Aspen Times Weekly: Woody Creek Distillers – from seed to sip |

Aspen Times Weekly: Woody Creek Distillers – from seed to sip

Amanda Charles
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Photo by Derek SkalkoCover design by Afton Groepper

ASPEN – From the exterior it looks like a development that began construction just a year ago, but talk to Pat Scanlan and Mark Kleckner for five minutes and they will tell you a longer story. It was a partnership carved from a background in engineering, a relationship secured by a common love for motorcycles and drinking. It was an idea that surfaced seven years ago and led to an opportunity that grew right under their feet.

If you ask the two of them how it started, Scanlan will tell you he was the persistent one – the one who wrestled with the idea years ago and just couldn’t let it go. Kleckner agrees, claiming it to be the biggest leap of faith he’s ever taken, having no textbooks or expertise of this scope or scale to show him the way.

They had separate lives.

Scanlan grew up in New York and graduated from Syracuse before becoming a missile and space network engineer for Lockheed Martin and IBM, while Kleckner, a native of Colorado, worked in mergers and acquisitions, helping close half-billion dollar deals in Washington, D.C. The two crossed paths through work and started a friendship out of similar interests. This was before Scanlan purchased a 30-acre ranch in Woody Creek and left his job to join a generation of family farmers in Colorado .

Splitting time between family, the farm and a Basalt liquor store that he owned and managed, Scanlan conjured up an idea that could someday marry his newfound pastimes of farming and good spirits: to open the first-ever craft distillery in the Roaring Fork Valley using potatoes grown from his own soil. But in order to do it right, he needed the help of his longtime engineering friend, Kleckner.

It didn’t happen right away.

Kleckner continued his work in D.C. while he juggled the idea back and forth, often executing some high-level business planning to determine whether Scanlan’s proposal could make sense in the long run. After giving it extensive thought, and realizing a dream to return to his home state and build something from scratch, Kleckner left the East Coast for good in 2011 and joined Scanlan on the farm for his biggest endeavor yet.

Now, after a handful of distillery classes, an apprenticeship at Dry Fly Distilling in Spokane, Wash., a partnership with two universities to acquire a premium Stobrawa potato culture from Poland, a summer of farming and four months of distilling, Scanlan and Kleckner have engineered their way to creating a 10,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art distillery, tasting room and the release of five ultra-premium American spirits right here in the Roaring For Valley.

Woody Creek Distillers, nestled in Basalt and just seven miles from Scanlan’s farm, will open its doors in late February with 10,000 cases of spirits to be distributed in 2013 – an inventory that will label it one of the top five largest and most productive craft distilleries in the country upon opening.

But according to Scanlan and Kleckner, who have spent much of their lives solving problems and learning how to distinguish the good from the bad in craft spirits, becoming the largest distillery on the map isn’t necessarily on their agenda; rather, they want to become the best distillery on the map.

So how do they do this? By employing a multimillion-dollar custom-made copper and stainless steel CARL distillery plant housing two, 34-foot rectification columns, raw, Colorado-produced ingredients, and an unwavering desire to control every aspect of production – from farm to bottle.

“Initially we were taken back by how many American craft distilleries were buying bulk quantities of a neutral grain spirit, blending it with some other ingredients, distilling it three times over and then calling it their own,” Kleckner said. “We knew from the start our product(s) would be 100 percent handcrafted, recognizing that our customers have a right to know and choose.”

A neutral grain spirit, as described by Scanlan and Kleckner, is another term for a clear and colorless pure grain alcohol that has been distilled from a grain-based mash to a very high level of ethanol content, up to 95 percent alcohol or 190 proof. One of the most common neutral grain spirits in the United States today is Everclear.

“Walk into any distillery in this country and if you don’t see rectification columns on the stills, you know they’re not making their own ethanol for vodka or gin,” Kleckner said, referring to the distillery’s two, 34-foot rectification columns that work to bring their vodka up to temperature.

“With mass industrial production of neutral grains in recent years, a lot of vodkas taste the same because the focus has been on removing as much flavor from the base product as possible,” Scanlan added.

Such is the case with one of America’s most popular vodkas, Smirnoff, he said.

Nevertheless, while neutral alcohols with little character have perhaps defined the country’s stylistic preference in recent years, Scanlan and Kleckner, with their passion for quality and taste, know better. And this is why they chose to reintroduce one of the most prolific crops to be grown here on Colorado soil: the potato.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Roaring Fork Valley produced more potatoes than the entire state of Idaho. As legend goes, after a bear-hunting trip to the area, President Teddy Roosevelt requested potatoes from the valley be served at his 1905 inaugural dinner.

“It started with a subjective matter of taste,” Kleckner explained, describing some people’s preference for the popular potato vodka, Chopin. “But it worked because of Scanlan’s farm, and the great history of potatoes here in the valley.”

But contrary to the yield of potatoes Scanlan’s seeing on his farm (250 tons in three months), when it comes to the making of potato vodka as opposed to grain vodka, the process – from farming to costs to production – is much more difficult, thus making it a rarity in the marketplace.

And, as if keeping up with the growing of Colorado Rio Grande russets, Chepita and Lady Claire potatoes for their signature vodka wasn’t enough of a task and a rarity in itself, the two friends one-upped the industry by becoming the only distillery in North America to obtain and grow the Polish Stobrawa potato for their reserve vodka.

Knowing that the Stobrawa contained twice as much starch than other varietals and was used in the making of many premium European vodkas, Scanlan found a contact at the University of Wisconsin who grew the potato seed in a test tube. The culture was then transferred to Colorado State University professor of horticulture Doug Holmes, who handed it off to Scanlan and Kleckner to plant on 2 acres on their farm in Woody Creek.

“I think the reason why [the universities] were so eager to help us out is because we were first to contact them about using the seed for vodka purposes, as opposed to food purposes,” Kleckner said.

And excited they are, because upon opening, 1,000 bottles of Woody Creek Distillers’ Reserve Stobrawa Potato Vodka will be available for purchase.

Back in Basalt, Scanlan give a tour through the distillery, describing how the potatoes are picked from the fields and dropped off the same day for production – a freshness he says very few can imitate.

Other ingredients like Olathe sweet corn, apples, pears, grains, herbs and botanicals for the making of their other specialty spirits – gin, an apple brandy and a pear eau de vie – are all sourced within a 200-mile radius of the farm, ultimately awarding it the classification, “hyperlocal.”

“Our goal is to be as close to our ingredients as possible,” Kleckner said, “and by doing this we will not only be environmentally friendly with little emissions by transportation, but we will have a finished product that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the world…a spirit that can only come from Woody Creek.”

At the end of the month, the Woody Creek Distillers will open its doors to the public, inviting everyone to stop in and get a taste for what friends Scanlan and Kleckner have been working on for so long – a project that started with an idea and ended with a craft.

And, at the thought of reaching a point where demand overcomes supply, Scanlan smiles and shakes his head, because he knows if anybody can figure it out, he and his partner in engineering, Kleckner, will.

“I guess other people could look at us and think we are crazy…that we are going beyond our means for perfection,” he said. “But if they knew us, our values and our passion for quality, they would understand that not only are we consumers ourselves, who want the best product available, but that we could never settle for anything less.”

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