Potatoes are often associated with Idaho, a state which has trademarked its own spud and accounts for one-third of the country’s annual potato production. But, around the 1900s when the Roaring Fork Valley was settled by prospectors, it actually produced more potatoes than the entire state of Idaho.
Mark Kleckner, co-owner of Woody Creek Distillers, learned why last fall.
He, and his business partners Pat and Mary Scanlan, were hoping to yield about 100 tons from their 30-acre farm in Woody Creek. They planted the potatoes in the beginning of June, and when they checked in July they were unimpressed with the size. But, they held onto hope and when it came time to harvest the potatoes in September, “they had just exploded in the ground,” says Kleckner.
The potatoes were huge, and often misshapen, coming out of the earth looking like catcher’s mitts or people’s heads, he says. But they were large and perfect for their purpose. More than 250 tons of potatoes were harvested, all of which went directly to their Basalt-based distillery to produce hyper-local, once-distilled vodka.
Potatoes are rarely used to make vodka, and when they are they often sit on the shelf for months before going into production, says Kleckner. This means that the potatoes have to be rehydrated up to 30 percent before they can be mashed for use. By sourcing its produce from up the road, and sometimes in the same day, Woody Creek Distillers is ensuring a high-quality product from the start.
“A fresh, out-of-the-ground potato doesn’t compare with something from the store,” he says. “And it already has the exact amount of water it needs in there.”
Kleckner and the Scanlans planted seven varietals on their farm, and eventually settled on the Chepita and Rio Grande for their vodka.
With the key ingredient cultivated, they approached the rest like a scientific problem.
“There isn’t as much wisdom and art as there is in making beer or wine,” says Kleckner. “It’s more about engineering and process.”
Kleckner grew up in Fort Collins, and then attended the Colorado School of Mines. He later worked for Lockheed Martin, where he met Pat Scanlan and bonded over “motorcycles and drinking.”
Their combined dream of producing super premium vodka came to fruition just this month after two years in the making. The stunning 10,000-square foot facility and tasting room opened in Basalt two weeks ago, and the company’s first shipment went out to Southern Wine & Spirits this week. The 750-milliliter bottles will be distributed around the state, available in valley liquor stores, and places like the J-Bar and The Little Nell.
So far, people who have tried the vodka are raving. By combining fresh potatoes, top-of-the-line equipment and crisp Rocky Mountain water, the distillery has nailed a tasty combination. They’ll find out if it’s also a winning one this weekend, when it goes up against others in the San Francisco Spirits Competition, one of the most respected in the world.
The potatoes are a vintage crop, says Kleckner, meaning they’re harvested once a year. The rest of the time is spent on development and planning. In the future, Woody Creek Distillers will expand its offerings to include brandy, bourbon and whiskey. He’s already got an order for Palisade peaches and apples, and hopes to craft boutique batches from this in 2014. Right now, the tasting room serves straight-up vodka, but signature cocktails are on their way.
“It’s pretty simple, that by using the best ingredients and the best equipment, we’re hoping to make some good alcohol.”
The tasting room is open Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. and is located at 60 Sunset Dr. in the Basalt Business Center.