Lance Hanson is a self-described "classics nerd." And he parlayed that interest into a job teaching Latin to high school kids, eventually giving up academia to pursue a career in the software business, which made him, well, rich -- rich enough, at least, to "dive off the deep end and try something nuts," he quips.
In 2001, he and his wife, Anna, moved to Hotchkiss, Colorado, a pastoral town in the North Fork Valley that's steeped in vineyards, orchards, farms and ranches, and the reason behind the move, says Hanson, was rooted in a dream to build a small-estate winery. "My wife and I had been living in Northern California, so we were into wine as consumers, and we knew we wanted to be in a rural area and try something new and risky, so we started planting vineyards and making wine, and it went well," says Hanson. It went so well, in fact, that he started his own winery, Jack Rabbit Hill, the grapes of which he harvests from the vines that grow on his 72-acre, biodynamic farm.
In late 2004, a year after selling his first bottle of wine at the farmers' market in Aspen, Hanson was at a crossroads: "Things were progressing, and we were at a point where we could either step up our wine production, or diversify -- and we decided to diversify," explains Hanson, who began to explore eau-de-vie, distilled, un-aged, fermented brandies that are made with fruit other than grapes. "We had all of this wonderful orchard fruit right outside our front door, we knew how to ferment, and we had all of the equipment except a small still, so we got one of those and started distilling," he says.
He started with brandies and followed up with grappa, and while his customers praised both, they wondered, admits Hanson, if they were too nitch-y. "Everyone loved them, but the feedback I kept getting was that we should do something more mainstream," says Hanson, who distills his spirits under the Peak Spirits label. "They encouraged us to make vodka and gin, and since we had the fruit, the seeds, the roots and the flowers close to where the farm is, we figured why not?"
The gamble paid off. In 2012, Hanson's organic gin earned a semifinalist spot in the James Beard Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional category, and earlier this year, both his gin and vodka earned Good Food Awards. And his success, he says, resides in the quality of the ingredients. "The way we source our ingredients is super-important, and we're only as good as the ingredients that we use," explains Hanson, who, for example, sources his apples from Ela Family Farms, just outside of Hotchkiss. "The base spirit for the gin is apples, and the apples from Ela give it just this amazingly rich mouthfeel," he says.
And ingredients harvested from farms, he adds, is "at the core of what we do." And it's the focus, too, of CapRock Farm Bar, Hanson's first foray into Denver. The bar, which will open Tuesday at the Source, joins Comida, Acorn, Mondo Market and Babette's Artisan Breads, all of which are tenants in the former foundry building that's now a burgeoning epicenter of culinary nirvana.
"The bar is a culmination of everything that we've done, but farming is incredibly important to us, and the bar takes a marked culinary approach that showcases the produce in the North Fork Valley," says Hanson. "All of the cocktails have interesting culinary features; we know where to find the good stuff."
CapRock, which can accommodate just over sixty butts, stands front and center at the Source, its rectangle-shaped, black bar smack-dab in the middle of the main thoroughfare, and Hanson was noticeably jubilant at last night's VIP party, which showcased the bar's cocktails for the first time. "We'd been kicking around the idea of having a presence in Denver for a long time -- Denver is our biggest market -- and while we looked at all sorts of different things, when I saw the River North neighborhood, I immediately fell in love with it. And when I saw the building, I noticed all of the cool architectural features and the mission behind it -- to salvage, reuse and reclaim -- resonated with me," says Hanson, who credits Kyle Zeppelin, one of the developers behind the Source, with ultimately convincing him that the two-level brick building was worth taking the leap.
"Kyle's sensibilities around farming were real; he just gets it, and he understands the value of smaller, farm-based operations," stresses Hanson. "This is a guy who doesn't just talk the talk -- he walks the walk, and he's set the bar pretty damn high with his passion and commitment. Kyle is definitely blazing some trails here."
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And so is Hanson, who, pending label approval, will soon be releasing two new white whiskeys. The whiskeys, which will be distilled under the name Beer Craft Whiskey, are joint collaborations with two local breweries: Whynkoop-Breckeridge and Bull & Bush. "We're making whiskeys using both of their beers, and the principal behind them is to emphasize the quality of the mash vs the influence of barrel-aging on a less than phenomenal mash," says Hanson. The whiskeys, Luna White Dog and Jane's Cut -- both named after Hanson's own dogs -- will be sold by the bottle at CapRock and distributed locally at boutique liquor stores. "They're ready to go -- we're just waiting for label approval, and once we get that, I imagine that we'll start selling them pretty quickly," notes Hanson.
And that's not all Hanson has up his sleeve for CapRock: Starting on Tuesday, September 24, he, along with his star bartender and manager, David Donovan, will unleash a "wild-ass" heirloom tomato Bloody Mary bar. "We're doing a deep-dive exploration of Bloody Marys -- tomato water, tomato puree, sliced tomatoes, tomatoes and peppers, you name it, we're going to make it," says Hanson. "This is going to be an intensive culinary approach to making Bloody Marys that showcases different heirloom tomatoes -- it's just another extension of our huge emphasis on Colorado farms," he adds, noting that Donovan will also host seminars and classes in the future.
In the meantime, it's all about the CapRock cocktails, some of which I sampled last night. At least half the list will change monthly, but at the moment, you can't go wrong with any of them, especially the London Method, an herbal blend of gin, housemade chamomile syrup and peach eau-de-vie. The bar will initially be open from 4 to 10 p.m. daily, but Hanson says that once the Bloody Mary bar gets up and running, the hours will likely change to include mornings -- and the addition of a juice bar. "We're being flexible with the hours, and we'll do what the traffic dictates, but fresh, hand-pressed juices are something that we'd like to add in the morning," says Hanson.
Here's a photographic romp through several of the cocktails and the space.