Strange things happen when you fall in love. It would make The Proclaimers walk 500 Miles but for Alastair Brogan, originally from Motherwell, it took him 4,500 miles to Colorado where he decided to make whiskey with an ‘e’. In the telling he makes it sound simple.
‘I married an American,’ he says, ‘and sold my business in Glasgow. My wife said “Let’s go to America.” We came here to Boulder for a month. I’d been here before, for the skiing. So we rented a house for a month, and loved it so much that we bought it. I didn’t yet have my Green Card so I applied for that and we came out here to live.’
Boulder’s known for healthy living, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, but it also has a healthy interest in drinking. There are twenty breweries, six wineries and four distilleries in this city of fewer than 100,000 people. Maybe the fact that one-third of those people are students helps. The distilleries include the one that Alastair now owns, The Vapor Distillery.
At Vapor Alastair works with his Head Distiller Ted Palmer and the team already produces two gins, a vodka, a 30% proof pumpkin liqueur and, inevitably for a Scotsman, a single malt whiskey.
‘My intention was always to start a single malt distillery in the USA,’ Alastair says, even though he had no background in distilling. After becoming a Junior International in both rugby and water polo, he served in the RAF for ten years and then joined the family firm, Brogan’s Fuels.
‘I’ve always had an interest in whisky and when I moved to the States and looked at what was going on in the craft distilling revolution here, and the market, I decided to follow my passion. We went round all the distilleries in Colorado, looked in and saw what they were doing. I then spent a month at Isle of Arran Distillers with James MacTaggart, and I’ve several distillers in Scotland who are mentors. Most importantly, though, my Head Distiller here, Ted Palmer, has been distilling and brewing for 25 years and is creative, passionate and has a proven track record.’
True to his roots, Alastair bought a Forsyth still, and invested £8,000 in a traditional Scottish spirits safe. He tried to buy grain in the USA but ended up buying in Scotland as it was both cheaper and better.
‘48% of Scotch whiskey uses a particular yeast,’ Alastair adds, ‘which is not available in the USA, so I’m importing it. But we’re not copying Scottish whisky, it is very definitely a US-style whiskey.’
Alastair Brogan isn’t the only one following his passion in Boulder, where distillery tours are as popular with locals as visitors. Less than two miles away two more distilleries stand almost side by side and both, like Brogan’s, have bars that are buzzing with visitors. In The Boulder Distillery, which makes 303 Vodka, the décor is decidedly quirky, with model planes hanging from the ceiling.
‘They were made by my grandfather and they all fly,’ says owner/distiller Steve Viezbicke, who shares his story with me over a glass of his potato vodka.
‘The distillery started in 2008. Before that I made my own wine and beer for many years. I was an audio engineer for twenty years. When they gave me the cut in 2008 I thought “Screw it. I’ll do what I want to do.” Back then you could distil 10 gallons for your own consumption, so I did.’
Steve, who has more than an air of the mad scientist about him, felt strongly that if he could make this distilling thing work, he could support his family and not have to worry about being fired again.
Another part of the distillery’s décor is a battered old suitcase, which is where Steve’s love affair with distilling began. And just as Scot Brogan makes whiskey, Steve, being of Polish extraction, makes vodka.
‘My grandfather came over before World War One when the Russians invaded Poland. He was 16 and brought one trunk with him. His worldly possessions were in that trunk and he came in through Ellis Island. Many years later, when my grandfather died, we rediscovered the trunk. I found a recipe in it which turned out to be a vodka recipe. I was able to translate the words for potatoes and water. I thought at first maybe it was potato salad, or a soup! I saw yeast and then thought maybe it was potato bread. I was translating all this through Google back in 2004 when it took Google hours to find one word. Eventually it dawned on me that it was a vodka recipe.’
It’s the recipe Steve uses to make his 303 Vodka, though he tweaked it a little till he got the vodka smell he remembered vividly from childhood. He also now makes the only potato whiskey in the USA, and several infused vodkas that he only sells at the bar. Everything is bottled and labelled by hand in the distillery, where Steve’s wife, daughter and son-in-law all work. There are regular music and poetry events, and the bar clearly attracts the broad range of characters you could just as easily expect to find in a Glasgow pub.
A few yards away is JL Distilling, which was opened in 2013 by two friends, Seth Johnson and Justin Lee. The two met through the Boulder Home Brew Club, where they were the only ones who were also interested in distilling.
‘That was back in 2000,’ says Justin, whose background is in chemical engineering. ‘But when federal law changed in 2006 and made it easier to distil alcohol, we started to talk about having our own distillery.’
When JL opened in 2013 there were no more than five distilleries in the whole of Colorado. Now there are 65.
‘People in Colorado are hungry for locally-produced anything, especially in Boulder,’ says Justin. ‘We’re already going to be doubling our square footage at the end of the summer so we can also produce bourbon, whiskey, rum and absinthe. The first bourbon into the barrels will require two years of aging, but we might have some rum by Christmas. We make all our own mixers and syrups for the tasting room bar, as well.’
JL also makes a gin infused with beetroot, which sounds bizarre but tastes divine, especially in the Beet Down cocktail where it blends with ginger, tarragon honey, lemon juice and a simple syrup. All JL’s bottling is done by hand, and despite being new kids on the block they were voted Colorado Distillery of the Year at the New York Spirits Competition.
Even newer on the block is Geek Spirits, a husband-and-wife operation which opened in March 2015 and specialising in rum. It too arose out of passion, and out of a magazine article that husband – and self-confessed geek – Greg Starr read on a plane. The article was about micro-distilling, and caused Greg, who has a PhD in Electrical Engineering, to say to his wife Sherial: ‘That’s what I want to do.’ So they did. He and Sherial now run the distillery between them, their only employee being their 12-year-old son. Buy why rum?
‘Because I love rum!’ says Greg with great enthusiasm and a wide grin. ‘There are a few other rum distilleries in Colorado. Some use cane juice, which is easier to use but you don’t get as much flavour, I don’t think. We use the kind of molasses a baker might use. We’re different from anything else in Boulder, but that wasn’t planned, it just happened. We’re doing what we wanted to do. We’re doing rum because we wanted to do it, not because no one else was doing it. We actually started as Geek Vodka but then we decided not to do vodka. We do have a bourbon recipe we’re playing with, and we’re trying a tequila which we’ll call 100% blue agave spirit. We figure that if we can’t sell it we can always drink it!’
Well, I’ll drink to that, and to the can-do enthusiasm of these Boulder distillers who are all following their dream and their passion, including the man from Motherwell. Any chance he’ll be exporting his American whiskey to the Auld Country?
‘I’m working on it,’ says Alastair with a smile.
For information on touring Boulder’s distilleries, visit their websites:
Vapor Distillery: http://vapordistillery.com
Boulder Distillery (for 303 Vodka): http://303vodka.com/boulderdistillery
JL Distilling: www.jldistilling.com
Geek Spirits Distillery: www.geekspiritsdistillery.com
For information on Boulder see the website of
All Photos (c) Donna Dailey