Stephen Gould, proprietor and distiller at Golden Moon Distillery, began producing spirits in 2012 and distributing earlier this year. And while Golden Moon might seem like yet another distillery in an expansive collection of stills that have spawned throughout the state this year, Gould and his team chose the road less traveled, starting with a spirit that continues to mystify drinkers and makers alike: absinthe.
We caught up with Stephen to talk about his unusual roster of spirits, the impending opening of Golden Moon's speakeasy, the virtue of heavy research, and his vast library of antique distilling books.
Westword: How did Golden Moon get its start?
Stephen Gould: I worked in restaurants from when I was thirteen on, and even when I was young, I used to moonlight at a friends bar just to help him out. That bar was the Gold Dollar where the White Stripes played their first gig. I cooked and I had a brewery in Reno while I was in grad school, so I had some brewing experience. We'd done some distilling, too; we thought about making whiskey a while back but it never came into fruition. One thing led to another, however. I'd buy weird bottles of booze, and once, I stumbled across a case of Spanish absinthe from 1950, and it really intrigued me. I had tasted absinthe before, but this stuff was totally different. I found an antique book on distilling with recipes for absinthe, and I was a saucier, so I knew herbs -- but the the reality was, I couldn't make it. Here we are a decade later, and it's been an ongoing process. It's taken research, experimentation, tasting, hunting old bottles, and making friends with collectors and distillers around the world, and I'm now making what I feel is a world-class product. Our absinthe won an award at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London, the oldest spirits competition in the world. We won a silver outstanding medal, which was the highest reward for an absinthe in the running.
Where do you feel your absinthe stands after ten years in the making?
Do I think it's damn good? Yes. There are other absinthes on the market, but mine is a traditional French verte. It's mine, and I like it. Absinthe will never be a money-making product, and it's got a long way to go with it's pre-ban history. I don't make them to get rich on, I make the absinthe because I can make it well. It's been a solid decade of trials and tribulations.
Aside from absinthe, what sort of approach do you take with the spirits in production?
We're doing something a little different, making products that no one in the U.S. is producing, and we take a different approach to what we do than most distillers. Our different bent started with an absinthe, and from there we went to an atypical style of gin not made since the 1800's, and a whole family of other liquors and bitters. I like the weird, unique stuff, stuff used in high-end cocktails that's hard to find. Each one of our products is heavily researched in the lab--there's a lot of experimenting, and I lean heavily on distillers who have made things before me. Everything started as medicinal; Creme de Violette was used as a cancer cure, dry Curacao was a cough medicine and scurvy preventative. Our style of gin is literally inspiration from medical books from the 1700s. I built a library that has over 500 rare titles dating back to the 1500s, and distillers come from around the world to peruse the books. I've been blessed to work with some very talented distillers that have been willing to share secrets -- every recipe which is my own, is often inspired by historic procedures, and everything is my own with the exception of a very old french liqueur called Amer Picon. Amer Picon was developed in 1839 by a French distiller as an anti-malarial, and it went on to be one of the most famous liqueurs ever made, sort of a holy grail of lost cocktail ingredients. In my travels I acquired distiller's notes from the original distillery, and we've been able to reverse engineer with these notes to mimic the original ingredients and manufacturing processes. It took a few leaps of faith.
What about whiskey?
I do one style of distilling--I'm not a whiskey distiller, and it would be a huge learning process before I could call myself that.
Where do you source the (often rare) ingredients to make your line of spirits?
I source my herbs and botanicals from over two dozen suppliers in seven different countries. We try and use as much locally-sourced material as possible, but a lot of what we use just simply isn't grown here. We're currently sourcing our wormwood for our absinthe from the Jura mountains in both France and Switzerland (the region where absinthe traditionally comes from.) We also planted wormwood this year in northern Boulder county, but unfortunately the recent floods wiped out our crop. We're planning on planting more next year using good Swiss seed. We source a rare form of fennel called fennel doux that only grows in Provence, France. This fennel's seeds are three times the size of normal fennel. They are extremely sweet and creamy, and lend those qualities to our absinthe -- this is why we don't recommend sugaring our absinthe. We source our Curacao orange peel for our Dry Curacao from the island of Curacao in the Caribbean. We get lavender from the south of France, fresh Buddah's Hand citron from growers in California, blue violet flowers from growers in four different states, cinchona bark from Peru... and the list goes on.
Do you produce on typical stills?
We currently have eleven stills; the bulk are small, but five of them are production-sized. We're currently making grappa and apple jack with a mid-1930s brandy still. This still was built for small distillers, used by small orchards and vineyard makers so they could make spirits on their own, and they were sold all over France. It's a little finnicky, but it makes really good brandy. I found it in a distillery on the French-German border; it had been used for four generations by a single family, they were making plum brandy--in Alsace that's the signature spirit. The youngest generation sold the orchards and intended to keep the still, then found out that if they don't have land they would have to pay a fee on the still. So I bought it and had it shipped to me. Another still we use is a mid-1950s German alembic, a style of still used to this day. I brought it over and retro-fitted it. The third style we use was just delivered from Germany. It had been in a distillery, and a woman bought the old building and removed the still. I basically found it on a German version of Craigslist. These old stills make wonderful spirits, while new stills are very much one-size-fits-all. Obviously the new stills are easier to use, but they don't make as good of a product. I've been lucky to find these things and use them.
Stephen is in the process of opening a speakeasy in Golden that will make old-world cocktails largely focused on the main product line at Golden Moon, along with a handful of carefully selected spirits from Colorado and around the world.
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You can find Golden Moon spirits at major liquor stores all over the state, as well as restaurants like Tag, Green Russel, and Z Cuisine, where it's the top-selling absinthe. Visit goldenmoondistillery.com to learn more about their current line and upcoming additions (like apple jack and Golden Moon sweet cherry bitters, their take on traditional maraschino made with Colorado bing cherries)