Image Credit: Beertographer
As we enter an important week for craft spirits, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Rob Masters, the head distiller for Spring 44 based in Loveland, CO. With a rich history in booze production here in our home state, Rob is on the forefront of American distillers who are pushing the industry forward through excellent small batch products. Possessing the skills of being able to create a very well-balanced spirit, he also gets to work with some of the best water on the planet.
Denver Off The Wagon: We here behind the wheel of the Wagon certainly enjoy craft spirits, but running a successful distillery and having your name on a bottle of gin is taking it to another level. What is the driver behind your love for booze?
Rob Masters: I love crafting things. As a young sapling I was always hanging out with my elders tinkering with things. In distilling, crafting combines a mixture of science and art. That is something really special. It’s a delicate balance that some are born with and some learn over time. I also love the fact that we sell fun. By that I mean, most of the time people are imbibing on our products to kick back, relax, and enjoy the craft that goes into a well made cocktail.
I have said it before. In the craft cocktail scene, vodka can be boring. It’s white paint, it’s like chicken at a fine dining restaurant.
DOTW: You are the head distiller at Spring 44. How did that come to be?
RM: That can be a long complicated story. In a nutshell, I started distilling about 9 years ago at a small distillery in Colorado Springs. That business was sold and moved so I helped start up a new project in Lakewood. We specialized in private label brands for other people. One day the founders of Spring44 walked in the door with some incredible water and asked what we could do with it. Spring44 vodka, gin and honey vodka was born. I left that distillery to start Rob’s Mountain Gin. The founders of Spring44 decided to build their own distillery, so they found me, and one thing led to another and here I am. Distilling away in Loveland in a beautiful facility with great people.
DOTW: I’ve heard in certain circles that people poke fun at you for the honey vodka. Are they just on the wagon with the recent trend of vodka not being cool? I personally think the honey vodka is fucking delicious. Thoughts on spirits being in or out of style?
RM: I have said it before. In the craft cocktail scene, vodka can be boring. It’s white paint, it’s like chicken at a fine dining restaurant. However, it has a place. It can be crafty, it can be great and it can be horrible. Flavored vodka is a whole other ballgame. Between cotton candy and sugary cereal flavors, flavored vodka has got a bad rap. Because we are a craft distiller and because we want to do work with the wonderful things that Colorado has to offer, we came up with honey vodka. It’s actually one of the more complex things we do here. We distill a honey flavoring then infuse with vanilla beans and add in just the right amount of amber agave nectar for sweetness. Distilling honey is not easy. If the temps are too high, you scorch the sugars and have burnt flavors. It’s a sticky gooey mess to move around, and the flavors that come off the still when it’s done correctly are very delicate and change with each batch of honey. So the haters can hate, but at the end of the day, we know it’s a wonderful product that takes a lot of time to create and, as you stated, it’s delicious.
DOTW: What is, in your opinion, a cocktail faux pas? Any stories on bartenders mistreating your spirits?
RM: Shake when you need to shake, stir when you need to stir, and please, don’t use the mixing glass as a strainer. That’s disgusting.
DOTW: Colorado is becoming a mecca for distillers. It seems we are on an upswing in terms of new operations popping up. Would you agree with that? Is it sustainable like breweries, or are we going to see the market get too crowded?
RM: Absolutely it’s becoming a mecca. It’s mainly about culture. There is a great group of people in Colorado that support local, hand crafted, well made, excellent things. If this state can sustain 140+ brewers why can’t it sustain 50 plus craft distillers? As long as we all stick to making great products with integrity, we will be fine.
DOTW: You and the CO Distillers Guild are putting on an event called DSTILL. What is it, and why is it so important for Colorado?
RM: It’s a beast. Arguably, one of the best craft spirit events ever put on in the country. One full week of public tastings, workshops and cocktail events. DSTILL’s anchor event, the American Craft Spirit & Cocktail Showcase will feature 43 of the top U.S. craft distillers — 22 from right here in Colorado. And we’re partnered with the Colorado Bartenders Guild who are hands down some of the best barmen and women in the country. In a word, Epic. And this is just year one. DSTILL is setting up to be THE national, annual showcase for craft spirit producers. Similar to another beast of an event that also happens to take place in Denver every year in October. And it’s not just one night. It’s a full week of craft spirit and cocktail happenings in Denver. EatDenver teamed up with Imbibe and you guys at Off the Wagon to create the Colorado Craft Spirit Cocktail Map. 29 independent restaurants will have a specially crafted cocktail on their menu during DSTILL. Each cocktail uses product from a Colorado craft distiller. It’s an awesome list of participants, from Rioja, Jonesy’s EatBar, Pinche Tacos, Ace, Green Russell, Ghost Plate & Tap, all the way to The Fort. It’s cool to see all these amazing independent restaurants incorporating Colorado distillers into their bar program. So get out there this week and try their DSTILL cocktail and order up some food while you’re there. Go to www.dstill.co for the map of participating restaurants.
DOTW: Outside of local or domestic spirits, what is your go-to imported product?
RM: Carpano Antica, Until someone in the US makes a sweet vermouth that can stand up to it, it will be my go to for Negronis, Manhattans, and the Martinez. Others would be Campari, and Luxardo. We are releasing our new Old Tom Gin this month and I have to tell you it makes a killer Martinez with Carpano and Luxardo, don’t forget the bitters.
DOTW: What’s next for Spring 44? Any new products we should be keeping our eye out for?
RM: As stated before, we have an Old Tom Gin coming out this month. I am very excited about it. Juniper, coriander, fresh rosemary, fresh grapefruit, orris root, and galangal root. All aged in toasted American oak and sweetened slightly with agave nectar. It’s very special. We are also working on our own version of American straight bourbon. We are headed to Kentucky to pick up some very high end bourbon barrels and bringing them back to blend them together and add in our wonderful water. It will be our own version of straight bourbon with a hint of Colorado thrown in.
DSTILL is a week long event celebration craft spirits and the distillers who make them. There are events all week long.
The EatDenver Craft Cocktail Map is active April 1-6; get your copy!