Ask the bartender: Meet Rory Donovan of Peach Street Distillers

Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him here most weeks, where he'll answer your questions. But right now, he wants to introduce you to a Colorado distiller that will be featured at the Colorado Cocktail Project.

We've already profiled many of the bartenders competing in the Colorado Cocktail Project, with its mission to create the official Colorado Cocktail. Now we're profiling the Colorado distillers whose spirits will be featured at the Colorado Cocktail Contest, the culminating event of the June 26-27 Colorado Cocktail Project at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

During a visit to Colorado wine country and Palisade last year, I called up Rory Donovan of Peach Street Distillers to see if our group of ten could break off of the wine tour and visit his facility. It was after hours, around 10 p.m., and Rory was just finishing playing in a hockey playoff, but he met us at the distillery and gave us a full tour and tasting. We had an amazing time, and Rory was a gracious host.

The following interview offers another taste of Peach Street Distillers:

Rory Donovan Peach Street Distillers

Distilling since: September of 2005

How and when did you get into distilling?

My father and his buddies had a still since before I was born -- I can't say I learned a whole lot from them, but I always knew that it wasn't rocket science. I just always felt that if my old man and his crew could make booze then I could, too. Making liquor was something that was talked about often when I was in my twenties -- I had some friends who had started a brewery in Durango and got to talking with one of them about it over some drinks. We ended up finding some plans for building a still on the worldwideinterweb. They were actually from a memo put out by the upper-ups of Chevron after the first Gulf War. It turns out that the bigwigs at Chevron were concerned about their people sent over to the Middle East to put out all the fires -- getting creative as far as their thirst was concerned. The Middle East is, for the most part, "dry" -- dudes who work in the gas fields tend not to be. Anyhow, they put together plans on how to make alcohol in as safe a manner as possible so nobody went blind or whatever.

Through the glory of the internet these plans made their way into our hands and so it began. Our first still consisted of an old keg retrofitted with a column packed with marbles and broken car windows, a condenser through which cooling water was fed with a fish tank pump and a gas burner used for frying turkeys.

What products do you currently offer?

We make a full line of fruit spirits -- Jack and Jenny Eau de Vie and grappa -- with locally grown fruit. We also have an oak-aged peach brandy and an oak-aged pear brandy. Goat vodka and Jackelope gin are our primary bread winners for the time being. We released Colorado's first bourbon about two years ago. Earlier this year we released a line of agave based-spirits, Dagave. We also have a product that we call Jackelope and Jenny: It's a blend of our pear Eau de Vie and our Jackelope gin.

What is your favorite spirit to make? Why?

Probably the fruit stuff. I just think it's unbelievably cool to take fruit grown within a stone's throw of our distillery and make it into top-shelf booze. This last year we didn't even pitch yeast in any of our peach ferments, all wild yeast. We just mix the ripe fruit into a slurry and let Mother Nature do the rest.

Any exciting things you are working on for the future?

Beginning November 1, we will start wholesaling our bourbon again, 200 cases a month allocated to Colorado.

What is your outlook on the Colorado distilling scene? Where is it headed and why?

Craft distilling is still in its infancy as an industry. It has already begun to carve its niche in our culture as a sustainable business entity, and shows nothing but potential for growth in the next several years. Because of the type of people who live here and the "user-friendly" laws and regulations, Colorado is a leader in the craft-distilling movement. As time moves forward, I think that we will see a lot of similarities between the craft brewing movement of the last two decades and the blossoming craft distilling scene that is starting to come together here in Colorado. In any growth industry there will be some that will not make it, but I think for the most part Colorado distillers are looking towards a bright future.

What makes your product distinctly Colorado?

One of our primary focuses at Peach Street is to source materials locally -- what better path is there to sustainability than to buy and sell locally. Unfortunately, we aren't able to obtain all of our ingredients from Colorado sources. We don't have copious white oak forests from which to cooper our barrels, we don't have agave plantations and there aren't, to my knowledge, any cassia trees that we can steal the bark from to use in our gin. However, the fruit grown here is exceptional and there is a tremendous supply of juniper berries. This year we are going to try growing all of our own coriander. The guys down in the San Luis Valley that started a malting facility are anxious to work with distillers and have expressed an interest in setting up a corn-processing plant. Having access to locally grown and malted grain is a huge step forward for Colorado distillers.

The fact that every product we sell actually comes out of our still is another thing that makes our products "Distinctly Colorado." I won't name names, but the number of distilleries that are selling purchased spirit as their own is growing uncomfortably high and it is Distinctly UnColorado.

Being located amongst the orchards of Palisade, how have you been able to use that to your advantage?

We have access to the freshest and ripest fruit around. More often than not, our fruit never even sees the inside of a walk-in cooler. The result is easy to see/taste in the bottle.

Find more information on the Colorado Cocktail Project here. E-mail Sean Kenyon at [email protected]

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Sean Kenyon
Contact: Sean Kenyon