Vodka makers hope pure spring water from Colorado pushes them to the top shelf
The first sip of water creates a cold rush.
It races across your palate and down your throat, dropping to your stomach, and then seems to shoot straight out into your veins, which carry it down your arms and legs all the way to your fingertips and toes. The water tastes so pure that it makes the insides of your body feel like they might actually be sparkling.
The second sip reveals faint botanicals: Aspen root? The mineral tang of rose quartz? The elusive essence dances momentarily on the tongue, but the flavor's gone before your brain can identify it. A sniff of the pitcher that holds the water captures nothing more than the smell of the pine forest. The pitcher has been filled from a spring that bubbles unfiltered up from underground into a tube, which is covered by a two-foot-by-two-foot metal-lined box designed to keep animals out and purity in.
The third sip becomes a long gulp — because by now the water is sating some unquenchable thirst that you never knew you had. Until now.
"You've been pollinated," laughs Russ Wall, one of the founders of Spring44, a company named after that spring.
Russ Wall was pollinated by Spring 44 four years ago. Jeff Lindauer, a friend since high school, wanted him to see the Buckhorn Canyon land that had been in his family for decades, a trip that involved driving up winding mountain roads, then northwest along unpaved County Road 44 to a two-and-a-half-mile-long four-wheel-drive trail so steep, narrow and studded with rocks that it took nearly an hour to navigate.
Lindauer's father, Don, had bought this forty-acre parcel from a homesteader in 1969 because he wanted a place where he could vacation with his family, a getaway from their ranch in western Nebraska. The land is in the middle of Roosevelt National Forest, a swatch of Colorado wilderness hemmed in by tall pines and aspen groves that give way to rolling meadows of grass and wildflowers, sun-drenched expanses and craggy outcroppings. As a boy, Jeff would camp here with his father, drinking straight from a shallow pool fed by a spring in the middle of the property at 9,044 feet. And even after he moved to California, where he built a career as president of a division of MCI and then held a succession of CEO roles in several technology ventures, growing the companies into sustainable businesses, he would return to the land.
In 2004, he took on the nearly impossible task of building a house near the spring, bringing in crews who camped during construction and hauling materials up that incredible trail. "Most of my contemporaries thought I'd lost it," Lindauer says. "They wanted to know why I hadn't bought a place in Tahoe."
But he was persistent, tucking his 6' 4" frame into a tent on the property for nights on end so that he could help the crew raise the walls. They milled much of the lumber on site and used the spring for water. "It was a significant engineering challenge as far as getting materials in, because all of it had to be done off-grid. We had to create our own solar ray," he recalls. "But we did it, and it's a very unique property."
The finished cabin — an A-frame with a wraparound porch and a loft — is outfitted with top-of-the-line appliances, enough mattresses to sleep six comfortably and twelve in a pinch, an Internet connection and, new this year, DirecTV. Stairs from the deck lead down to a round tub, which is filled by the spring and then heated. Don Lindauer's piece of land still feels like it's in the wilderness — but it happens to feature some pretty excellent creature comforts, too.
Wall and Lindauer were seated on the deck one night, drinking wine and cocktails, enjoying a weekend away from work and wives and families, taking in a view that includes the Mummy Range, Rocky Mountain National Park, the Continental Divide and, in the distance, the lights of Fort Collins. After a couple of drinks, Lindauer invited Wall to partake in an old father-son tradition, and the pair trekked down the hill and into the forest to drink from Spring 44.
"He was a water aficionado," says Lindauer. "I didn't even know those existed. But he goes nuts for this water and keeps saying, 'This water is incredible, it's fantastic. You've gotta do something with it, like sell bottled water.'"
Lindauer tried to remind his newly pollinated friend of the four-wheel-drive trail, which made it impossible to even think about hauling in equipment for a full-scale water operation. But Wall, who was then running a design firm in Phoenix, kept talking about that water long after the effects of the other drinks had worn off, so Lindauer decided to get the water tested.
"The first time I knew we really had something was when the lab called and asked where I got it," he says, laughing. "My dad had it tested to make sure we weren't going to get giardia or whatever, and I still remember him talking about the guy from the city who said, 'It's even better than the tap water.' It's from the ground. And it ends up being this great water."
Lindauer spent six months exploring what it would take to bottle Spring 44 water, but he finally abandoned the idea when he realized he would have to charge somewhere between $12 and $15 per bottle to turn a profit, thanks to the immense amount of work it would take to extract the water from the ground. "We would have to sell to spas and resorts and very niche markets," he says. "It just wasn't worth it."
