Drinking with Doug: Dry Land Distillers produces flavors unique to Colorado

Longmont-based craft distillery is celebrating one-year anniversary

Dry Land Distillers distillery and tasting room, in downtown Longmont, is a charming addition to Longmont’s bustling Main Street.

What to do with the old toy chest?

Obvious answer No. 1: Use it as a cooler for backyard parties.

Obvious answer No. 2: Fill it with dirt and flowers — voila, a whimsical flower pot.

Startling answer only one person on earth ever has offered: Turn it into a malting kiln.

The person, Nels Wroe, dreamed up the ingenious contraption when faced with the first of a parade of challenges trailing his decision to open a distillery.

He wanted to make 100% wheat whiskey, which is unusual. And he was crazy for Sonoran white wheat, a heritage grain. But nobody was malting it.

So he turned to the toy chest, a heat gun, exhaust fans and a gigantic mess across his basement floor.

“That was where we quickly learned to respect our malters,” said Wroe, the co-founder of Dry Land Distillers in Longmont. “It’s a tough job, and it’s critical for the flavor of our whiskey.”

Now, Wroe works with Troubadour Maltings, a Fort Collins company specializing in malting. The process involves sprouting grains to transform starches into sugar, and then roasting the grains to preserve the sugars and shape flavor.

Dry Land celebrated its first anniversary this month. I’ve been following it for awhile, because I’m keen on the distillery’s close attention to craft and rejection of cut-corners (see: turning toy chest into malting kiln instead of working with easier grains).

If you think opening a craft distillery goes down as smoothly as a perfect Old Fashioned, then maybe you’ve had a few too many, Drinking With Dougite. Turning plant material into so many ounces of craft-distilled adult beverage, and making a living doing it, is more like doing shots of rotgut.

Consider Dry Land’s second spirit, made from prickly pear cactus. Initially, Dry Land wanted to make something called bacanora, an agave-derived spirit (like tequila) made in the Mexican state of Sonora. But all of the Sonoran agave was already taken by distillers; none was for sale. Then Wroe discovered that the high-altitude Sonoran-style agave grows in Southern Colorado. He set out to make the state’s first homegrown agave spirit. But nobody was growing agave commercially in Colorado.

Soon after the second strike, Wroe was out with his son and dog on Rabbit Mountain, between Lyons and Longmont. His dog stepped on a prickly pear cactus. While he was yanking spikes from his dog’s paws, he began thinking deep about prickly pear. Could this be turned into a spirit?

He found a Colorado State University professor who worked with prickly pear on the Western Slope, only to learn that while it grows exceedingly well in the state, the cactus lacks a commercial market. So again, none for sale.

Finally, he found a California farmer growing it for the pet food industry. Turns out tortoises like prickly pear. And this guy had enough to sell to Dry Land.

As 50-pound boxes of prickly pear arrived at his Longmont home, Wroe sliced and smoked them in a variety of smokers in his back yard. Eventually, he concluded that mesquite provided the best flavor.

Wroe tried a blender to shred the cactus. It broke the blender. A food processor didn’t work. Hand chopping was not practical. And then he remembered his wood chipper. In went the cactus. Out came strips of smoked fruit that could be used to make a mash.

“We were really nervous about the first batch,” says Wroe. “When we got it from the still and found it was smoky and sweet, we were excited. We have not changed the recipe much since that first batch.”

More trials? Why not. Dry Land wanted to make another wheat spirit, but instead of taking the obvious route — quickly find malters with vast stores of malted grains — the team decided upon Antero wheat, an obscure variety. Researchers at CSU had developed the strain for farmers; it grew especially well in wheat country east of Fort Collins. But the protein profile was not ideal for baking, and it had fallen out of favor.

Troubadour malted it, however, and wondered if Dry Land wanted to experiment. Naturally, Dry Land elected to toss the dice. Now it’s part of the line-up.

And then there is the Dry Land gin. The classic spirit is always packed with botanicals (including juniper, which is required), but few gins showcase a region. With common gin ingredients like citrus, cassia, angelica root and plenty more, it’s more like sipping a world tour of plants.

Wroe wanted a true Colorado gin. Juniper? No problemo. Citrus? Ginger? The decision to craft a Colorado gin forced Dry Land to explore a wide range of Colorado botanicals: pineapple weed, elderberry, rose hips. The final recipe includes nine.

Does it taste like “classic” gin? Nope. But with the Colorado juniper it is unmistakably gin, and the rest of the ingredients communicate in a certain lovely harmony.

The charming distillery on Longmont’s Main Street, where a record player spins vinyl (during a recent visit, it was vintage jazz), is marking the anniversary with a four-day series of events beginning Wednesday, June 26.

If sipping complex Colorado-forward spirits appeals, I recommend swinging by the distillery. Make sure to try Wroe’s rosemary-haunted spiced nuts. You’re welcome in advance.

Dry Land Anniversary Events:

Free tastings at the distillery during the new Downtown Longmont Farmers Market on Wednesday evening

A distiller’s dinner at The Roost restaurant in Longmont on Thursday

A dinner at 24 Carrot Bistro in Erie on Friday featuring Dry Land spirits

A “double-barrel” whiskey release also on Friday at the distillery, when Dry Land will release new barrels of both its Heirloom Wheat Whiskey and its Antero Wheat Whiskey.

Call Dry Land for more details: 720-600-4945

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