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When in Colorado, don't miss Breckenridge Distillery

Pam LeBlanc
Brian Nolt, CEO of Breckenridge Distillery, mixes a special blend of bourbon at the Colorado distillery, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in September. [Contributed by Pam LeBlanc]

Bryan Nolt’s nose detects hints of butterscotch, white pepper and banana in a shot glass full of amber-colored liquid that registers only as yummy-smelling bourbon to most.

Credit that to Nolt’s finely honed sense of smell. A self-described “super sniffer,” the founder and CEO of Breckenridge Distillery can probably tell if you’re still wearing yesterday’s socks. Thankfully, though, he’d rather focus his skill on figuring out the best way to blend four different bourbons into one divine batch of booze.

Nolt, a radiologist who started distilling his own spirits as a hobby in 2007, now heads the highest distillery in the world. He’s talking elevation, not weed. His distillery stands at 9,600 feet and has grown from a small shop where he once mixed up a little whiskey on weekends into an operation that can churn out more than 5,000 barrels of whiskey, gin, vodka, rum and other spirits each year.

The inspiration, he says, came from a magical day at nearby Mohawk Lakes in 2007. After returning from a whiskey-tasting trip to Scotland, he and a buddy packed up sandwiches and an expensive bottle of wine, hiked to the lakes and waded into the shimmering, pristine lake to do a little fly-fishing. They complained about the stress of working in medicine. The fish bit, and then an opera singer randomly showed up and sang, her voice echoing against the mountains.

“The light went off. I wanted to start a distillery using this amazing water,” Nolt says.

Nolt decided to study up on the craft. He read books, registered for courses and connected with an instructor whom he ultimately hired as a consultant to help set up a small distillery in Breckenridge. Together they learned that bourbon made at high elevation with mineral-rich water develops a distinct butterscotch flavor. After a while, Nolt realized distilling could become more than a hobby. He and a handful of investors raised $1 million and went into production.

“Now, instead of just making whiskey on weekends, we were running seven days a week,” he says.

Nolt occasionally leads tour groups through the distillery, a labyrinth of rooms filled with bronze-colored tanks, coils and vats, and stacks of wooden barrels filled with liquor. The facility turns out a barrel of malt whiskey and up to 23 barrels of bourbon a day and employs about 100 people.

A 40-seat restaurant decorated with paintings of Bill Murray serves maple-bourbon glazed Brussels sprouts, rotini made with bourbon barrel char and bourbon floats. There’s a tasting room, retail space and a cool secret lair called the Dark Arts Room, where members of the Dark Arts Society pay $7,500 for a locker. (ESPN’s Chris Fowler has one.) Membership includes bottles of the $450 per bottle Dark Arts Malt Whiskey and other limited-edition spirits, and access to the dark leather and chandelier-decorated lounge, where members can nibble caviar and sip the distillery’s best of the best.

“What I love about scotch is it’s magical — it’s all subtle flavors,” Nolt says. “Bourbons are like a blunt instrument to me. There’re 10 or 15 notes that dominate what you taste. But malt whiskey — scotch, oh, my God, it’s so complex.”

Bourbon, by definition, must be aged in new American oak barrels that are charred. Early on, the distillery made its own bourbon, directly from the grain. But a few years into the project, heavy rains across Missouri and Arkansas, where oak is grown to make bourbon barrels, kept loggers from harvesting the wood. A barrel shortage developed, and those that were made went to bigger bourbon producers, not Breckenridge.

With whiskey sitting in tanks at a critical time and no barrels to store it, Nolt had to decide: Walk away from bourbon production or find a way to make it work.

“As fate would have it, there was some amazing aged bourbon being made in Indiana,” Nolt says.

He bought it and started blending it with the bourbon from the Breckenridge tanks, then bottling and selling it. It put his supply of bourbon on store shelves and made him realize he should start blending whiskey — not just make it.

“The actual art of blending whiskey is a lot harder than making whiskey,” he says. “Blending is where the real art comes in.”

The distillery’s biggest seller today remains a style of bourbon that appealed to Nolt’s own sense of taste. The dry, rye-forward whiskey is less sweet than most others.

Those bourbon barrels, by the way? They get a new life after they leave the distillery. They wind up in breweries, where brewers use them to impart flavor to beer. “I doubt there’s a brewery in Colorado that doesn’t have our barrels,” Nolt says.

Breckenridge Distillery still makes some of its own bourbon from grain, blends other bourbons and produces a total of about 30 different products, including an array of barrel-finished whiskeys, gin, plain and flavored vodkas, spiced rum, peach bourbon liquor made with Colorado peaches, bitters, pear brandy and aquavit, a Norwegian-style spirit.

“The bourbon, while it’s the biggest seller, it’s kind of our least interesting product,” Nolt says.

What’s in store for the next 10 years? That all depends on the country’s taste. If history holds, the country’s fascination with bourbon may fade while its interest in another spirit fires up. Nolt has a feeling that new crush will be gin or malt whiskey.

In the meantime, he’s happy to celebrate his first decade in business

“We survived 10 years — that’s more than most, so we’re happy about that,” Nolt says.

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