Skiing's Coolest Distilleries

Woody Creek Distillers bottles Aspen’s high spirits

When the two former electrical engineers behind Colorado’s Woody Creek Distillers planted seven potato varietals near Aspen, Colorado in 2010, they were farming with precedent. Potatoes were the Roaring Fork Valley’s boom crop from the 1880s to the Great Depression. But Mark Kleckner and Pat Scanlan weren’t thinking heritage potato salad. They were thinking vodka. Fresh vodka. Field to flask. “We harvest one day and mash for vodka the next,” says Kleckner.

Woody Creek Distillers  specializes in “field to flask” spirits distilled from fresh, local ingredients, much of it grown by the distillers themselves. Located a half-hour from downtown Aspen in Basalt, Colorado, Wood Creek’s stay-a-while tasting room is open Tuesdays thru Saturdays from 2 pm - 8 pm.  Cocktailmarler |    CC BY-SA 4.0

Woody Creek Distillers specializes in “field to flask” spirits distilled from fresh, local ingredients, much of it grown by the distillers themselves. Located a half-hour from downtown Aspen in Basalt, Colorado, Wood Creek’s stay-a-while tasting room is open Tuesdays thru Saturdays from 2 pm - 8 pm. Cocktailmarler | CC BY-SA 4.0

Craft distilleries (those making less than 40,000 cases annually) and other boutique booze makers are booming across North America. Mountain towns are a particular magnet: Micro distilleries, craft breweries and even small-batch winemakers are popping up throughout the ski world at record rates.

What makes Woody Creek stand out is that it distills with a difference.

Woody Creek’s “seed to sip” distilling starts with the planting of rare potato seed varietals (like Polish Strobawa). Once harvested, potatoes immediately start being processed for vodka—without any storage time.  Øyvind Holmstad |    CC BY-SA 4.0

Woody Creek’s “seed to sip” distilling starts with the planting of rare potato seed varietals (like Polish Strobawa). Once harvested, potatoes immediately start being processed for vodka—without any storage time. Øyvind Holmstad | CC BY-SA 4.0

The best small-batch distillers skip computerized distilling and instead utilize a hands-on mix of art and science—but great equipment does help. Woody Creek’s custom stills were manufactured by CARL GMBH.  Dreamstime

The best small-batch distillers skip computerized distilling and instead utilize a hands-on mix of art and science—but great equipment does help. Woody Creek’s custom stills were manufactured by CARL GMBH. Dreamstime

Woody Creek Distillers sources 100% Colorado rye for its “field to flask” whiskey, which is then aged for a minimum of two years in American White Oak barrels. Throughout the distilling process, low environmental impact is prioritized.  Dreamstime

Woody Creek Distillers sources 100% Colorado rye for its “field to flask” whiskey, which is then aged for a minimum of two years in American White Oak barrels. Throughout the distilling process, low environmental impact is prioritized. Dreamstime

Most potato-based vodka around the globe is made from B-grade potatoes culled from the premier produce that ships to market. The holdovers are stored in bins and cellars (sometimes for a long time) before being made into spirits. Woody Creek Distillers skips all that. Premier spuds are hand-harvested eight miles from the stills. Storage time is nil. Absent, too, are the mass-produced neutral grain spirits (think Everclear, but made from GMO corn), unlisted additives like artificial enzymes and glycerin, and aggressive filtering commonly used throughout the distilling world.

“Harvest, mash, harvest, mash,” says Kleckner. “We grew thirty acres our first year, and produced over half a million pounds of potatoes. At harvest, we cranked vodka until it got too cold to dig.” After harvest, batches work their way through gleaming copper stills and towering fractionating columns in Woody Creek Distillers’ 10,000-square-foot plant and tasting room in Basalt, Colorado. Multiple passes through the still? Not necessary. Woody Creek Distillers meets the proof mark in one single pass.

