Distillers Sitdown Series: Rob Masters of Boulder Distillery

The 1st Annual Colorado Distiller’s Festival will be held on September 18.  As part of the roll-out, we will be interviewing the participating CO distillers to feature in the coming weeks.

Today, we’re featuring Boulder Distillery with THE Rob Masters.

 

Biographical information

Rob Masters

Rob Masters picking Juniper berries

Full Name 
Rob Masters

Current Location
Boulder, Colorado

Name of Distillery
Boulder Distillery

 

You and your distillery

Where did you grow up? 
Minneapolis, Minnesota

How old were you when you had your first drink of a spirit? What was the story behind it? 
Not sure how old I was, but by grandparents would always end the day and start the evening with either a Manhattan or Gin & Tonic.  As most people in Minneapolis, the whole family would spend the weekends up at our cabin on a lake.  There were many occasions that Grandpa would “introduce” us grand kids to his nightly tradition with a sip or two by the barbeque.  Manhattans are totally different when they are made with cheap booze and fluorescent red cherries then at some of the fine watering holes we have in Colorado.  Unfortunately, most of his Manhattans were the lesser version.

Rob Masters

Berries in the dehydrator

What’s your favorite cocktail?
I change based on moods and seasons.  For instance, in the summer I enjoy drinking gin with fresh squeezed citrus.  Whether it’s lime, lemon, orange, etc.  I also like to add in fresh herbs based on availability like Rosemary, Basil or thyme.  In the winter I like more spirit forward drinks like a classic martini, Negroni, or Aviation.  It’s not always gin either; two fingers of a nice well made rye are never turned away on a snowy night in front of the fire.

What cocktail best showcases your distilled spirit, if applicable?
The “bright” flavors that come from the Peppermint and Basil in Rob’s Mountain Gin really stand out in a classic martini.  3 parts Gin to 1 part GOOD dry vermouth and a dash of aromatic bitters.  Because we set out to make a balanced gin we like to think it works well in any cocktail.

What food pairs well with your spirit, if at all? 
Fresh salads loaded with cucumbers and other in-season veggies really pair up well with a most drinks made with Rob’s Mountain Gin.  Again, the “bright” flavors of the Peppermint and Basil come through and compliment the “fresh” flavors of a well made salad.

Why are you Colorado-based?  If you moved to Colorado to start your distilleries, why? 
Really it was because this is where I was when I learned how to distill.  Since then my wife and I have settled in and made a nice home for ourselves.  We can’t think of living anywhere else.  From the business perspective, it’s a great place to distill.  The laws are all pretty fair for us and there is such a great scene here where the public really embraces the local craft distilling movement.  I like to bring up this point.  There are more people living in New York City then the entire State of Colorado.  There are 3 distilleries in NYC and 22 at last count in Colorado.

There are also great resources here be it Olathe Sweet corn, San Louis Valley Potatoes, and most importantly GREAT water.

How long have you been distilling? 
I have been distilling off and on for 6 years and full time for 4 years.

Now, how long have you really been distilling?  (By that, how did you get into it?) 
A good friend opened a distillery in Colorado Springs making a brand of vodka named Altius.  I was working in the hockey world at the time and had my summers off, so I would spend summers working with him and learning how to distill.  He has since moved his distillery to Maui and I moved on to where I am now.

How did your distillery get its name? 
Steve and Terri Viezbicke who own Boulder Distillery named it before I jumped on board, but I think the name is pretty self explanatory.

Your distillation process

Rob Masters

Roxy the Gin Still with special column

What’s a fond memory you have of distilling?  Please as many details as you’d like.
My favorite part of distilling is developing products.  You never know what the still is going to do with something new.  All you can do it throw it in, turn it on, watch and wait.  It’s a magical thing really.  No matter how much distilling experience, chemistry knowledge, or analytical data you have, you never know how things are going to turn out until you get to taste it coming out the other end.

Where do you get the ingredients for your distillate?
I try to source locally as much as possible. We use fresh basil in the summer and I have a group of friends that I get together every once and awhile to pick Juniper berries.  The Kaffir Lime Leaf comes from a friend in Maui.  He has Kaffir lime trees in his back yard and is happy to pick me a bunch of leaves when I need them.  The rest of the botanicals come from various sources.  The water we use comes from Ward, Colorado and the Indian Peaks spring.

