You wouldn't know it based off my last three consecutive weekends attending out-of-town events, but really, I don't drink all that much — a couple to a few drinks a week on average, if that.
First there was the vino-centric Harvest Fest Winemaker's dinner in Cañon City with The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey, on Sept. 23.
Then, the sudsy mother lode that was this year's Great American Beer Festival in Denver, on Sept. 30.
And finally, this past weekend's 2011 Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival, or Still on the Hill, which encompassed a three-hour grand tasting at the Breckenridge Riverwalk Center on Saturday, followed for me by a very exclusive (as in fewer than 30 invites) "Distiller's Victuals" dinner inside the Breckenridge Distillery's barrel house.
To be clear, I'm not saying "very exclusive" to sound like a braggart or schmuck, but simply to say in truth that it was a small affair attended mostly by fellow distiller friends of Breckenridge Distillery CEO Bryan Nolt, with a handful of media folks to serve as documentarians and thankfully, fellow feasters as well.
I landed my invite randomly, after casually chatting with Nolt at late August's Craft Lager Festival.
The gentleman I sat across from at the dinner, Tom Fischer, ventured to Breck all the way from Indiana to cover the day's events. He runs BourbonBlog.com, one of the most-trafficked spirits websites in the world. Having nearly 28,000 Twitter followers also says something about those who follow Fischer's coverage of mixology and more.
You can find links to several videos on his website, including this analysis with Nolt on the fine Rocky Mountain water that helps create Breckenridge Distillery's bourbon flavor:
Why the Water Matters in Breckenridge Bourbon and Vodka from Bourbon Blog on Vimeo.
Fischer, in correspondence today, says, "We were so impressed with Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival ... we visit a lot of spirits festivals and this one was one of our favorites!"
Take note of that sentiment for next year, considering the super-fair ticket price of $20 for the grand tasting, which included unlimited samples from the distillers as well as great cheese samples from Buena Vista's Jumpin' Good Goat Dairy and a lovely charcuterie spread from Denver's Il Mondo Vecchio.
Something else special: a handful of attendees' products, like Santa Fe Spirits' kick-ass apple brandy, aren't distributed in Colorado Springs yet, making this an opportunity for trying some sips your friends won't have. (Who's exclusive now? You'll be the life of the next party.)
Take a quick tour through the festival in this slideshow.
I'll get back to that special distiller's dinner below, but first I'll provide some overall impressions of the grand tasting, including some favorite sips.
Any spirit could be tasted neat if desired, but most everyone in attendance was pouring specialty cocktails they'd designed ahead of time; one vendor (who I'll be taking a closer look at in my Side Dish column soon) had even rushed to the local grocery store the night before to buy cloves to whip up a last-minute mix in his hotel room to tie into the fall season.
Also from Cali, Hangar One Vodka poured some fun infusions, including a delightfully throat-burning chipotle flavor, made with habaneros, chipotles and jalapeños.
Back to our homegrown players, Loveland's Overland Distillery, distributed by Dancing Pines Distillery, served a wonderful absinthe that's made mostly with locally collected mountain herbs. I tried it neat first, finding it equal in quality to Leopold Bros., who were also on display at the event.
Then the Dancing Pines folks made a delicious absinthe coffee cocktail for me, using their own espresso liqueur and club soda, having first run absinthe along the inside of the glass, for just a thin coating and mild flavor contribution.
The Breckenridge Distillery folks used their bourbon for a really awesome pumpkin cocktail that included the following ingredients: lemon juice, maple syrup, pumpkin pie filling, apple cider, brown sugar, cinnamon, apple sauce and toasted pumpkin seeds and sliced apple for garnish.
Something else you can make with their product is called a Thai Coffee:
1.5 oz. Breckenridge Bourbon
3 oz. Thai coffee (or sweetened coffee, brewed and chilled
Coat the rim of a rocks glass with cocoa powder and sea salt. Pour bourbon and coffee over rocks and stir to mix.
I could of course go on, as there were many worthwhile samplings and outfits present, but for the sake of some modicum of brevity, let's hop to that Distiller's Victuals dinner, and, you guessed it, another slideshow capturing it (as best as possible by candlelight).
Now that you've seen the feast, see the full menu here:
Not that Breckenridge doesn't have its suitable share of high-end fine dining establishments, but Hopscotch Bakery and Bingo Burger's Richard Warner and Mary Oreskovich out of Pueblo actually catered the whole event. Turns out that Breckenridge Distillery's Nolt, also a radiologist by trade, is actually a partner in Bingo Burger, hence the connection.
I was at first surprised that more courses weren't paired with spirits or cocktails, having attended a bad-ass Colorado cocktail dinner at the Summit at the Broadmoor this past March. (Come on, I don't drink that much ... that was back in March — geez.)
But current Colorado Distillers Guild president Rob Masters from Rob's Mountain Gin later pointed out to me that this wasn't an event meant for showing off each others' spirits to one another, as everyone present was already pretty well acquainted.
By his estimation, it was more meant to just celebrate together in a beautiful setting, after having already focused on spirits at the grand tasting earlier in the day. Besides, he joked, most distillers are also beer drinkers or wine drinkers outside of work, so they were happy about a mostly wine-paired meal.
Nolt, who only opened to the public a year ago, but whose staff already garnered an impressive gold medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition a few months ago, says he did a smaller dinner like this last year just for friends.
This year, he says he wanted to expand it to seat more folks and plans to do the same next year, so who knows: maybe some year you'll be able to buy a ticket to something like this. He wanted the media involved because he's still a newer company and is only distributed in about 12 states. He hopes to be coast-to-coast in stores soon.
Beyond the all-round fantastic meal — the sweetbreads being my favorite course, followed up by the wild boar sausages in a close second — one of the biggest treats was a sampling of a cask-strength version of the Breckenridge Bourbon, held back from a very special single barrel. (That's the beaker of bourbon you see pictured in the slideshow.)
Distiller Jordan Via and Nolt explained that sometimes during their own work and tastings, they encounter a special barrel with a particularly unique and superior flavor. So they hold it back for something special like this. It's proof is slightly higher than the bottles found in stores; closer to 94 than 86. But its flavor is still smooth, vanilla-forward in the nose and simply delightful to drink.
That about wraps it up for me; I've got some drinkin' to do. (Kidding!)
But in the name of transparency beyond tastiness, I need to give a shout of gratitude to distillery HR person Maya Berthoud for helping coordinate my weekend and to PR manager Rachel Zerowin of the Breckenridge Resort Chamber who along with the Abbett Placer Inn, provided very lovely lodging that enabled me to attend Still on the Hill.