Booze

Get to Know Aquavit at Devil's Head, Englewood's Only Distillery

Order a flight to sip all four spirits.
Order a flight to sip all four spirits. Molly Martin
Not only was Devil's Head, at 3296 South Acoma Street, the first (and still only) distillery to open in Englewood, it was also one of the only ones in the state making aquavit, a Scandinavian spirit, and the first in Colorado to make a barrel-aged variety. But in 2020, Devil's Head nearly shut down. Faced with a rent increase, original owner Ryan White announced his intention to shutter the distillery in February of that year, and less than a month later, the tasting room was forced to close when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in all indoor service being cut off.

But Devil's Head got a second chance, thanks to Adam Leahey and his life and business partner, Elizabeth Wassenaar, who'd relocated to Colorado from Cincinnati in 2016. Leahey is a chemical engineer who went to school in Louisville, Kentucky, where distilling was part of the core curriculum, given that city's deep connection to bourbon. Professionally, he's worked in neutral grain spirits produced on a massive scale, but he's always had an interest in drinking spirits.

"Over a year ago, we started investigating building our own," Leahey recalls. But with pandemic-related supply-chain issues stretching lead times for buying distillery equipment like stills to upwards of eighteen months, starting from scratch didn't seem like a realistic option. Then this past February, Leahey and Wassenaar came across Devil's Head. The two officially leased the building and purchased the brand and equipment in September. Now they're working on making Devil's Head their own.

One way is through a new mission to partner with Black-owned businesses and put a portion of proceeds toward a reparations fund, and to try to get others to join in that goal. "Traditionally, the liquor business is very white, very male-oriented," Leahey explains, adding that he was motivated to do things differently while "being in the industry in a large scale and seeing that opportunities weren't given to people, and seeing the privilege of being a white man."
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Bottles are available to purchase at the tasting room.
Molly Martin
"Being in Kentucky and seeing the inside of the bourbon industry, there's been a lot of history of things that have been taken unfairly," Wassenaar adds. "We're just trying to make little bits of difference that we can, here and now."

The two are also doing things differently when it comes to making the spirits. Leahey hopes to add bourbon to the lineup soon. In the meantime, he's drawing from his experience to take a fresh look at processes in order to increase efficiency and production. Updates to the tasting room are in the works, too. Leahey wants to make it more lounge-like, though supply-chain problems have made it tough to order new furniture. But there's no reason to postpone a visit: This spot is one of the best places in Englewood to find creative cocktails. And that barrel-aged aquavit.

"We kind of Americanized it — it's [aged in] new white oak just like a bourbon would be," Leahey says. Traditional aquavit is typically clear and made with a base of caraway and dill seed. Devil's Head's also uses fennel and a small amount of anise.

"It's like gin, in that everyone kind of has their own recipe," Wassenaar explains. Devil's Head is sparing with the licorice flavor, while leaning more savory and earthy than gin, which tends to be more floral. The barrel aging adds a sweet, caramel note, though the spirit is still light enough to appeal to those who typically avoid darker spirits.

In Scandinavia, aquavit has been produced since the fifteenth century; the name is derived from the Latin "aqua vitae," or "water of life." It's traditionally enjoyed straight, with shot after shot sipped during meals — particularly during the holidays. At Devil's Head, you can enjoy the spirit in the same way, with tasting flights that also include the distillery's vodka and gin.
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The Devil's Head tasting room is located just off South Broadway in Englewood.
Molly Martin
Both of those spirits are made with a single malt grown in a valley by Colorado's San Juan Mountains. This results in an ultra-smooth vodka with a touch of malt flavor. The gin is made in the traditional new American style, with juniper as the base. "But we do a lot of flowers," Leahey says. "Lavender, chamomile, rose petals...so it's much more floral than, like, a London Dry Gin. A lot of people who don't drink gin and say they hate gin love ours."

In addition to flights, the Devil's Head tasting room offers a long list of infused spirits, in flavors ranging from peach and black tea to pickle and Swedish fish. The infusions can be ordered on their own, but many are also used in cocktails. The Beetnik Martini, with beet-infused gin, honey tarragon simple syrup, ginger simple syrup and fresh lemon is an earthy, almost healthy-tasting take on the classic cocktail. Notes of a Dirty Old Man is an Old Fashioned made with the barrel-aged aquavit for a lighter take on that spirit-forward libation. On Sundays, the distillery sets up a Bloody Mary bar from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Since they took over operations, business has been steady. Between improving efficiency, expanding the product line and trying to get Devil's Head spirits on more liquor-store shelves and in bars and restaurants, Leahey and Wassenaar are juggling a lot beyond the tasting room. Their biggest challenge: education.

"There's no aquavit aisle in the stores," Leahey points out. But with a product that tastes this good and has the potential to appeal to so many, there might be soon.

The Devils' Head tasting room is located at 3296 South Acoma Street in Englewood and is currently open from 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. To learn more,  visit devilsheaddistillery.com.
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Molly Martin is the Westword Food & Drink editor. She’s been writing about the dining scene in Denver since 2013, and was eating her way around the city long before that. She enjoys long walks to the nearest burrito joint and nights spent sipping cocktails on Colfax.
Contact: Molly Martin

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