Sipping Woody Creek’s spirits is like tasting Colorado. Sounds goofy, but it’s true.  © Ski Travel Go

Sipping Woody Creek’s spirits is like tasting Colorado. Sounds goofy, but it’s true. © Ski Travel Go

Colorado Straight Rye Whiskey. Enough said.  Dreamstime

Colorado Straight Rye Whiskey. Enough said. Dreamstime

In addition to vodka, Woody Creek Distillers now crafts gin, rye whiskey and limited edition spirits, all sourced from regional ingredients.  © Ski Travel Go

In addition to vodka, Woody Creek Distillers now crafts gin, rye whiskey and limited edition spirits, all sourced from regional ingredients. © Ski Travel Go

The result is vodka without harshness, but with flavor, character, body and subtle sweetness on the nose. In other words, it actually tastes of the land and water from which it hails. “If you’re looking for complete neutrality,” Kleckner says, “that’s definitely not us.”

What started with 100% potato vodka at Woody Creek Distillers in 2013 has since expanded to gin, rye, accolades and awards.

Meanwhile, the popularity of craft spirits keeps spreading like a cool kind of contagion through mountain towns everywhere, with tasting rooms, distillery tours, cocktail-making classes and, of course, bottles to take back home for tastes of that special mountain terroir.

Woody Creek’s steel, concrete and glass distillery, tasting room and event space are located in Basalt, Colorado, about thirty minutes from  downtown Aspen .  © Ski Travel Go

Woody Creek’s steel, concrete and glass distillery, tasting room and event space are located in Basalt, Colorado, about thirty minutes from downtown Aspen. © Ski Travel Go

Bee’s Knees, anyone? Honey is local to the Roaring Fork Valley, too. (Lemons, not so much.)  Will Shenton |    CC BY-SA 3.0

Bee’s Knees, anyone? Honey is local to the Roaring Fork Valley, too. (Lemons, not so much.) Will Shenton | CC BY-SA 3.0

Tasting flights at small-batch distilleries makes for a very fun après-ski field trip (with a designated driver, of course).  Unsplash

Tasting flights at small-batch distilleries makes for a very fun après-ski field trip (with a designated driver, of course). Unsplash

Does it all make après-ski even more fun? You bet! 

Sample the full range of Woody Creek Distillers’ seed-to-sip spirits in the distillery’s tasting room, located a 30-minute drive from downtown Aspen, at 60 Sunset Drive in the town of Basalt, Colorado. Open Tuesdays thru Saturdays from 2 pm – 8 pm. www.woodycreekdistillers.com

Or, explore Ski Travel Guru’s other favorite ski town distillery discoveries, below.

New Eats in Truckee, California

Truckee, California is a hub for skiers and snowboarders enjoying the destination resorts of Tahoe's northwest quadrant, from Squaw Valley-Alpine MeadowsNorthstar and Sugar Bowl to smaller ski and snowboard areas like Donner Ski RanchBoreal and Soda Springs. Truckee offers a mix of things practical (like supermarkets) and cool (like an old time variety store). The town's historic center is more than 100 years old, and has a very good food and drink scene, influenced by the nearby Bay Area's smart tastes. Here are two new spots.

1. THE NACHO GOES MACHO AT ALIBI ALE WORKS

Buffalo Blue Cheese Nachos at Lake Tahoe's new Alibi Ale Works Truckee Public House.  Jeff Freeman Photography | Courtesy Alibi Ale Works

Buffalo Blue Cheese Nachos at Lake Tahoe's new Alibi Ale Works Truckee Public House. Jeff Freeman Photography | Courtesy Alibi Ale Works

Alibi's Mediterranean nachos are jazzed up with za'atar-spiced lamb, feta cheese and fiery zhoug sauce.  Jeff Freeman Photography | Courtesy Alibi Ale Works

Alibi's Mediterranean nachos are jazzed up with za'atar-spiced lamb, feta cheese and fiery zhoug sauce. Jeff Freeman Photography | Courtesy Alibi Ale Works

S'mores, nacho-style.  Jeff Freeman Photography | Courtesy Alibi Ale Works

S'mores, nacho-style. Jeff Freeman Photography | Courtesy Alibi Ale Works

Korean-flavored nachos, anyone? How about nachos dressed like Buffalo blue cheese chicken wings? A sheet of s'mores in a nacho-style pile? Maybe let the little ones loose on the kid-sized pepperoni pizza nachos while you sip your craft brew and ponder the whole thing. Yep, you're getting the idea: Nacho mania is here.

