I’m in Bramble and Hare in Boulder, Colorado, talking spirits with ‘Bar Tzar’ Griffin Farro.
‘We use some spirits from Leopold Brothers out of Denver,’ he tells me, ‘they’re very good. They have everything – good vodkas, their gin won Top New American Gin, and we’re working with them to develop a house gin for us. And we use their American Orange Liqueur.’
Next night at The Bitter Bar, still in Boulder, owner James Lee also sings the praises of Leopold Brothers spirits: ‘I like their rye,’ he says, ‘and their Alpine liqueur. The guys grew up here then moved to Michigan and came back to Denver.’
As I’m headed for Denver there’s clearly only one thing to do – take a tour and find out more about these Leopold Brothers.
The Leopold Brothers Distillery is about 15 miles south west of Denver International Airport, and a 20-minute drive from the center of downtown Denver. It’s in the rather mundane setting of an industrial estate, which makes it all the more delightful and surprising to see the bright white buildings and architecture of a distillery that would be right at home in the Highlands of Scotland. It turns out some of the buildings are modelled after Scottish originals.
There’s a large, light and airy welcome area cum tasting room, with cabinets filled with bowls of botanicals – anise, wormwood, juniper – interspersed with various medals. They’ve won so many awards they could probably melt down the medals and build a new still with them.
Here I’m greeted by Alec Ropes, who does the distillery’s Cocktail Workshops and who tells me that the impressive floor was built out of four box cars by the Leopold Brothers’ dad, the brothers themselves being Todd and Scott.
‘They’d been the Leopold Brothers of Ann Arbor in Michigan since 1999,’ Alec tells me. ‘There they were making beer as a brew-pub. They left in 2005-6 when the rent went up phenomenally. Littleton, Colorado, is where the family is from, which is just south of Denver, so they came back here and started distilling.’
Soon the affable, bearded figure of Todd Leopold arrives to give me a distillery tour. Todd looks just like a distiller should, and is clearly a man who loves his work. He’s attended brewing schools in Chicago and Munich, and has diplomas in both brewing and malting. He takes me first to see their malting floor, which he’s especially proud of as it is one of only a handful in the USA.
‘Not many distilleries can do their own malting,’ he explains. ‘Everyone buys their malts from places like Canada or Germany. But we start here with 8000 lbs of Colorado barley in each of two tanks. We seep it and then spread it on the floor, where it stays for 5-8 days. So we end up with Colorado malt which we use in our whiskey, bourbon, gin, and vodka.’
I ask Todd how important it is to them to use local produce.
‘Well,’ he says, ‘we like the best produce, no matter where it’s from. We use Colorado barley, peaches, lavender, and other botanicals. But we prefer Michigan cherries. We get our botanicals from wherever we can get the best. Egyptian coriander is a little nuttier than Bulgarian coriander, for example, so it depends what results you want at the end of the day.’
We take a look at the kiln and then go into the Whiskey Room, where the barrels are kept.
‘We have earthen floors in here to keep the humidity up, and that keeps the angels’ share down. We keep most of our barrels on the floor. Some we stack 2-3 high but mostly it’s single barrels. There’s no power at all in this building, it’s all natural.’
Todd credits Mad Men for the boom in interest in spirits.
‘Here in the USA, Mad Men did it,’ he says emphatically. ‘Cocktail bars started popping up, brown spirits were suddenly interesting. At that time I was four blocks from here with two stills and I thought that was it – we’d grown big but that was as far as it was going to go. Now we have seven stills, including the two original ones, and have over 20 products. And we don’t advertise. We haven’t had a sales person for three years. It’s word of mouth. If you’ve got bartenders saying “you have to try this” then you’re onto a good thing.’
As I’d already found out, bartenders were among Leopold Brothers’ biggest fans, Finally I ask Todd why he thinks they’ve done so well in the craft spirits and cocktail boom of the last few years.
‘We’ve been doing what we’ve been doing for 15 years,’ he says, ‘and then the market changed. We were already here. It was pure luck. People ask what our secret is. There’s no secret. Dumb luck.’
5285 Joliet St, Denver, CO 80239
Check the website for details of their Connoisseur Tours, which must be booked in advance. Leopold Brothers also offers monthly Cocktail Workshops, each focusing on a different cocktail such as the Old-Fashioned, or Gin Fizzes.