Who: Victor Matthews, head of Paragon Culinary School and Black Bear Restaurant (now closed after 15 years), and part owner of Bourbon Brothers Holding Corp.
When: Aims to have the distillery fully operational by summer, but an un-aged, Irish-style moonshine called "poteen" in bottles by mid-March. An Irish-style, un-peated single-malt whiskey should follow by mid-summer, and MountainShine flavored moonshines by fall or winter. A bourbon to come in future years.
Where: Distillery and tasting room will be at 10375 Ute Pass Ave., Green Mountain Falls, in the former Black Bear Restaurant.
What: MountainShine aside for now, let's examine the whiskeys. (Consider reading the "why" section below first.) Matthews plans to ferment in cypress wood casks and distill in a 400-gallon copper pot still. But before that, he aims to house-malt by procuring GMO-free San Luis Valley barley, soaking it in the local creek (or using his well water), and then spreading it on the Bear's attic floor to germinate, stirring it with snow shovels over the course of a few days or more, depending on seasonal, ambient temperatures. He'll then dry it with fans and heat from a large fireplace, also encouraging a limited amount of aspen or local wood smoke interaction.
Next would come an on-site stone grinding of the barley, ideally via animal power, then a standard distillation and immediate bottling for the poteen. For the single-malt whiskey, it'd be a three-month minimum barrel-aging with staves added for expedited maturation. And because of the high demand, wait-time and expense for barrels currently, he's researching whether anyone could step up to become a cooper and craft barrels on site. (When Matthews dreams, he dreams big. To his credit, he holds 30-plus years in the food and beverage business, Paragon just turned 10, and his consulting work at Bourbon Brothers has yielded a huge bourbon menu.)
Why: "Total insanity has occurred since we last talked," Matthews says to me when he first picks up the phone.
He's been toiling since 2013 with MountainShine, meant to compete in the marketplace with flavored vodkas and rums. But the product remains on hold as he tinkers with the formula and label descriptions to satisfy federal requirements. For his whiskeys, he says "every single word on those labels was an argument or discussion for more than six months — I went through nine drafts."
In the interim, Matthews credits divine intervention for shifting his focus to an "ultra-artisan" whiskey. From a product description: "creek-soaked, house-malted, attic-fireplace-dried local farm barley ground on an ancient millstone by rescued donkeys. Some say insane. I say: You want 'craft'? You got it."
While researching mechanized grain grinders, he stumbled across 1,000-pound millstones, found and for sale in Conifer, Colorado. He bought them and hauled them back, and has employed carpenters to attempt a rig to make them work as they would have hundreds of years ago.
His wife came across a donkey rescue at the same time, and suggested he employ the animals to turn the stones and be beloved distillery mascots. They've applied for a variance to allow donkeys within Green Mountain Falls; if they don't get it, they'll aim for small draft horses, or solar-fed pumps to run a water wheel, or windmills. At a recent town planning commission meeting, several enthusiastic locals even volunteered to turn the stones by hand as a show of support, says Matthews, who'd likely throw some finished whiskey their way for the effort.
If house grinding becomes unfeasible for any reason, he'll still aim to malt and dry in-house.
Tasting notes: Alas, no whiskeys are ready for sampling yet. Early MountainShine tests with a base white dog provided by Breckenridge Distillery did show promise at an informal sampling I attended among Matthews' friends last year.