Breckenridge Distillery is known for producing award-winning bourbons, whiskeys, gins, and vodkas, but how is a mash bill or added natural flavors for these spirits decided by the experts? We interviewed Breckenridge Distillery’s Head Distiller Hans Stafsholt about how even the tiniest of elements can change these spirits; flavor profiles from production process, to sipping neat or in a cocktail crafted by Liquid Chef Billie Keithley.
As the story goes, Founder Bryan Nolt – an avid whiskey connoisseur and doctor – Breckenridge Distillery might not have happened had it not been for a fishing trip to the Mohawk Lakes near Breckenridge, shortly after Nolt had returned from Scotland. It was all about the water he was standing in. He knew there was quality there and would be the key ingredient is making whiskey at high elevation.
Let’s talk about step one. Making any type of spirit starts with an outstanding water source. At Breckenridge Distillery – the World’s Highest Distillery – water is being sourced from a whopping 9,600 ft in elevation. This water is high in minerals and nutrients; with virtually no iron. Incorporating Rocky Mountain water into Breckenridge Distillery’s spirits is paramount for creating a quality spirit’s mouthfeel.
Breckenridge Distillery’s “bread & butter” is the 86 proof Bourbon Whiskey. While we’ve gone over the steps and rules of the differences between Bourbon and Whiskeys, let’s take a deeper dive into the ingredients and how they translate from locally sourced grains to your glass.
Corn is the prominent ingredient in creating Bourbon. For Breckenridge Distillery’s Bourbon Whiskey, this base acts as a sweetening agent for balancing out the rye and barley flavors. More than half of a Bourbon’s mash bill needs to be corn, giving the spirit a classic sweetness and one of the reasons why Bourbon is an easy drinker.
TASTE: Light sweetness, caramel, butterscotch, honey
As one of the highest rye content bourbons on the market, rye is the second largest ingredient of Breckenridge Bourbon’s production. To name a few – Breckenridge Distillery uses Port Cask, PX Sherry and Rum Cask Barrels in a lot of finished whiskeys produced. Using a large amount of rye allows Head Distiller Hans Stafsholt to bring out the fruitiness of the cask-finishes once the Bourbon is re-barreled into their specialty casks.
TASTE: White pepper spice, grassy, herbal, berry fruit
Barley is the 3rd component in our award-winning Breckenridge Bourbon. Stafsholt references the use of malted barley for its enzymatic potential in the mash process, and the flavor it can add to finish off the mash bill for bourbon. The enzymes produced by malting barley help break down the natural starches of the mash into simple, fermentable sugars in production.
TASTE: bready, nutty, light honey
Full Circle: Spent grain from Breckenridge Distillery’s Bourbon Whiskey mash process is sent down to Fitch Ranch Farms. This grain is used to feed the cattle that provides the Tomahawk Ribeye served at the Breckenridge Distillery Restaurant.
Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey isn’t the only highly awarded spirit produced at 9600’. Breckenridge Gin won World’s Best Gin back in 2021 at the World Spirit Awards. This botanical spirit starts off as the same grain neutral base as vodka, with a special system to incorporate these flavors in a light and aromatic way using a Gin Basket.
The first step in making Breckenridge Gin, different than a Breckenridge Vodka, would be the addition of a key player – Juniper. Traditionally, Juniper is used to give the neutral spirit an herbal and piney flavor. At Breckenridge Distillery, Stafsholt uses a special Juniper known for its vibrance and berry juiciness compared to versions of the same plant and found in other gins across the country. It’s lighter, more approachable, and a great “starter” Gin if you’re just getting your feet wet.
TASTE: pine, herbaceous, juicy, sweet
Coriander – the seeds of a cilantro plant – is also a major tasting note in Breckenridge Gin. This aromatic seed is known to give off an intense, tart and almost holiday flavor to it, pairing well with citrus.
