Randy and Dawne Tourville bid $3,000 to win a bottle of 20-year-old bourbon at a benefit auction Dec. 12 in Loveland. Courtesy Liquor Max

What makes finer spirits? Experts take the fifth

Would you pay $3,000 for a bottle of booze?

Randy and Dawne Tourville did.

Granted, it was for a good cause. The couple participated in an auction of fine and rare bourbons on Dec. 12 at Liquor Max in Loveland, and the proceeds benefited Loveland Habitat for Humanity.

But still, was that 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey really worth three grand?

“I’ve seen it go for twice of what the auction price went for,” said Liquor Max co-owner Hal Rogers. “Most of the price is driven by scarcity. It’s supply and demand. It’s an old, reputable distiller, and we get it in maybe once a year. On the shelf it would go for $600 or $700.”

Maybe part of that high-dollar figure is the price of bragging rights, Rogers said. “A lot of people collect these things. And if they give it as a gift, it might create a bigger bond, and they’d get a bigger thank you.”

The Tourvilles planned to drink it, however. “It’s aged well, with a better aroma and a deeper taste. It’s a sipping bourbon,” said Randy Tourville, adding that they’d try not to think about the price of each sip.

“Part of the price is that it’s expensive to age whiskey because it evaporates,” even in the barrel, said Jamie Golden, co-owner of Feisty Spirits, a 12-year-old distillery in Fort Collins. “It’s less about age than what most people think.

“The longer it sits, you have the ‘angel share.’ In the old days, before people understood evaporation, they associated the loss with the angels coming down to take their fair share. They considered alcohol a gift from the spirits — which is why it’s called spirits.”

Golden said sorting out better distilled products comes down to technical aspects and flavor profiles.

“Whiskey can have heads or tails,” he said. “Better-quality whiskey is going to have less heads, the parts that burn your nose, and tails, the parts that burn your throat. It’ll go down smoother.”

Making that happen for a whiskey is “all about how you distill it,” he said. “We do the ‘cuts.’ That means that, generally when you’re distilling, you don’t take everything that comes out of the still. We keep the best parts and cut out the bad parts.”

Distillers can tell the difference mostly by aroma, Golden said. “There’s a lot you can get just from smell. The real test is flavor, but some of it’s so bad you really don’t want to taste the flavor. You can smell those.

“So if you do really tight cuts, you’ll have less of the highly volatile compounds like acetone and other things that aren’t really good for us. Every distillery does that differently. Generally what you’ll find is the higher volume mass-market products tend not to do as good a job on that.”

Those tight cuts apparently also are a priority at Abbott & Wallace, formerly Longtucky Spirits, in Longmont, where their slogan is “Cutting whiskey, never corners.”

Like many other products, Golden said, demand for a higher-end spirit is based on flavor.

“There’s a wide variety of different flavor profiles, from really mild light whiskeys to very robust like a peated scotch or a heavy rye. I tend to like whiskey that has a lot of character — that’s the most identifiable thing. Maybe it’s smoky or spicy, with a lot of depth, and you can sit there and enjoy and identify new flavors for a long time.”

Joe Elkins, owner of Elkins Distilling in Estes Park, finds more value in how diligent the makers of fine spirits are — and for that diligence, he said, one need look no farther than Colorado’s own craft industry.

“There are different ways different industries use the term ‘craft’ but it’s really about trying to be consistent with your process,” he said. “Consistency can be reliable — but you can make something that’s reliably not very good.”

But in Northern Colorado, Elkins said, “everybody’s very earnest about the study of how to make the best spirit.”

Modest about the success of his own business, which specializes in corn whiskey, Elkins raved about the quality of the work done by a distillery in Lyons.

Spirit Hound has approached it very methodically. They are true students of how to make good spirits. They have great malt, gin, bourbon.

“Everyone up here takes it seriously, and therefore everybody’s dedicating time to learning to make good spirits. That’s a common trait that’s true for Colorado distillers. Nobody has that “well, that’s good enough” type of attitude. If they’re not happy with it, they’re pursuing how to make it better.

“Some Colorado spirits are among the best in their class around the world,” Elkins said. “Some are not as good, but that doesn’t take away the fact that they’re trying to be better. We’re all humble, sincere and diligent.”

The bottom line about what makes a better spirit, he said, is what drinkers want.

“If consumers find a brand that they enjoy, that’s the ultimate metric,” Elkins said. “Consumers make their own choices about what they like. In Colorado, consumers can find a Colorado-based spirit that suits their preference and their price point.”

Distillers here don’t seem too focused on competing with the big national brands. Abbott & Wallace, for instance, boldly touts its local roots. According to its website, all its raw grains “are grown five miles down the road at Schlagel Farms. Our malted barley is grown and malted 15 miles north by Todd and Emily Olander at Root Shoot Malting.”

Elkins said there’s no need to compare Colorado-made craft products with more familiar brands.

“In Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, they have been in the game 170 years. In Scotland, even older. Those are really close to a standard that’s defined by just a very few brands. Kentucky bourbon has notes of fruit, some kind of wood and vanilla. It’s generally sweeter. Scotch has peat and smoke flavors and pepper. Where they are made has a lot to do with those particular flavors we think of as bourbon or scotch,” he said.

“In Colorado, they may not have those same flavors because it’s made in a very different place. You can’t expect the same type of spirit that was made in Kentucky or Scotland. You have to be adventurous. Our flavor profile is unique — it’s not like a bourbon that’s made in Bardstown, Kentucky, and it’s not supposed to.”

But would Elkins pay $3,000 for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle?

“I can buy a lot of Wild Turkey for that money,” he said. “Pappy has been awarded the sort of designation as the ‘type specimen’ for bourbon. I can’t say whether or not that’s good or bad. I was gifted a 100-milliliter tincture but I haven’t tasted it yet. But that rarity is really driving the popularity — like a Mickey Mantle rookie baseball card.”

Brian Bean of Bean and Bean Auctions calls for bids during an auction of rare bourbons Dec. 12 at Liquor Max in Loveland. Courtesy Liquor Max

Would you pay $3,000 for a bottle of booze?

Randy and Dawne Tourville did.

Granted, it was for a good cause. The couple participated in an auction of fine and rare bourbons on Dec. 12 at Liquor Max in Loveland, and the proceeds benefited Loveland Habitat for Humanity.

But still, was that 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey really worth three grand?

“I’ve seen it go for twice of what the auction price went for,” said Liquor Max co-owner Hal Rogers. “Most of the price is driven by scarcity. It’s supply and demand. It’s an old, reputable distiller, and we get it in maybe once a year. On the shelf it would go for $600 or $700.”

Maybe part of that high-dollar figure is the price of bragging rights, Rogers said. “A lot of people collect these things. And if they give it as a gift, it might create a bigger bond, and they’d get a bigger thank you.”

The Tourvilles planned to drink it, however. “It’s aged well, with a better aroma and a deeper taste. It’s a sipping bourbon,” said Randy Tourville, adding that they’d try not to think about the price of each sip.

“Part of the price is that it’s expensive to age whiskey because it evaporates,” even in the barrel, said Jamie Golden, co-owner of Feisty Spirits, a 12-year-old distillery in Fort Collins. “It’s less about age than what…