Alibi Ale Works' new Truckee Public House, which opened in downtown Truckee's historic core in June 2017, offers these and other inventive nacho dishes to pair with 22 rotating craft beers on tap. The clever eats were created by Chefs Tyler and Aubrey O'Laskey, a husband-and-wife culinary team based in nearby Reno, Nevada. The idea (as it always is with nachos, really) is to nibble with friends while sipping good brew.

But you might find yourself elbowing those friends out of the way. Alibi's Korean nachos are topped with kimchi, beer-braised spiced pork, white cheese and a hot ssamjang sauce. The Mediterranean nachos are topped with za'atar-spiced lamb, Kalamata olives, feta, tzatziki, pickled red onions and a fiery green spice paste called zhoug. And the S'mores (on graham crackers, not tortilla chips) are fancied up with brûléed marshmallows, chocolate sauce and smoked salt. 

The Truckee location and nacho menu are new, but Alibi has legs. Its original brewery and taproom are located around the northerly bend of Lake Tahoe in Incline Village, NV. You can taste the ever-changing deep list of Alibi's beer in the Incline location (with your dog at your feet), and learn more about owners' Kevin Drake and Rich Romo's groovy, Tahoe-focused story—but Truckee is the only place to taste their crafty, flavor-filled nachos. Find the Alibi Ale Works Truckee Public House (without your dog) at the corner of Bridge and Jibboom Streets in historic downtown Truckee. Nachos and other bites from US$6 to US$16. www.alibialeworks.com 

2. Late Night Eats at Old Town Tap

Modern yet rustic Italian fare is the name of the game at Old Town Tap. Charcuterie and warm olives are standards, and ingredients are sourced from regional, sustainable food producers.  Dreamstime

Modern yet rustic Italian fare is the name of the game at Old Town Tap. Charcuterie and warm olives are standards, and ingredients are sourced from regional, sustainable food producers. Dreamstime

Wood-fired pizza  Sergei Starus | Dreamstime

Wood-fired pizza Sergei Starus | Dreamstime

Most restaurants in Truckee shut their kitchens by 9 pm. But Old Town Tap, which opened in Truckee's historic center in May 2016, serves wood-fired pizza and a select menu of modern-rustic Italian fare until 10 pm every weekday—and until midnight on weekends.

Launched by newlyweds who met working the food and drink scene in the Bay Area, Old Town describes its fare as "Gastro Italian cuisine created with local ingredients and crafted through old school preservation methods." That translates to a menu with items like house-made charcuterie, an excellent Caesar salad, a salmon belly crudo appetizer (with Mandarin orange gastrique, shiso leaf oil, crispy fennel and candied kumquat), and a sausage and kale pizza (with goat cheese, mozzarella, lemon zest and chili oil). Most ingredients come from regional producers dedicated to both flavor and sustainability. 

Old Town's late night menu is pared down from the full dinner menu, but after-hours eaters will still find satisfying dishes like meatballs, burrata or pork belly rillette, along with all pizzas. The restaurant's 28 taps feature 16 beers and 12 wines alongside an inventive list of eight specialty cocktails, all at reasonable prices. Late night food from US$5 to US$16. Plus, happy hour runs every weekday from 4 pm to 6 pm, with great values on both bites and beverages. Find Old Town Tap on Donner Pass Road a few steps west of Spring Street. www.oldtowntaptruckee.com

Alpine Meadows and its gorgeous Lake Tahoe views are located 20 minutes from downtown Truckee.  Courtesy Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows

Alpine Meadows and its gorgeous Lake Tahoe views are located 20 minutes from downtown Truckee. Courtesy Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows

Truckee's cool historic downtown core dates to the 1860s, but suffered several devastating fires in its early years. Most existing historic buildings date to 1913, when wood construction largely was replaced with brick, mortar and stone.  Bill Stevenson | Courtesy Truckee Chamber of Commerce

Truckee's cool historic downtown core dates to the 1860s, but suffered several devastating fires in its early years. Most existing historic buildings date to 1913, when wood construction largely was replaced with brick, mortar and stone. Bill Stevenson | Courtesy Truckee Chamber of Commerce