Rory Donovan has known fellow Peach Street Distillers co-founders Bill Graham and Dave Thibodeau since they were making beer in Graham's kitchen and starting up Ska Brewing. Donovan and Graham talked whiskey-making for years, looking at all manner of still plans -- like one they found on the Internet created by desperate Chevron gas-field workers who wanted to make their own hooch.
When Donovan was growing up, he'd watched his dad and his buddies working a still, too. "When I saw that those guys could do it, it took some of the alchemy out of it," he explains.
At one point, they received an invite to a distillers workshop taught by a chemistry professor in Lansing, Michigan. There they tried liquor that had been well-made, in contrast to what they had been distilling in driveways and barns, and they left with a new sense of inspiration. They started talking, putting together a business plan that focused on Palisade, Colorado.
"Palisade was a town I was totally unfamiliar with," says Donovan. "We wanted to make a variety of products and work directly with the growers. Local is really important to us, and we wanted to try to keep the money closer to home." And for that reason alone, Palisade seemed to be the perfect place to open up shop. Surrounded by mountains in the high desert, it has its very own micro-climate with cool nights and intense sunlight during the day; the fruit that ripens here has a special concentration of sugars. The location is also close to I-70, offering good access to the rest of the state for distribution.
Donovan, Graham and Thibodeau scored a brewhouse and brewing equipment, including an abandoned kettle that had been covered with a tarp in a field outside Telluride. They started with vodka, using fruit grown in Palisade in their first attempt. "With that vodka and the first round of fruit spirits, we were operational in August 2005," Donovan says. "We made enough vodka to where we could sell it, and started self- distributing after our third year -- I was personally serving 300 accounts through Fort Collins and Telluride."
Colorado boasts 42 distilleries today, but for a while Peach Street had one of the only tasting rooms around. "Originally, when we first started, our tasting room was a joke. I'd sleep on the floor of that place after my shift," says Donovan. "For two or three months, I didn't charge anyone for drinks."
This year, Peach Street will do just shy of $1 million in sales in its tasting room, a now-bustling venture open seven days a week that has financed a lot of the company's growth. And it continues to grow, in terms of distribution, staff (Peach Street now has twenty employees) and property: Peach Street is just days away from closing on another property that surrounds what it currently owns.
Peach Street now produces Artisan Goat Vodka; Colorado Straight Bourbon, a small-batch bourbon made with sweet corn from western Colorado sweet corn; the botanical-packed Jackalope Gin; Jack & Jenny Peach, Pear and Plum Brandy, and three varieties of grappa. It usually makes a cherry and apricot brandy, too, but due to poor harvests, Peach Street fans won't find them on the shelves anytime soon.
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"Being here in Palisade and having access to raw material is why our fruit spirits are so good," says Donovan. "Fact of the matter is, we get fruit that 90 percent of the time we don't even put in a cooler; it goes from orchard to distillery. We don't even pitch yeast on them: We mix them, wild yeast handles ferment, and all this happens within a mile of where it grew. The less we do, the better the product gets."