He delivered the bad news to Wall, and assumed that any idea of selling the water would soon dry up.
A few months later, though, Lindauer was at a family reunion in Nebraska when he ran into a cousin who owned a chain of home-brew stores. "I told him about the bottled-water thing," recalls Lindauer. "He said, 'You should find out how well your water would do in spirit rectification, since water is one of the most important components in spirits, especially clear spirits.' That resonated with me as a business proposition."
When he returned to San Francisco, where he was now a partner at a boutique strategic advisory firm, Lindauer started thinking seriously about vodka.
Although there's a reference to vodka in an 1871 issue of the New York Times, the spirit wasn't really discovered in this country until after Prohibition. And according to "Vodka Nation," Victorino Matus's August 15 story in the Weekly Standard, it didn't become popular until the 1950s, when the Moscow Mule was invented in a Los Angeles bar and the cocktail quickly spread across the country. By the late 1960s, vodka had surpassed gin to become this country's most popular clear spirit; by the mid-1970s, it had edged out whiskey to become the most popular liquor in America. There's no sign of vodka's growth slowing down, either: It's increased its market share year after year, especially at the premium and super-premium levels, and is now a category worth billions of dollars.
One reason for vodka's popularity is its neutral flavor. Rob Masters, a founding member of the Colorado Distillers Guild, calls it "white paint." It's also been compared to a chicken breast, tofu and a blank canvas. Unlike other alcohols, which have distinct characteristics and flavors to be hidden or enhanced in a drink, vodka is a spirit that takes on the flavors of whatever it's mixed with.
But more than flavor characteristics (or lack thereof), the rise of vodka can be credited to a successful stretch of advertising that's helped push it along, says Todd Leopold of Denver-based Leopold Bros. "It leaves you breathless," Smirnoff, America's first — and still largest — standard brand, famously claimed almost fifty years ago. Celebrity endorsements that followed helped.
Later, Swedish-produced Absolut launched its groundbreaking visual campaign featuring the silhouette of its bottles; it soon overtook Stolichnaya, until then the largest imported premium vodka.
In the 1990s, Grey Goose burst onto the scene with a luxurious product story that focused on its distillation in France — perceived to make the best of everything — and created an entirely new category of vodka: a super-premium category where producers could charge $30 a bottle. Typical marketing antics today include parading attractive women in impossibly tight clothing through clubs, where they dole out shots and drinks. Vodka is the alcohol associated with bottle service and A-list partying with bling-wearing celebrities. Even the recession hasn't tempered that: Super-premium vodka brands grew by 17 percent last year.
A few years ago, a new niche in the market emerged: Craft spirits have experienced a major upsurge, and many consumers have begun to favor small-production brands over the mass-produced players. If they drink vodka at all, that is: The spirit has lost popularity with some of the top bartenders in the country, who attempt to steer their patrons toward gin instead.
But that is "a haughty bartender thing," says Sean Kenyon, Euclid Hall bar manager and writer of Westword's Ask a Bartender. "Vodka is the number-one spirit by far, and there's no sign of it letting up. As an intelligent barman, you have to embrace vodka."
Lindauer and Wall were certainly ready to. Joined by Jeff "Mac" McPhie, the VP of operations of a manufacturing firm who would soon come on as Spring44's third partner and COO, in 2008 they went to Colorado Pure, a distilling company since sold to Shadow Beverage that specialized in creating private-label spirits. "We knew how to make spirits and deal with the B.S. of the government," explains Rob Masters, who was working there at the time. "But we didn't want to deal with selling it. So we made it under private labels and sold it to people who could sell it."
The future partners presented Masters with a sample of Spring 44 water and their vision for a new vodka. "They wanted something that could be re-created and scaled up," he remembers.
That meant the cleanest, purest spirit that Colorado Pure could make. While Masters believes in using high-quality spring water for any spirit he crafts — Indian Peaks spring water is key to Rob's Mtn Gin, the small-batch gin he's now making in Boulder — it's especially important for vodka. "There's technology out there that will let you strip water down and add things back in, and a lot of brewers do that," Masters says. "But vodka is 40 percent ethanol and 60 percent water. Ethanol is ethanol. It doesn't have much to it. But the water is a big deal."
And Spring44's water is particularly pure. Joe Tamburini, senior engineer at Tetra Tech Inc., a firm that specializes in engineering and consulting services related to water, among other resources, confirms the results Lindauer got from the lab. "It's high-quality water," he says, after looking at the lab's report. "It's low in dissolved solids, which essentially means salts. It is considerably lower than tap water in these dissolved solids."
