Roughly half a million pounds of Woody Creek potatoes were converted into 10,000 cases of vodka by Woody Creek Distillers this fall at its new facility in Basalt.
With luck - and a timely decision by the federal bureaucracy - Roaring Fork Valley residents will get a chance to taste the results by the end of February.
Woody Creek Distillers is awaiting approvals from the federal government on the formulas of its spirits as well as the design of its custom-made bottles from Italy and its labels, according to Mark Kleckner, partner and master distiller. Until those approvals are made, the well-decorated tasting room cannot open at the distillery and Woody Creek Vodka cannot be bottled and sold.
"I probably get three or four calls per day saying, 'When are you going to open?'" said Amiee White Beazley, who is directing the company's marketing efforts.
Woody Creek Distillers is located next to Valley Lumber in the Mid Valley Business Center on Willits Lane in West Basalt. The company undertook a multimillion-dollar conversion of a former furniture store that totaled about 10,705 square feet. World-class stills made by Carl Industries, of Germany, were imported for the operation.
Woody Creek Distillers had planned to open at Thanksgiving, but plans were dashed by government review. One quality that should speed the review process is Woody Creek Distillers' lack of additives to its vodkas, bourbons, whiskeys and gins. It uses natural ingredients and water. Therefore, he didn't have to send samples for federal employees to test.
When the time comes, Kleckner is confident Woody Creek Distillers is going to soar from the opening of the door. He and his partners, Pat and Mary Scanlan, invested in the best equipment possible. They also believe they mastered the best process for producing vodka, in large part by using the best ingredients. The moment of truth came in November when Kleckner and Pat Scanlan sampled the first vodka their distillery produced. They instantly knew the best equipment and best process equated to what they believe is the best vodka.
They have given a few samples of their product to groups that have toured the facility.
"I'm waiting for somebody to tell me they don't like it," Kleckner said. "Tell me. I want to improve it if it needs it."
One quality that sets the distillery apart from others is the freshness of its potatoes, according to Kleckner. Most of the potatoes were processed the day after they were harvested at the Scanlans' Woody Creek ranch. Because of the sheer volume and the impending freeze, some were stored in a potato cellar at the adjacent Aspen Valley Ranch.
Most other distillers are using potatoes that were culled from food production and then stored for as long as a year, he said. Those spuds dry out and need additional water added to the process.
Kleckner can talk at length about how Woody Creek Distillers' process produces a superior vodka - and he will describe it in detail eventually while mixing with customers at the tasting room. In short, better potatoes produce better, pure ethanol. It requires less filtering of unwanted byproducts and just one distilling. It produces a silkier, creamier vodka, Kleckner said.
The distillery also has produced whiskey, which will age in American white oak barrels until fall 2014, pear and apple brandy and "baby" or "juvenile" bourbon, which will age more quickly because it is aged in 5-gallon white oak barrels. That bourbon, therefore, will be able to be sold sooner than the 50-gallon barrels.
Kleckner and his crew will be producing gin soon, as well. They will use juniper from the Roaring Fork Valley but also intend to master a recipe using other "botanical" ingredients from western Colorado.
They intend to use corn, wheat, rye and barely from western Colorado in addition to the Woody Creek potatoes. The distillery received permission from the Basalt town government to install two 20-ton silos behind the building to store the materials for future distilling.
The blossoming Basalt operation already has raised eyebrows in the growing craft-distilling industry. White Beazley said the president of the American Distilling Institute recently toured Woody Creek Distillers and opined that it would be one of the top five craft distillers in the country right out of the gate in terms of production.
Kleckner said the goal is regional and eventually national placement of the distillery's spirits. He looks at the model established by early, successful microbreweries such as New Belgium, Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams.
"Those guys were us guys 15 years ago," he said.