In front of the Durango Craft Spirits booth, I raised my taster glass for a sniff, swished the warming liquid around my mouth and let it go down the hatch.
This whiskey, said distillery owner Michael McCardell, was their first batch, barrel-aged two years and tapped just two months ago. McCardell’s wife and distilling partner, Amy McCardell, added that the whiskey (like their Soiled Doves Vodka and Mayday Moonshine) is made with all Colorado ingredients — “non-GMO white corn from the Mountain Utes and barley, malt, wheat and rye from the Colorado Malting Company in Alamosa,” she said.
I thanked them and moved to the next booth. Things were in full swing in Mile High Station, where the Colorado Distillers Guild’s first Hearts & Trails Spirit Festival was showcasing 45 of the more than 70 craft distilleries now in Colorado — up from zero licensed distilleries in 2004. This event was also the launch of The Colorado Spirits Trail, a guide to 52 tasting rooms around the state, complete with a map and passport.
I’m a big fan of traveling with a purpose, especially a liquid scavenger hunt with such belly-warming rewards. Inspired in part by the success of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (which brings in $1.3 billion annually to the state), the Colorado version takes people up and down the Front Range, deep into the mountains, to the Western Slope and the plains.
The trail, said Sean Smiley, owner of Golden, Colorado’s State 38 Distilling and President of the Colorado Distillers Guild, is not just about touring the tasting rooms. “The real magic, the beauty of this, is to learn about the process that goes into making each of these spirits,” he said.
Spirits enthusiasts can pick up a trail map, with passport, at most participating distilleries, and at the airport and tourist information offices around the state. Hitting the trail soon could land you a prize: Be among the first 24 to get a stamp from all 52 distilleries on the map and you’ll get a signed bottle from each one. Pacing yourself? Visiting just 10 places on the map gets you a Spirits Trail T-shirt.
Though the trail could take travelers all the way to Durango, which is home to two distilleries on the map, Denverites don’t have to go far to enjoy it. There are 15 distilleries in the metro area alone, and another couple dozen nearby on the Front Range.
Then again, a mountain loop would knock off the distilleries in Breckenridge, Buena Vista, Salida, Crested Butte, Ouray, Durango and Palisade — a plan that overlays nicely with the Colorado Historic Hot Springs Loop, I noticed.
Back at the festival, with the Durango whiskey still comforting my palate, I stepped up to the Colorado High Hemp-Crafted Vodka table, a small-batch operation out of Colorado Springs, and held out my glass.
Colorado Spirits Trail. Plan your route and download your map and passport at www.coloradospiritstrail.com.