How do you make your neutral grain spirit?  
We purchase pharmaceutical grade ethanol in bulk then distill the botanicals into that.  So this question doesn’t really apply.

However, I must cover something here.  Purchased Neutral Grain Spirits (NGS) has gotten a bit of a bad reputation lately.  I have nothing but respect for those that make product grain to bottle, it’s how we make the vodka at our place, but there is a time and a place for purchased NGS.  There are some who just take NGS and add water and throw it in a bottle, you have to make money somehow, that’s their prerogative.

The way I look at NGS is it is offering me a blank canvas to paint my picture on.  If I were to make NGS in-house, there is no-way I would be able to make something that is Pharmaceutical grade with out a ton of money, time and space.  Having a pure ethanol canvas is very important to my product.  I want to showcase the art of what my botanicals do when blended together in the right proportion.  If I have a less then neutral base spirit it is going to take away from that.  Some products like Genever, need that malty base, but not Rob’s Mountain Gin.  We want to focus on art of blending 8 different elements to create 1 great spirit.

What’s your favorite spirit to make and why?
Gin, of course. Bringing 8 different ingredients together to create a well balanced gin is magical.  I feel that no two gins are the same.  The best part is that once you put the Juniper in the sky is the limit for the rest of the botanicals.  That’s the magical part.  Who knew that Basil and peppermint would work well with Orange Peel and Coriander?

Whiskey would be a close second as there are so many factors that go into the end product.  Type of grain, fermentation, distillation technique, wood type, conditions in the rick house, water etc…

Do you filter?  If so, why?
No filtration is needed in the making of Rob’s Mountain Gin.  The ethanol comes as pure as you can get.  See above.

What’s your philosophy on heads and tails removal? 
Since we are starting with Pharmaceutical grade Ethanol, there are not a whole lot of heads & tails to worry about.  However there are cuts to be made when distilling botanicals.  Different flavors come off the still at different times so you have to be conscious about what is coming off the still.

Back when I was distilling vodka, it was a big deal.  Heads and tails can make the difference between a great product and a horrible product.  Until you have smelled them coming off the still, you would never know what they add to a product, but in a lot of mass produced/cheap products they are there.

What do you listen to while you brew/filter/distill?
We listen to all sorts of stuff.  It’s another element that changes with the weather, time of day, mood, and who has the remote.  For me you can’t beat some good bluegrass while distilling on a snowy Sunday morning and vice versa, you can’t beat some good rock and roll while distilling on a hot summer afternoon.  Right now one of our distillers has some head pounding techno on.  I’m not so excited about that, I think I am going to have to pull rank on him and change it.

Tell us about your still.  Is it a column or pot still?  Does it have a name?
Roxy is the name of our gin still.  She’s an all-glass pot still with a special reflux column to keep some of the foam and other nasty elements from the botanicals from getting into the condenser.

 

Gin

Robs Mtn Gin

Rob's Mtn Gin Bottle Shot

What style do you use to distill your gin? (London method, blending method etc.)
Per the TTB Rob’s Mountain Gin is considered “Redistilled Gin” Meaning that we take Neutral Spirits and re-distill them with the flavoring components that we want in our gin.  We distill in two different batches, one with the Juniper, and one with the 7 botanicals because different flavor profiles come off the still at different temps.  We are constantly making cuts so we only get the flavors that we want.  Then we blend everything together, add water and there you have it.

How many botanicals are in your gin and what are they?
There are 8 total botanicals in Rob’s Mountain Gin.

First is Juniper of course, and then we have some non-standard botanical like Peppermint, Basil, Kaffir Lime Leaf, and Unicorn Tears*.  The standard Gin botanicals include Orange Peel, Coriander, and Orris Root.

(*I promise I did not steal this from Kevin Burke.  I have been searching for Unicorn tears since way before my first visit to Colt & Gray. I am impressed he was able to find them as well.  It’s not easy to find a Unicorn, and it’s even harder to make such a beautiful thing cry.  Good on you Kevin.  Nice work!!)

Are there any of the botanicals that you believe set yourself apart?
As covered before, the Peppermint and Basil make for a totally different gin.  I also love the citrus element that the Kaffir Lime leaf adds.  Every gin needs some sort of citrus element, and Kaffir is a special one.

