By Gregory Daurer | Nov 13, 2016
Joe von Feldt declares, "My desk is actually a bar and a desk."
That wide workspace in his Denver distillery is bordered by shelves stocked with examples of the private-label bottlings that von Feldt's business concocts for others nationwide, as well as his company's own brands. There are upwards of 200 natural flavorings and extracts on the shelves, and a nearby scale to weigh assorted ingredients.
When people come to him with a spirits project in mind, von Feldt brings them to his desk: "We sit down and we try to figure what flavor profile you want. It helps to bring an example [of, for instance, something on the market], then say, 'I'd like to change it this way.' . . . We can dial in any flavor profile that you want." He records the agreed-upon measurements on a spreadsheet, which can be scaled-up to whatever volume of liquid the party is interested in purchasing.
When the company started, it had 10 contracts. Now, he and his partners, Wyn Ferrell and Chase Campbell, prepare spirits for 39 customers. Non-disclosure agreements prevent von Feldt from identifying those brands, he says, but some of those outside contracts include bottled cocktails and liqueurs.
However, von Feldt and Joyce happily discuss Mile High Spirits' own products on the market.
There's Peg Leg Rum, a white rum with an underlying sweetness from blackstrap molasses, and vanilla and caramel notes in the bouquet.
There's also Fireside Whiskey, crafted using a still built in Germany (and a completed distilling system that was assembled in Hungary, before being shipped to Colorado). For the whiskey, which is aged for around two years in white oak barrels, Mile High Spirits utilizes a proprietary lager beer yeast strain, which it propagates itself. The grain bill is 75 percent corn, 20 percent rye, and 5 percent malt. "That's why we use [alpha-amylase and beta-amylase] enzymes, because we don't use enough malt to get an enzyme of value," says von Feldt regarding the mashing process. He adds, "The grain bills have a lot to do with flavor, but I think the yeast strain has even more to do with it."
Joyce, who worked as a brewer at Great Divide Brewing Company before transitioning into distilling, shares his impressions of the bourbon (which retails for about $26 for a 750-milliliter bottle): "Our whiskey is very corn-forward -- that's that sweetness that originally takes over your tongue. That has to do with the high corn content in our mash. There's almost apple and smoky-caramel, vanilla notes in the nose, the bouquet. In the very beginning of the sip, that's that sweet flavor; that opens up to the caramels, the vanillas, as well as the spicy rye. . . . At the end of the sip, that's when you kind of start tasting those earthy undertones of the malt, though they're very subtle because of the low malt content. The rye continues throughout the rest of the experience."
The Denver Dry Gin (about $21 for a 750-milliliter bottle) matches its creator's intention. "To come up with our gin formula, it took six weeks of distilling every day," says von Feldt. "The gin that we styled it on is Bombay [Sapphire Gin], which is my favorite gin. It's dry and traditional. . . . And it's exactly the way I wanted it to be: It's a true London dry gin. Most distillers are now going to market with these aromatic gins: They're lavender and all these other flavors. Mine is a very standard, London dry gin -- and it's good. It makes an amazing gin and tonic."
The ginger beer used within its Punching Mule and at its bar is made in-house; so are the simple syrups, shrubs, and bitters that are, also, employed within several of the tasting room's cocktails. "The guys on the tasting room side are very creative, as well," says von Feldt.
Having just prepared a cocktail behind the bar for a visitor, distiller Joyce says, "We like to showcase our spirits one cocktail at at time -- and do it here, as best as we can."
Challenges: "Sales," says von Feldt. "Selling enough. Managing the labor, employees. Making sure they're happy."
Opportunities: "New markets are opportunities -- and that's the only way we're going to grow," von Feldt says. "We have good penetration in Colorado. Yeah, we could be better, but I think we're in 50 percent of Colorado [establishments selling or serving liquor], right now. . . . I'm not saying we're ready for L.A. or New York City or Atlanta, but there are some good markets for us. I think Arizona would be a good market."
Needs: Space is an issue in an already-crowded distillery. "We've taken possession of a couple of warehouses now for storage," says von Feldt. "In the old days, we'd order two or three pallets of bottles. Now we order a truckload, sometimes two truckloads. We bring barrels in here, 300 at a time. It's hard to store all that stuff. We buy 38,000 pounds of corn at a time. The corn is stored here, because it gets milled every day; they're mashing it. Pallets of grain. It's mostly bottle and cans: When we bring a truckload of cans in, it's hard to find a space for that. We're pretty full with equipment now. There's not much area for us to store bottles here."