BASALT - More than 20 acres of spuds growing in Woody Creek will soon be put to good use - and we're not talking french fries.
Woody Creek Distillers is close to starting production after spending the past six months converting a former furniture store in the Mid Valley Business Center in Basalt into its home. The distillery is looking at a "soft opening" in early November with a grand opening around Thanksgiving, said Mark Kleckner, partner, master distiller and chief operating officer.
"We're right at the cusp of wrapping up," he said.
Within the next few weeks the distillery aims to start making vodka from the Woody Creek spuds.
"We'll be cranking through the potatoes," Kleckner said.
Mary Scanlan, Kleckner's partner in the distillery, planted more than 20 acres of potatoes on the Woody Creek ranch she and her husband, Pat, own. They grew different varieties of potatoes on a test plot last summer to see which would take best to the soil and other conditions on their ranch. They obviously chose well, Kleckner said, based on the yields they are getting this year. Their prodigious harvest shows why so many farmers and ranchers in the Roaring Fork Valley used to grow potatoes a generation or two ago, he said.
Most of the Scanlans' potatoes remain in the ground, but some were dug up to test processing equipment at the distillery. A couple of giant cloth bins that look like oversized towel hampers at a gym are stuffed with potatoes at the distillery. The bins represent less than 1 percent of the potatoes available from Scanlan's ranch for production of Woody Creek Vodka.
A crew is scrambling to integrate control panels with the stills at the distillery. Once the network of sophisticated equipment is hooked up and tested, the distillery aims to start production.
The potatoes will be treated as a seasonal product with a limited shelf life rather than stored for weeks or even months before they are used.
"We will harvest one day and process them the next," Kleckner said.
Or, more accurately since we're talking spuds, they will go from the field one day to the masher the next.
"It takes about four or five days to ferment," Kleckner said.
Then the vodka will be allowed to sit for close to one month before it is bottled and served or sold.
The Woody Creek Vodka won't use additives to create any of the fancy flavors that are sweeping a segment of the market right now. Instead, it will be a good, old-fashioned vodka.
"We've got world-class stills," Kleckner said. "We've got world-class raw materials. We're going to let the character of those raw materials speak for themselves."
The hops and grains needed for gin, whiskey and bourbon will come from the Paonia and Olathe areas, Kleckner said, asserting that the distillery's ingredients are "local or hyperlocal." Apples and pears from the North Fork Valley around Paonia also will be used to distill brandies. Instead of farm to fork, as the local food movement likes to say, Woody Creek Distillery will be going "farm to bottle," Kleckner said.
The whiskey and bourbon must age for two years. The other spirits will be available when Woody Creek Distillers officially opens.
The partners initially hoped to be operating by the start of summer. Their application sailed through the Basalt government review process in November, but construction was delayed until March. Caldera Construction of Basalt transformed the former Mountain Homefitters space near Valley Lumber from a bland, medium-sized box into a building with an eye-catching exterior. It features lots of glass, rusted metal columns and tan, sandstone-like cover.
During the review process, the application said 80 percent of the interior of the 10,705-square-foot building will be used for production. The production area features several copper- and silver-colored stills of various shapes and sizes as well as various tanks, all of which are polished. The main row of stills looks like the top of a majestic, super-sized pipe organ. The focal point is two copper-colored stills that soar 35 feet from the floor to the ceiling.
The stills were purchased from Carl Industries in Germany, whose website says it has been making artisan distilling, mashing and brewing equipment since 1869.
"They are certainly the Mercedes of stills," Kleckner said.
The special stills will allow Woody Creek Distillers to make base ethanol from scratch. Many boutique distillers purchase high-proof alcohol and water it down to their specifications. Kleckner is confident that will give the operation an edge.
The distillery will focus on quality production rather than quantity. Its application said it hopes to produce 10,000 cases of spirits when fully operational.
The distillery also will have a close connection with its customers. The front entry will feature a public area separated by large glass windows from the production area. It provides a bird's-eye view of the stills. There will be computers stationed in that viewing area with displays about potato farming in the Roaring Fork Valley and the distilling process.
Adjacent to the viewing area is a 2,000-square-foot space featuring a high-class bar, tasting room and lounge. Wood finishes and a vinyl product floor that looks like old barn wood give the tasting room a comfortable feel that's both modern and rustic. The space also will have a retail area where its spirits will be displayed and sold along with hats, shirts and other clothing.
The distillery's sign was installed on the building in late September, fanning expectations among people passing by.
"The interest in the project has gone up exponentially by the week," Kleckner said. Being a master distiller, he's eager to wrap up the construction phase so he can get at what he does best.
"We'll hit the ground running at Thanksgiving," Kleckner said. He estimated that the distillery will employ about a dozen workers.