By Eric Peterson | Oct 18, 2016
After a series of careers that included trading on Wall Street and circumnavigating the globe on a sailboat, Matthews met Pat Scanlan and Mark Kleckner. "I was managing an island off the coast of Maine, and the founders of Woody Creek went to vacation there," says Matthews.
They hit it off, and Matthews soon found himself with an offer for another new job: head distiller. He jumped at the opportunity and soon moved to the Roaring Fork Valley.
One of Woody Creek's chief differentiators is how they source their main ingredients, potatoes. "Pat and Mark wanted to make a world-class potato vodka," says Matthews. "In the Roaring Fork Valley, it's historically a massive potato-growing area, up until the 1950s. So they knew they were in a place that could grow potatoes."
Scanlan and Kleckner took it a step further by pairing farming and distilling. "We grow all of the potatoes we use ourselves," says Matthews. "They're grown hyper-locally, typically within 10 miles of the distillery and largely within two miles of the distillery, and then we mash them fresh. We pull them out of the ground and mash them in 24 hours."
Cultivation began on 20 acres of Scanlan's property, but potato fields require crop rotation every two years, Matthews says. "Now we're leasing various fields, some from Pitkin County, some from a local open space organization, and some from a couple of ranches in the area," he explains. The distillery grew harvested about 1.2 million pounds of potatoes on 40 acres in 2016, up from 500,000 in 2013.
But tit's not just about scale, it's about quality. Pre-launch, Scanlan researched potato varieties and landed on two: Stobrawa and Rio Grande.
The key ingredient in Woody Creek's Reserve Vodka, Stobrawa "is a Polish heirloom variety traditionally used for vodka," says Matthews. The Rio Grande is used in its traditional label. With an assist from Colorado State University's Potato Program in the San Luis Valley, Woody Creek Distillers developed a stock of seed for the first crops in 2012.
Utilizing custom Carl stills, Woody Creek Distillers followed up its vodkas with a two-year whiskey that debuted in 2014, and a gin, released in 2015. Woody Creek's Colorado Straight Rye Whiskey provides a product that dovetails into the production schedule after the potato harvest is mashed, distilled, and bottled in November. While the distillery doesn't grow its own rye, barley, and corn, Matthews says, "We do source all of our grains in Colorado."
The gin has a potato vodka base and a unique blend of botanicals. "It's noticeably better," says Matthews. "The potato vodka base brings a lot of mouth feel to the gin that you wouldn't get from corn vodka. I'm glad we did it." The botanicals, which include juniper along with coriander, cinnamon, lemon, lavender, cranberries, and hibiscus, are another point of distinction. "It's juniper-forward, but it's not a huge pine smackdown like some other gins," says Matthews. "There's a lot of citrus -- it's got a lot of lighter notes."
The market has responded. Growth has "been awesome," he adds. "The vodka is doing well." The distillery is currently in 13 states, with plans to enter Florida and California in 2017.
Challenges: "Sales," says Matthews. "We have great product, but it's not like booze sells itself."
Opportunities: Beyond upcoming entries into California and Florida, Matthews sees room to grow in the company's existent markets. "I have a good feeling about Florida and New York," he says.
Needs: "Space," says Matthews. The company has 10,000 square feet at the distillery and a warehouse in the valley, but it's expanding into new spaces that will bring the tally up to 30,000 square feet.