Leopold Brothers – Part 1

Recently, a few of us had a chance to take a very in depth tour of the Leopold Brothers distillery in north Denver. It was amazing and a real eye-opener. Full disclosure: I hadn’t given Leopold Brothers a whole lot of thought before the tour. I was, of course, aware of them, and knew the basics about their move to Denver from Michigan, and had tried a few of their products, but honestly just considered them a line of really nice cocktail additions. Most of my interest to this point had been in their gin, as it seems that most of my friends either love it or don’t, with no “in between” positions. Really, I was left with an open mind and no preconceptions as I made my way to the industrial park where they are located.

I am glad that I had no expectations. They wouldn’t have held up.

You know where you are as soon as you get out of the car. The smell of fermentation and cooking wash floated through the parking lot, and it is a delicious smell. I was greeted by Scott Leopold and his father, and waited for the rest of the group to arrive. When we were all together, Scott gave us some familiarization with the family business and a brief history of the distillery and the brewery they ran in Michigan. Scott also gave us some insight into the technical training that his brother Todd undertook to learn the ins and outs of brewing and distilling. Todd would give us the main portion of the tour, but was finishing up a meeting and we were left to look around for a minute.

There was a Wonka moment…

I suppose there was a Wonka moment. I get giddy around gear like this. The two stills are beautiful and there is plenty of other stuff for a fellow like me to nerd out on. Some of the equipment is standard, but at Leopold Brothers, there are marked differences from other similar places. The most obvious one is the large open topped wooden vats. Interesting! Then there is an obvious lack of cylindrical sealed fermentors that you see in most other distilleries and breweries. This should have been an indicator of what we were going to learn, but our technical knowledge was pushed aside by excitement.

A few minutes later, Todd Leopold entered from an adjacent space. He is a bit unassuming, bearded and wearing the same bib overalls I’d seen on other workers. Introductions were made and we were on our way. We started out getting acquainted with the distillery and his background. He learned to brew through school and internships in Germany, and became a brewer specializing in the historic tradition of German lager beers. He brought this expertise back to Michigan, opening a brewpub in a renovated brake factory.

A quick tangent: a running theme throughout the tour and in the approach of the two brothers is all about sustainable practices. Scott has a background in environmental engineering, and everything from water waste, raw material selection, even equipment and building materials are considered for environmental impact and quality. Pretty amazing.

The decision to begin distilling took Todd back to school and off to Europe again for more hands-on training in the distiller’s arts. He trained in Austria with a farmer/distiller who was producing seasonal fruit Obstler, or schnapps – no, not the sickly sweet stuff that we used to nick out of the liquor cabinet, but the deeply aromatic Eau de vie-style drink found throughout Europe. After this training, he came back to the States armed with a whole new skill set, and got to work.

Now, I think I have this correct. Through the vagaries of Michigan alcohol law, if they wanted to distill for their pub, they had to make everything that they needed to serve the public. That included all of those things in the back bar that get used rarely to make very specific drinks. I would suggest that this facet is probably key to the large and well-rounded selection you find in the Leopold Brothers product line.

For various reasons, the Ann Arbor brewpub was closed, and the stills were packed up and shipped to Colorado. The brothers spent their early life here and still have family in the area. In fact, it seemed to me that if you weren’t related, you didn’t work there. Parents on the business end and brothers-in-law in the distillery. It was mentioned they are grooming nephews to work there as well. I imagine that it would be cushier to have connections to the Beams or Samuels, but if you are linked to the Leopolds you would have some pretty great summer jobs.

It hit me that this was a guy who comfortably stomps all over the line between science and art.

The stills are the focus of the room. What really sets Leopold’s apart is their fermentation method.  Leopold Brothers’ washes are fermented in open-topped square steel vats. It is not uncommon traditionally for this to happen, but it is unusual in the modern methodology that requires consistency and repeatability of a fermented product. This open fermentation allows not only yeast to ferment the liquid but also for bacteria from around the facility to colonize the wash. Todd specifically grinds his grain inside so that the dust will settle in these open-topped fermentors. As I stood there feeling the heat produced by the culture and watching the surface “breathe” due to the CO2 being produced, it hit me that this was a guy who comfortably stomps all over the line between science and art. He clearly understands what those bacteria are doing – metabolizing dextrins and other polysaccharides to produce acids and provide  flavor and character to each product. He considers this house character so critical that he had Hall-Woolford

Soon To be a rest home for bacteria

build huge cypress-wood vats that will now become the substrate for bacterial colonies that will be providing a unique character to each barrel of liquor for literally a century or more. Even as he talked about the technical aspects of bacterial metabolism, he was able to wax philosophic and laughed that he could easily hand these units down to his kids, when he gets some. This attitude continued throughout the tour, constantly flipping between wistful and professorial. It was easy to forget that we were all learning something new.

Living, Breathing Beauty

Read Leopold Brothers – Part 2

About Chris Washenberger

What is my favorite drink? Huh... That is a tough one. What do you have? That is probably it.