What is your favorite way to drink your gin?
There are so many good ways to drink gin.  It’s amazing what a good bartender can do with it in a complex yet balanced cocktail.  And yet drinking 2 fingers on the rocks lends to a great experience as well.

What is the base for your wash? (grapes, potatoes, apples, etc.)
The neutral spirit we use is based on corn grown in the Midwest.  It’s the easiest commodity to distill to neutral, which is what we want.  If you use other commodities such as Potato you are going to get a little bit of character which we don’t want.

 

Wrap-up

Rob Masters

The Basil Gin Smash. One of Rob's favorite drinks after a long day of working or playing outside.

Are there any other less than mainstream products that you distill?
This last month we did a special edition gin for a community garden in Boulder.  Everything was sourced in Boulder County.  We took Juniper from Ollin Farms in Niwot then Basil, Coriander, Rosemary, and Lemon Balm from Growing Gardens and distilled and blended everything together.  Then we let the whole batch infuse in lemon cucumber over night.  It turned out great and the proceeds from the 400 bottles go back to the Growing Gardens for their youth programs to teach high school students about the advantages of working off the earth organically and eating well.  The produce that they grow goes to the farmers market and whatever is not sold is donated to the local homeless shelter.  It’s a great program.

If budget was no issue, what would you like to try to distill?  Yes, bacon is an acceptable answer
If budget were not an issue I would be in trouble, because I would be developing all sorts of stuff.  I have a great respect for Jorg and Lance at St. George Spirits (of Hangar One Fame before Proximo) they have the ability and equipment to make just about anything.  They have so many products that most people have never even heard of.  That being said, it would be fun to play with different botanicals to come up with what would essentially be flavored vodka, but not the bubble gum kind.  More like the Hangar One Kaffir Lime, or possibly a chili pepper flavor (distilled not infused).

There are also lots of different spirits from all over the world that people enjoy like Arrack and Shochu.  It would be fun to play around with some of them and see what we can come up with here in the states.

What are some developments you’re planning on in the coming future?
We are just going to continue to do what we do.  We are bursting at the seams in our current building so eventually we will probably move into something bigger.  It’s a dream of mine to have a small column/pot hybrid still to play around on so maybe that’s in the cards.  I have always been intrigued by Genever, so that may be coming soon to a back bar near you.

Why should folks buy local CO spirits?
First of all, it’s the craftsmanship that we all put into our products.  By craftsmanship, I mean the blood sweat and tears.  Building a brand is not a 9-5 job, it’s your life.  By buying local you get a warm, fuzzy feeling knowing that you just helped support that person’s passion and livelihood.  What’s better than that?  I try to buy local whenever possible, from my Peanut Butter (Justin’s) to my Soap (Pangea) to the beer I drink (numerous local breweries).  There is something to be said about knowing the person behind a product.  Why would I give my hard earned money to some CEO that sits in an office in New York, when I can give it to someone who will appreciate it, because they have put their heart and soul into making it for me.  We always say “Come to our distillery, smell the smells, taste the drip coming off our stills, learn about what we do.” You will leave having learned so much. You will never get that opportunity by purchasing a bottle of spirits made in England or Russia.

Then we can talk about the advantages of locally sourced ingredients like water, grains, potatoes, even the labels on the bottles.  Each one of these components was crafted by someone who has put their entire soul into making something.  By buying our local products it trickles down to our local vendors as well.  That is why we try to source local as much as possible.

For a bit of a selfish perspective, buy local, because chances are the person you buy from is going to take your money and buy from another local person who is going to keep the circle moving.  We all pay taxes in your area and we all support the infrastructure that you will ultimately use.  Some percentage of what you spent will come back to you.

I could go on and on about this forever, there are other things to think about like the carbon footprint of shipping bottles all over the world, the fair trade practices, or lack of, of some of the suppliers, and on and on.

 A BIG thank you to Rob Masters for a fantastic interview!  
Don’t forget to buy your ticket to the CO Distillers Festival!

About Jess Hunter


Jess is a lady and a scholar. If she's not mulling over the various names of famous mustaches and their respective bitter cocktails, she's nibbling on American Craft Singles and Cantillon. Connect with her by email at jesshunter@denveroffthewagon.com.