Brothers Todd and Scott Leopold have been distilling since 1999, but only in the last two or three years have they really had the freedom to exercise their creativity in the market. "We've been in the business for thirteen years, and it's almost like there weren't bars for the first three quarters of that time," Todd says. "Pegu Club in New York and Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco didn't open until 2005 and 2006. It's exciting how much the market has changed. We haven't really done anything new; the market is just coming to us now."
So much so, in fact, that the brothers had to turn down distribution in new states because they couldn't keep up with the demand -- which Todd blames mostly on the practice of hand-labeling bottles. "We'd been hand-labeling bottles for ten years," he explains. "Last year, we did over 100,000 bottles. It had gone from the point where it was kind of silly to being actually impossible."
So they picked up a labeler and expanded into the warehouse space next door, a development that Todd calls "a game-changer." And thanks to the help of their new acquisition, the brothers recently shipped their first 1,000 cases over to Europe and also began working with distributors in new states.
The expansion also brought an opportunity to change fermenters, a shift that will have a major impact on the future of Leopold spirits. "We switched to wooden cypress fermenters," Todd explains. "You can't sanitize them, so you get microscopic amounts of bacteria built up in there over the years. Those bacteria and particles from the Colorado environment consume bits of the mash and give off flavor elements, which turn into more complex fruit flavors and spice flavors. It's the old-school way to make whiskey more complex." Complexity which will continue to evolve, he adds, as the years pass.
Todd and Scott are continuing to experiment with new projects, too. Right before the holidays, they unveiled a fernet, a bitter liqueur made of a variety of roots and herbs that's usually associated with aiding digestion. The project started, says Todd, when "one of our first customers in Atlanta said, 'I'd really like to do an amaro -- a fernet -- with you.' I said sure, did one version and sent it out. And he said, 'Perfect, don't change it.'"
To make it, Todd selected a bittering agent -- bitter aloe from Africa -- and filled it out with roots like ginger, gentiane and sasparilla (which gives the spirit a bit of a root beer note); such citrus as curacao and bergamot; rose petals for the aroma and texture; floral aromatics like honeysuckle, lavender and elderflower; and dessert notes like vanilla bean, cocoa nibs and three kinds of mint. He aged the spirit in used Chardonnay barrels so as not to add any notes from the wood. "I wanted to make sure that it's bright, refreshing and invigorating," he says. "And it's doing well. It's also doing well in San Francisco, which is ground zero for fernet." A first whiff gives a lot of that mint on the nose, but if you let it blow off, you end up getting more of the floral characteristics, Todd says. And those characteristics are also more prominent in later bottlings because the volatile mint has also dissipated in the barrel. "This is the first American-produced fernet at least since Prohibition," he notes. "And I can't find any record of anyone making one ever, but I'm sure someone did at some point."
Soon after that hit the shelves, the brothers also unveiled a navy-strength gin, a project first suggested by a distributor out of California who was also behind the original Bourbon and Branch list. "He wanted us to do a different expression, an overproof gin," Todd says, explaining that overproof gin is at least 50 percent alcohol. "Once he said that, I decided to do navy-strength because the traditional one, Plymouth, isn't sold here." Navy-strength gin is 57 percent alcohol, made that strong so that if it spilled on gun powder during shipping, the gunpowder would still ignite. Todd mixes his gin botanicals separately to avoid the bracing dryness that categorizes London Dry-style gin -- and that process was a good start to making a navy-strength gin that wouldn't be undrinkable.
The resulting spirit, Todd explains, has bigger flavors than his regular 80-proof gin -- two times the juniper, ten times the citrus -- and he also incorporated bergamot, which is extremely aromatic. "I'm hoping it's used in long drinks where it gets diluted," he says. "That's where it will stand out. Most gins now are trying to be more delicate and light. That's great in a martini, but if you're mixing it in cocktails, it can get lost." But he also emphasizes that the flavors in the nav- strength "are smooth or bright so that they're not tiring on the palate."
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Todd is keeping quiet about exactly what Leopold might be developing next, but he does emphasize that all decisions are Colorado-centric. "Our focus is on the Colorado market and what we're doing here locally," he says. "We won't be doing anything that jeopardizes what we're doing here."
And whatever they're doing, you can bet it won't be anything ordinary. "I'm trying to do things that are different from what everyone else is doing," Todd says. "I kind of want to have my own voice out there."
We'll drink to that.