TASTE: white pepper, light zesty citrus
While we’re on the Breckenridge Gin topic, we decided to include the last few elements in the same category. The citrus (orange, lemon) notes combined with the rest of the herbs, roots, and flowers actually makes this distillation process almost smell like ‘Froot Loops,’ according to Hans.
TASTE: reminiscent of a warm summer’s day
One of Liquid Chef Billie Keithley’s favorite spirits to create cocktails with is the amaro-style sipping liqueur, Breckenridge Bitter. This liqueur is made with Genepy. Genepy is an alpine flower with digestif qualities that only is known to grow above tree line around the world. Historically, it’s been used by mountain communities and their descendants for medicines, liqueurs and dishes alike.
Fun Fact: Back in the day, doctors could write a prescription for this spirit as well as others.
TASTE: chamomile, feverfew, wormwood
Used in the Breckenridge Distillery-exclusive spirit Aquavit, these 3 herbal elements are some of the key ingredients dominant in the spirit’s tasting notes. Aquavit, as it stands, is one of the oldest (recorded) forms of distilled liqueurs with a set of guidelines. Starting with 15th century Vikings, these herbal components (among many others) are infused with the grain neutral spirit (just like Breckenridge Gin) to give Aquavit its classic taste. Stafsholt will typically use these ingredients, combined with black sesame seeds, to achieve subtleness on the palate. He balances Aquavit out with ingredients like kaffir lime leaf – adding a touch of herbal citrus, without tasting like you’re biting into an actual citrus fruit. Lastly, the coriander pronounces itself to tie into each of these flavor profiles, balancing the spirit out.
TASTE: anise, rye bread, citrus, fennel
When sourcing elements for our spirits, Stafsholt will always try to source as much as possible from Colorado. From the grains provided for Breckenridge Bourbon by Whiskey Sisters Supply and Root Shoot Malting, from Pears from Palisade, CO, to chilis used in the Chili Chile Vodka from Pueblo, CO – it’s hard to find a spirit from Breckenridge that doesn’t start from Colorado.
Pears (Palisade, CO)
Making Colorado Pear Brandy to be blended in Breckenridge Pear Vodka has proven ‘fruitful’ in creation of the adored spirit. By taking the extra step in creating the brandy, the infusion of the spirit pronounces itself in a drier setting – reminiscent of the fresh fruit once used.
TASTE: lush ripe pear, essence of cinnamon, cardamon, dry wine
Chili (Pueblo, CO)
Bloody Mary’s, anyone? Breckenridge Chili Chile Vodka is the perfect spirit for your favorite Sunday morning cocktail. The smokiness from the Colorado Pueblo Chilis paired with the added kick from the Red Turkish Maresh Chilis, Breckenridge Chili Chile Vodka makes a great mezcal or tequila substitute. For both the Chili Chile Vodka and Espresso Vodka, Stafsholt will use a process called “maceration.” This is essentially the same as steeping tea – giving the spirits a color in addition to naturally adding flavors.
TASTE: chipotle spice, smoke
Espresso Beans (Various CO)
Using locally-roasted espresso beans from rotating Colorado vendors, the Espresso Vodka is a fan favorite and best-seller at Breckenridge Distillery tasting rooms. This decaffeinated spirit is what you’ll want to use in your next Espresso Martini or White Russian. The coffee flavored vodka is infused with maple and vanilla to create a pronounced finish without the excessive sweetness.
TASTE: reminiscent of chocolate and maple drizzled waffle with a warm cup of coffee
Breckenridge Distillery produces a Spiced Rum – true to the original style of Caribbean Rums using brown sugar and molasses as the base. This juice is produced in a pot still and then aged in Breckenridge Bourbon barrels, bringing out the fruit notes as well as spicey, dry flavors from the Bourbon Whiskey once aged in the barrel. Once those barrels are done, the Bourbon goes back into the barrel creating Breckenridge Rum Cask finish.
TASTE: maple syrup, toffee
Find cocktail recipes at Billie’s Cocktail Lab
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