I was in Boulder, Colorado last week. Having finished more than my fair share of some huevos rancheros at The Parkway Cafe, a hike in the mountains was much-needed. On the way out of the parking lot in an awful rental white Mustang, I thought I spotted something that said “distilling” out of the corner of my vision. How curious!
Returning the next day, I stumbled into J&L Distilling Company. I was in luck: it was open for tastings and cocktails.
So a physicist and a chemical engineer walk into a bar…
I was met by physicist Seth Johnson, the J’s eponym and the man behind the company’s gin. I did not meet Justin Lee, whose baby is purportedly the Fyr Liqueur. Justin is a chemical engineer by training.
Seth introduced me to the still, an oddly scientific-looking multi-story contraption supported by some construction scaffolding. This provided a nice contrast to the diminutive submarine moonshine still hanging out on the corner of the tasting bar.
Three temperature controllers were hacked into a box on the wall, visible from the bar. There are some fluid filters chained to a step ladder and plumbed into the contraption like it was some sort of makeshift surgical operation. The main column is wrapped in a thermal blanket and various tubes and volumetric counters seem to be everywhere. One word: Frankenstein. This clearly was not something ordered off the shelf from the old world. Or the new world. Or any world, for that matter. A healthy combination of tinkering and science are clearly the philosophy here.
A half-disassembled vehicle was also visible just outside the facility, clearly in the middle of a repair of some sort.
Seth explained the philosophy of the distillery. It exists at the intersection of art and science; both are essential to making an exceptional product. Volumetric flasks sitting around the bar hint at the mad-scientist-turned-distiller vibe.
Come for the tasting …
The first introduction to the results of their labor was the company’s Sno Vodka. Distilled from cane molasses, this vodka is used as the base spirit for the gin and liqueur. Seth and Justin don’t believe in buying bulk GNS (grain neutral spirits) to make their products. It’s important to them that the base spirit be of a high quality, or else the end products will suffer.
I was instructed to throw the sample back and let it linger on my tongue, and was promised it would not burn. I drink plenty of spirits and was not concerned, but Seth was right: This is one incredibly smooth and integrated vodka. Dangerous. Smells like rubbing alcohol to some degree, tastes a little bit like white rum. Some nice flavors of vanilla and caramelized banana. 80 proof.
I have a hard time getting excited about most vodkas: at best they don’t taste like much. It goes downhill from there pretty fast. At the same time, I can’t pretend that vodkas all taste the same or that the best vodkas taste like nothing. They clearly taste like something, and there are substantial variations in mouthfeel.
I’m not going to pretend that Sno has made me a recreational drinker, but for those of you that like straight vodka, this is pretty hard to beat. At the price point (just over $30), it’s a steal.
Seth poured the Sno Gin next, showing a flask of it with a little water added: The mixture was quite cloudy, not unlike what is seen with absinthe and ouzo. Mixed with tonic water and served on ice, the same thing will happen. He explained that this was because the essential oil content of the botanicals was dramatically higher than in most gins.
The gin clocks in at 94 proof, and smells like fresh pine. On the palate it’s like licking a Christmas tree. This is a gin for the juniper lover, but I had a hard time finding the other botanicals in the palate or in the gin’s aroma.
A martini with this gin is cloudy (as predicted) and somewhat astringent. This is not a London Dry Gin, nor is it a particularly great gin for a martini. The concept is not unlike St. George’s Terroir Gin, though the execution is certainly a departure. There’s just too much going on here for a clean and simple drink whose purpose is to get wrecked.
On the other hand, a Negroni with this gin is a different beast entirely. Made with equal parts Carpano Antica Formula and Gran Classico, the results are most interesting. Up front there’s a wonderful malty flavor and, out of nowhere, a nice chocolate note. The flamed orange peel just makes things even better. The other botanicals in the gin really show well in this cocktail, playing well off the vermouth and potable bitters. The finish is dry (the astringency is still there) and quite long. With each sip a two minute delight, this may be one of the best negronis I’ve made.
To step back, there are two approaches with the Negroni. The first is to keep it clean and angular. The other is to get something herbal and nasty and trying to really get the flavors to integrate. All too often one of two things happens. In a case like the Terroir gin from St. George, it overwhelms the Negroni. In a case like Bruichladdich’s The Botanist, the other mixers overwhelm the gin. Mixing ratios don’t fix this – it’s a fundamental flavor imbalance. The Sno Gin is a definite winner in the second approach: The interplay between the three ingredients is magnificent.
Enough about the gin.
The final sample was the company’s Fyr liqueur, made “in a European style.” According to Seth, what that means is it’s not based on a single flavor. Cinnamon is dominant, but there’s a lot of complexity and other things going on in this spirit. What else makes it European? It’s not that sweet. Oh, it’s also 100 proof. Another guest joined us and mentioned she wanted a bottle because she had some at a party and it “tastes like Christmas.”
This is the smoothest of the three spirits, with little perceptible heat, at all. This makes very little sense, given that it’s the highest proof member, but so be it. I am not generally a fan of cinnamon liqueurs, but this one works. Down the hatch, this is a liquid gingerbread cookie, with lots of baking spice and a spicy cinnamon candy finish that comes out after you swallow. Everybody I’ve shared this with is a fan, and I haven’t gotten around to mixing it yet. At this rate, I may not!
… stay for the cocktails.
Tastings at J&L are complementary. The visit was already satisfying, but Seth let me know that they specialize in cocktails. Intriguing! State law mandates they only serve cocktails using the distillery’s own spirits. This is not a bad thing. The menu was inventive (highballs and classics were available as well, but not listed). I settled on a beet concoction, featuring beet juice, beet-infused Sno Gin, fresh tarragon, and lemon juice. Owing to the high proof of the gin, Seth mentions that over a pound of beets get infused in the gin alone! It shows. The flavors mixed well and the beets really came through. Various other cocktails were ordered by people in the tasting room, with nary a complaint.
Boulder is a good town for the beverage lover, and fans of spirits in Boulder should definitely check out J&L. 303 Vodka and Redstone Meadery are next door and just about any cardinal direction will intersect with a brewery.
J&L’s Production is limited at this point. The distillery is not yet working with any distributors and the operation is self-financed. As of writing, batch numbers are in the single digits and bottle numbers in the low hundreds. Barrels lining the tasting room hint at the future: They’re going to make a Bourbon in Colorado “the right way.” I’m looking forward to finding out what that means and giving it a shot!