Who: Cousins Nick (pictured left) and Ian Lee
When: Aiming to open in spring
Where: Restaurant and retail distribution of Lee Spirits Dry Gin to launch imminently, with a downtown tasting room location also soon to be announced. Look for a speakeasy-style front room leading to a (not-so) secret passage to a back bar, with a view over the distillery operation. "We want to be a local hot-spot for nightlife," Nick told us last July, with a focus on pre-Prohibition-style and modern cocktails, all designed around Lee gin.
What: LSC will launch with a dry gin and a bourbon-barrel-aged gin, then unveil products such as a genever — a distillation of rye, corn and wheat that's more whiskey-like, though still infused with juniper and botanicals, like gin. To legally qualify as a gin, botanicals must be added to a grain-neutral spirit (no sugar allowed), and juniper must be the predominant ingredient. Think of making gin as like flavoring vodka, only naturally, with a second distillation process to extract flavors.
LSC currently uses corn and wheat for its base distillate. To dial in their recipe, the Lees listed every ingredient they could find mentioned in their research, then spent about $150 at Sage Consulting & Apothecary (formerly Sage Woman Herbs) on around 30 herbs and botanicals. They finally settled on juniper, cardamom, coriander, orange peel, lemon peel, angelica and orris root. It took 31 test batches to perfect the final recipe.
"There's so many variables," says Nick, "because the botanicals interact differently." For instance, cardamom brings up the juniper, while also drawing sweetness out of the citrus. Too much or too little and it's off — and that's just one ingredient.
For that second distillation, botanicals are soaked overnight and boiled in the pot still. Some companies place botanicals inside the column instead, to interact with rising vapors, as in Bombay Sapphire; LSC opts for this more traditional method.
With a grain-neutral spirit in hand, LSC can go from botanicals to bottle inside of a day, yielding around 120 bottles per run off a 55-gallon still.
Why: Both cousins are engineers by training, and in the past launched an Internet software company. Nick teaches sociology at Pikes Peak Community College and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and though Ian's kept working in the tech realm, both say they were seeking a creative outlet. So they hit the bottle in a more productive way, delving into cocktail history and pre-Prohibition methods for making booze. Then came a two-day crash course at Downslope Distilling in Centennial.
"We're passionate about cocktails first," says Ian. "We're focusing on how our spirit can pair ... how it should behave based on mixers," as virtually nobody drinks gin straight.
Tasting notes: Up front you'll detect big floral aroma, "which is important because the cocktails we like add a citrus twist, and the floral notes add to that aroma," says Ian. "You get dimension.
"You smell the juniper interact with the citrus — it's like early morning dew and light flowers," he adds, noting that the key is to balance the juniper, particularly with that citrus element, to prep you for the finish. "We've created a time bomb. Your brain's quieted up front, but from the mid palate to the back of the tongue, it's all spicy wood notes. That smooth transition from botanicals into the spice is so important."
Though 90 proof, there's minimal burn in the mouth or chest, just a little finishing hint of cinnamon from the orris.
Once the tasting room opens, look for classic drinks like a gin-and-tonic, a Gin Buck (predecessor of the Moscow Mule), the original martini and the Negroni, whose "support characteristics are harsh, so the gin must be strong with that spicy finish, or else the Campari takes over," according to Nick.
It's the LSC's craft conundrum, highlighted: how to be soft and subtle when required but bold and supple simultaneously. In that Zen way, gin offers a lesson to us all.