Early last week, when I met with Todd Leopold at Steuben's, he was wearing oatmeal-colored overalls that sniffed of absinthe, which may or may not have been the reason why customers coming in and out of Steuben's stopped to introduce themselves and shake his hand. But Todd, who, in 1999, along with his brother Scott and brother-in-law Jeremy, founded Leopold Bros., one of the world's top craft distilleries, is the kind of guy who shies away from the limelight. "I'm not comfortable with the attention," he admits, as two people in the parking lot recognize him and heap praise on his products.
But he's about to become even more recognizable -- or, at least, his highly sought-after spirits are.
After six years of distilling spirits out of an 8,000-square-foot space located in an office park at 4950 Nome Street, near Northfield at Stapleton, Todd and his world-renowned cohorts are expanding -- big time.
By the spring or summer of next year, they'll have completely moved their operation to a 30,000-square-foot plant on Joliet Street, just four blocks west of their current location. "We're just running out of room," explains Todd, adding that last year, Leopold Bros. distributed more than 20,000 cases of rum, whiskey, vodka, absinthe and liqueurs locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. "We simply can't keep up with the demand, which means we've been really lucky," he adds, noting, too, that "We like that people are recognizing what we're doing and that they're buying our spirits, because, frankly, they're good.
The new plant, which will include seven stills, five more than what he has now, fifteen open fermenters and four times the capacity, sits on four-and-a-half acres of undeveloped land. "There's nothing there but four-and-a-half acres to build on," says Todd, revealing that he'll have a separate rick house for barrel storage, along with some serious landscaping, which is an imperative component, he says, for whiskey fermentation.
"We'll plant columbines, roses, lavender and honeysuckle, which are important to the grounds, because they add flavor notes and complexity to the whiskey over time," he says. The flowers -- mostly food plants -- he continues, will be "right next to the air intake, with the notion that the microscopic amounts of pollen, wild yeast or plant material will fall into the wooden fermenters, and over time, give it character -- give it terroir."
Todd also notes that the landscaping assignment belongs to Bob, his father and a Harvard grad architect, who considers this his new pet project. "I'm so excited to do this with my dad. He's absolutely beaming, and so am I. We all are." And his mom will have a "nice office to do the books," he says.
But Todd may be most energized (and animated) by the fact that the plant will incorporate traditional floor malting, which originated in Great Britain in the nineteenth century, and to explain how it works, he grabs a pen and starts doodling on a Steuben's menu, drawing arrows, diagrams and calculations to help me understand exactly what floor malting is. "It's making malt on-site," he tells me."Think of 2,000 pounds of malt, soaking it for four days in water and then spreading it out on the floor over 1,000 square feet." It then germinates, sprouts rootlets and then someone -- probably Todd -- pulls a rake through to to stop the rootlets from growing together. "Malting and mashing go hand-and-hand," he notes, divulging that the goal is to try and sell the surplus to other breweries.
And while there are plenty of big distilleries that would likely offer the Leopold Brothers gazillions of dollars to purchase their sustainable, environmentally-conscious small-batch distillery, Todd says that he'll never sell. Ever. "This is a family-run operation, and it always will be. We have absolutely no interest in money -- we look at it as capital, to build things, but money isn't our path. We got into making spirits because we love it," he stresses."Things are going so well for us -- we have so much fun -- why would we ever want to sell our business?"
Selling -- and distilling -- spirits, however, is a whole different matter, and the Leopold Brothers are now up to sixteen total, with another one on the way. And it's not vokda, it's not gin, and it's not whiskey. And for now, anyway, we're under oath to keep it under wraps -- but we can tell you that it'll be released this year, and you'll be able to sip it the bar and tasting room that the brothers plan to unleash next year, when they unveil the new plant.
"It'll overlook the fermenters and stills, we'll do tours on the weekends, and it'll be very small-batch," says Todd. It'll accommodate around 100 people, he adds, and they'll sell specialty whiskeys and other spirits that you can only purchase there. "It's designed to bring people in, show them our products and give people a chance to sample things that they can't sample elsewhere."
And that's just the start for the soft-spoken, ego-free distiller who went to brewing and malting school in Chicago, trained and apprenticed in Munich, Germany and launched his career in 1995, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "Part of the reason why I'm so excited about all of this, is that I'll have more control than I have in the past. I won't be spending my time doing things that require technical skills. I like to play with yeast," he deadpans.
And while the new distillery cements his future in Denver, Todd says that even if he wasn't expanding, he wouldn't consider leaving. "We've had a hand in making Denver a better city in which to drink, and we want to continue to do make great spirits in this city."
We'll drink to that.
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