On a sunny July morning that promises another in a long string of sweltering days, bees and butterflies buzz among the herbs and bushes of the Denver Botanic Gardens, and an intoxicating blend of smells rises from the flower beds. Scott Yeates, founder and president of Mythology Distillery, plucks a stem from a bush overhanging the sidewalk and rubs the flowers and leaves between his fingers, inhaling deeply.
"It's honey-scented and floral," he describes.
"This is elderflower, Sambucus nigra," adds Blake Burger, Yeates's longtime friend and a DBG horticulturalist.
Yeates and Burger met in college at Colorado State University, though they took very different career paths. But botany and distilling share common ground, and the two friends are plotting the ingredients for a gin that will be created by Mythology and released as the Forager, with a percentage of sales going back to the Denver Botanic Gardens.
The two follow the paths from raised beds near the entrance to the Fragrance Garden and Literary Folklore Garden in the southeast corner of the property. Burger, who has worked at the gardens for a dozen years and returned to school in 2014 to study herbalism, plucks yarrow along the way before pointing out clumps of lemon verbena, hyssop, thyme and lovage, which Yeates agrees could all work in a gin. The actual spirit won't be distilled until October, giving him time to decide on the exact recipe, harvest the herbs, dry them and hand them over to Mythology's head distiller, Scott Coburn, who was previously head of production for High West Distillery.
"This all started as a conversation about how Blake makes his own bitters," Yeates explains. "From there we decided to take specialty botanicals that highlight floral notes and create a gin."
Three months later, there's fresh snow on the ground, and many of the summer herbs at the Denver Botanic Gardens are wilted and black from frost damage. But Yeates and Burger have long since collected what they needed to make the Forager, settling on lemon verbena, elder flower and chamomile for the main floral notes of the gin.
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At Mythology Distillery, 3622 Tejon Street, Coburn says he's using Italian juniper, orris root and coriander seed — the same three ingredients in his flagship gin, Needle Pig — as the base, and the new botanicals will provide additional aromas and flavors. "We use a combination of maceration and vapor infusion," the distiller points out, lifting the lid on his copper still to show the juniper, orris and coriander steeping in neutral grain spirits. The more delicate herbs collected from the DBG have already been distilled in the gin basket (it looks like a stainless-steel rocket ship perched atop the still), in which hot alcohol vapor picks up the flavors and aromas of the herbs before condensing back into liquid form.
According to Yeates, this run will produce 3,000 bottles of the Forager, which will go on sale to the public on Thursday, October 17, for $35 each. The release party runs from 5:30 to 8 p.m. that day at the distillery, with special cocktails created to highlight the floral, spicy flavors of the new gin. Bar manager Kelsie Berry says that it matches well with fall spices, so she's created a pumpkin-butter drink with egg whites that's surprising light and refreshing; a mulled cider and gin drink served hot with a cinnamon stick; and a more traditional lime-based cocktail on ice, topped creatively with a grind of black pepper.
Mythology's bottles tell stories, written by Yeates, of the illustrated characters and beasts on the labels. The Forager's label describes the meeting of two old friends who gather plants with special properties at a secret garden a mile above the sea. And from the peak of summer to the chill of fall, the Forager captures the essence of Colorado's changing seasons in a bottle.