To create Spring44 vodka, Masters used stainless-steel tanks to distill a neutral grain spirit made from American-grown wheat, rye and corn mixed with the spring's water, which had been filtered to remove particulates. He then put the mixture through a coconut-husk carbon filtration system, designed to further even out the edges.
The spirit that resulted was smooth, pure and neutral, with a velvety mouthfeel. As it slid down the throat, it left the same lingering hint of herbaceousness as the water from the spring. When compared to market leaders Belvedere and Grey Goose, the Spring44 vodka had a similar mouthfeel — but those other vodkas had no distinguishing flavor characteristics.
"It's the water," says Masters. "Belvedere and Grey Goose are the ones stripping down water. It makes a big difference."
While Masters was working on the recipe for Spring44 vodka, Lindauer and Wall got busy researching the vodka market, figuring out how it worked, analyzing the players and exploring distribution networks.
They learned that drinkers in this country give a slight edge to alcohol produced in America, although the overall market split between domestic and imported products is about fifty-fifty. But the figures for premium and super-premium clear spirits paint a very different picture: That part of the market is dominated by imports.
In the super-premium vodka category, Grey Goose alone accounts for 64 percent of the market share, with Belvedere and Ciroc each tallying 8 percentage points. Absolut dominates the premium brands, with a 40 percent market share; British Three Olives, Dutch Ketel One and Russian Stolichnaya weigh in with about 17 percent each. The only U.S. producer that has made any headway in market share is Texas-based Tito's, priced at the lower end of the premium section and now owning 3 percent of that market.
And for gin, the premium and super-premium category is entirely owned by British imports.
The numbers were the tipping point for Lindauer, the tech CEO who was about to become an ex-tech CEO. "If you look at premium-and-above clear spirits, you see a $3 billion-plus and growing segment, and 97 percent of it is imported," he explains. "That stuck out at me so meaningfully. Look at this white space — there is definitely room for a very premium American brand."
He now thought he had that brand. As the partners started introducing Spring44 at blind taste tests, their vodka consistently beat out Grey Goose, Belvedere and Ciroc.
And those were the products the Spring44 partners planned to compete with. They weren't going to market their vodka as a niche product, going up against other small Colorado craft distillers such as Leopold Bros. and Caprock for a sliver of the market. They were going to go big. "I'm not competing with Leopold's," says Lindauer. "I want them to do well. I think we should all want each other to really succeed. There's a lot to be said for the small, handcrafted artisan thing. I applaud that and I love it — but that's not what we're about."
Instead, Spring44 is about taking on the shiny imports. But to do that, the partners knew they had to have not just the world's best vodka, but a great way to communicate that brand to the consumer.
Fortunately, they had a symbol that would sell the story: the actual Spring 44. Through their spirits, they hoped to transport drinkers back to the source. To a pristine piece of Colorado wilderness where the water that bubbles out of the ground is more pure than tap water. To one of the last patches of the rugged, seemingly untouched West.
Not only was Spring44 vodka made with water from that spring, it contained no artificial colors or flavors. What ingredients were used were sourced as locally as possible, with some organic or grown sustainably. "It's a mix of legacy — land of my father and this spring — combined with the cause," explains Lindauer. "We're building a truly great American brand. And we're doing it transparently and authentically. We're not manufacturing anything in terms of the story."
Once they had their prototype product, the partners weren't about to stop. They also wanted to make a flavored vodka that was different from other flavored vodkas on the market. And in a nod to Lindauer's personal preferences and a hunch about future consumer preferences, they wanted to do a gin.
Masters worked on the gin first. "We threw a lot of shit at the wall, and one of them eventually stuck," he says.
"I'm a gin freak," Lindauer admits. "There was a lot of suffering." The winner was a blend of juniper berries, of course, plus lemon and lime peel, lime leaf, cinnamon, orange peel, coriander, orris, jasmine green tea, galangal, pearls of paradise and a top-secret ingredient that the company claims isn't used in other gins. It's done in a new-world, non-juniper-heavy style that Masters says is nothing like the gin he eventually crafted for his own brand.
"That's what I love about gin," he says. "There are so many different kinds and you can still call it gin."
The flavored vodka was a bigger challenge. The partners settled on honey because "it was very unique and tasted really yummy, but also because we have some cause orientation of our own," explains Lindauer. "In Colorado, we have a tough environmental situation on our hands with our bees, and they provide a pretty meaningful utility: pollination. So we thought, wouldn't it be cool in the context of building a business that is sustainable — i.e., off the grid — if we also gave back and made it count for something we're passionate about that actually moves the needle."
