certainly a challenge,” Lee says. “It’s a really long fermentation, but this is how we get the whiskey we like.”

This time through Salida, my timing was apparently impeccable. The distillery had just released the latest batch of rye the day before I showed up. I savored a cocktail and enjoyed the charming tasting room, making sure that one of those bottles left with me.  

Email the author at mattmaenpaa@gmail.com