Not to mention that there are very few other honey vodkas on the market. The only one with a meaningful market share is 42 Below's Manuka honey vodka, which has a funkier flavor than the natural honey Spring44 was working with.
Figuring out how to make a honey vodka that didn't separate in the bottle proved tricky, however, and Masters left Colorado Pure before they nailed it down.
"We really wanted to do honey, but we almost gave it up," says Lindauer. "We had a really hard time getting it to hold suspension. It's easy to go buy a flavoring, but when you're working with natural stuff, it's hard to get a finished product that looks appealing in the bottle." The ultimate solution involved creating a honey distillate.
With three products in hand, the partners were finally ready to get their products on the shelves and into the glasses of consumers. Which meant the hard work was just beginning.
But then they got a big break.
Lindauer had gotten a lot of advice from other distillers about sticking with a small distributor to start with or risk getting lost in the crowd.But that sentiment was at odds with Lindauer's views of product placement. "The name of the game in this thing is distribution," he says. "We decided to send it to the biggest distributor and see what they said."
So they sent some product off to Southern Wine & Spirits, the largest distributor in the nation, which represents major brands like Absolut, Kahlúa, Jim Beam and Beefeater. Southern doesn't often pick up new products, and it largely ignores small companies. But two days later, Lindauer, Wall and McPhie got a call to head down to Miami and talk business: The distributor was interested in Spring44.
While there, the partners learned that Southern had used its own in-house panel of experts to assess the product, and they liked what they tasted. "We walked into the office of Rudy [Ruiz], the executive vice president of spirits for the company," remembers Lindauer. "He said, 'We think you've got something here. We only elect to take on ten or so brands a year, and you're one of them.'"
"Their gin is really different," says Tracy Johnson, Southern's director of marketing and special events in Colorado. "And their honey-flavored vodka — there aren't a lot of those. Plus, their commitment to building the distillery here in Colorado was a big high priority for us bringing them on board."
But getting picked up by Southern meant that Spring44 had to scale up quickly — and that meant quickly finding a facility that could manufacture and bottle their spirits, since the distillery they planned to build in Loveland was still waiting on permits before construction could begin. When the partners couldn't find anything in Colorado that could handle the desired output, they had to go with one in Oregon.
"If you could write the script, you'd get validation and build your distillery, and you'd do it with exacting specifications," says Lindauer. "But we were caught between having the largest distributor in the U.S. saying 'Let's go' and us saying, 'Uh, okay.'"
Spring44 started hitting the shelves in May. And in another twist on the original concept, it made the biggest splashes outside of Colorado, getting picked up by California's chain of Total Beverages, premier New York liquor store Astor Wine and Spirits and, most notably, Madison Square Garden and the New York Rangers. That relationship gave the Spring44 partners the chance to do some top-down research, advertising on dasher boards and LED signs while assessing who makes up the new brand's market.
A small crowd was gathered in the cramped, dark basement of SALT. Bartenders, journalists and Boulder's food-oriented Twitterati milled around, socializing and twisting cocktail glasses while SALT's staff shook drinks.
Soon Lindauer, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt, stood up and quietly told the audience his story, describing the Colorado spring that had inspired two guys who'd never been in the spirits industry to craft a vodka and gin. Participants were then invited to shake their own cocktails, chat with the partners or check out the botanicals on display that go into Spring44 gin.
A few minutes later, the crowd was led upstairs to a bigger party, where they were asked to judge a Spring44 cocktail contest in which SALT's bartenders were competing while they sampled the oysters, tuna and sliders the restaurant had crafted as pairings.
This was Spring44's Colorado market launch, done at SALT because of the restaurant's commitment to local sourcing and high-quality food and cocktails; the company has hosted similar events across the country. The team has discovered that when people taste the product, they often purchase it — validating what those early blind taste tests had suggested: Spring44 tastes better than the competitors.
Pre-launch, they'd decided there would be no mini-skirted promoters in clubs, no oddly shaped bottles and no paying to place Spring44 in the hands of celebrities. In fact, the partners pulled out of negotiations with a major talent-management group that had promised celebrity endorsements in exchange for a substantial piece of the company. "It just didn't feel right for the brand," says Lindauer.
Instead, the spring is the star of the show. Even the labels on the three bottles show elements of the natural world that inspired – and feeds – this project. "Everyone's yelling so loud to get your attention. We chose to whisper," says Wall.
They know they can't whisper Spring44's story to everyone, so they've engaged the bartending community, pollinating top spirits professionals with the story of the spring so that they, in turn, can pollinate consumers. To do that here, they looked for a leader in Colorado's cocktail scene, eventually asking Sean Kenyon to come on as a brand ambassador. The Spring44 story alone was enough to make him sign on to help with the launch, before he'd ever tasted the spirit.
"I put my faith in the story," says Kenyon. "That's not how I normally do things."
And as a result, the bartender's first tasting of the line was momentous. Kenyon started with the gin, lining up the glasses and bottles the way he always does and pacing with a mouthful of spirit. After a sip, he says, "I raised my arms in the air. I really liked it."
The gin is excellent because it's an exemplar of the new-world style while still exhibiting good juniper characteristics, he explains. And he likes the vodka because it's got spiciness and complexity. "This vodka is easy to enhance in cocktails," he says. "It has depth." But Kenyon was most surprised by the honey. "I was worried about the honey," he confesses. "I've never been opposed to flavored vodka as long as it's a quality product; I use it like a gin in cocktails. But I thought the honey might be too sweet. It wasn't. My mind started racing. It was the spirit I was most excited about in the end because it gave me so many ideas for cocktails, and it's a good opening into the lineup because it's so approachable."
Kenyon is playing a key role in crafting Spring44 cocktails. Perhaps more important, he visits bars carrying the products and tells the bartenders the story. That's been helpful in diffusing criticism, since some bartenders have questioned the company's commitment to Colorado since the spirits aren't being made in the state.
Kenyon dismisses that concern outright. "It's Colorado-owned, Colorado-sourced and it will be Colorado-made," he says. "They're bringing the distillery here."
The first bottles should be coming off the line in Colorado in November, Lindauer says, just seven months after Spring 44 first hit shelves. But he thinks the state where the spirits are made is less important than the country, which is the definitely the U.S.A. "We're very Colorado-centric, aka American-centric," he says. "I hope the guy in L.A., New York or Miami says, 'I'm going to get this product because it's a high-quality American product.'"
Wall, Lindauer and McPhie are sitting on the deck above the real Spring 44. It's one of the hottest days of the summer, but up at 9,044 feet, the temperature is a perfect 68 degrees. Three hours earlier, they'd been in the Loveland warehouse space that, in a few short months, will be a fully functioning distillery run entirely on solar power. There they'd backed an F-250 pickup — which they'd dubbed Tinkerbell — through the garage door and onto the cement floor. Wall and McPhie had hoisted an empty, 450-gallon water tank onto the back of Tinkerbell, then secured the tank to the truck bed. That job done, McPhie brandished a muddy shoe. The three men may be on the road to owning a major national spirits brand, but yesterday McPhie was up on the property, digging a hole for a cistern that will allow them to store more water on site.
The partners can filter and store 10,000 gallons — enough for 100,000 bottles of booze — at a nearby facility in Loveland, but the only way to get the water from the source to those tanks is to bring it down the hill on Tinkerbell, 450 gallons at a time. McPhie plans to increase the efficiency of the operation with a bladder he's designing, which will bump up the amount of water they can load to 800 gallons. But that's as high as they can go without risking sending Tinkerbell, which is outfitted with special suspension and gears, skittering down a rock face into wreckage.
With Tinkerbell now loaded for the trip back, the partners look over the property and talk about the future. Should they do a holiday promotional package that incorporates beetle-kill wood and use the proceeds to fund their beehive cause or another local project? Should they bottle some Spring 44 water for sales reps to give to bartenders, so they can experience the source firsthand? They already have a lot on their plate. They hope to roll out another flavored vodka with a uniquely Colorado ingredient, and they're talking about doing a more London dry-style gin. There's also the distillery to finish, and more markets to launch.
It all comes back to this patch of land where everything began. "This is as good as it gets," says McPhie.
"We're having the time of our lives," says Lindauer. "I'm more passionate about what we're doing in this organization than anything I've ever done."
But there is a catch. Although the company grew out of Lindauer's intense connection to Spring 44, taking both its name and inspiration from that source, the water from the spring will not be enough to sustain their dream.
They'd thought they had enough water to sustain their operational goals, even though getting that water would be problematic. But it turns out the investors want a backup plan. What if the road is impassable? What if the spring becomes contaminated? And then Lindauer received a letter from the state, suggesting that he could eventually lose the seniority of his water rights.
They had to find another source. "It was an emotional decision," says Lindauer. But they quickly identified another nearby mountain spring that could provide supplemental water, and drew up plans with the owners to procure it.
They still plan to have some Spring 44 water in every bottle, and the spring itself will continue to inspire everything the company does. After all, they are really bottling the essence of this place.
"It's always been about the water," Wall adds. "We just try to stay out of the way."