With so many breweries and distilleries along the Front Range and across Colorado, it can be difficult for owners, brewers and distillers to part with the norm. That’s unless you’re dryland distillers. From Mezcal-inspired spirits, gin, and a whiskey made from 100% Colorado wheat, the founders of Dry Land Distillery don’t just part ways with the pack; they continue a conversation about what it means to have truly local product – tipping their hats and writing love letters to the high plains with every spirit they produce.
Cutting corners is not an option when the goal is to produce remarkable and unique spirits. This seems to be the motto of the creators of Dry Land Distillery. From the outset – which began in 2017 with the doors officially opening to the public in 2018 – creators Nels Wroe, Aaron Main and Marc Staats were determined to create a spirit that not only reflects the spirit of the West but, as they say this, “authentically presenting” ingredients from the district and native to Colorado.
With help from researchers at Colorado State University and Troubador Maltings, Wroe and his team distilled Antero Wheat’s first-of-its-kind whiskey. This 100% wheat whiskey was developed and is grown by Colorado State University and is now, through the Colorado Grain Chain, grown by local farmers like Arnusch Farms, located in Colorado’s Prospect Valley. While “authentic” can be a bit of a sliding scale, Dry Land stays true to its definition by using heirloom wheat truths from life staff, local cacti and regional plants. Each gets their own pedestal through premium spirits and cocktails — sometimes it feels like the individuals of Dry Land are more like alchemists than distillers.
This dedication to growing a truly local product would not have been possible without the help of organizations like the Colorado Grain Chain, who have been a driving force in their mission to reintroduce ancient and heritage grains specific to Colorado. When we asked Wroe how the partnership with the Colorado Grain Chain came about, Wroe mentioned, “The Colorado Grain Chain was a chance discovery two years into our story. We didn’t know about the organization until after we started the distillery; if we had known them in advance, it would have saved us a lot of effort and time. Once we discovered CGC, it was a natural fit – and the amount of knowledge and connections within CGC has been invaluable. After discussing the Colorado Grain Range and its impact on the Dry Land, it became apparent that the physical location of the Dry Land plays a prominent role in its mission to showcase the ingredients, artisans, and Colorado farmers the authentic way.
For example, their Pot and Column Stills, which look like they should belong in a museum, are handcrafted by local artisan welder, Zac Arias — one of the most sought after welders and craftsmen in the United States. Even if whiskey isn’t your thing, taking the time to visit Dry Land and admire the intricate details of how these machines work is worth the trip.
Longmont is a gourmet town. It always has been and I hope it always will be. That being the case, it made sense for Nels and his team to locate their distillery, which doubles as a tasting room — which just celebrated its fourth anniversary — right in the heart of Colorado’s most underrated food scene. . When we asked Wroe why Longmont was so important to the brand, Wroe mentioned, “Our downtown Longmont location is in part a tribute to Longmont’s agricultural roots. The story of Longmont is the food – probably hundreds of small and large farms, a flour mill, the sugar mill and many artisan food makers have their roots here. This “homage” to Longmont’s agricultural roots is even reflected in the design of their tasting room and distillery. “The building we are in has been the Valley Farm Dairy for over 40 years. We’ve even saved swathes of walls from huge milk coolers that have decades of milk bottles and crates penciled in from floor to ceiling.
Before ending our conversation, we had to discuss the Cactus Spirit, another one-of-a-kind spirit that Wroe attributes to his dog’s unfortunate experience with a cactus. Wroe tells us that his original intention was “to create a mescal from high-altitude agave varieties that grow in southern Colorado, but we were never able to find a consistent source for raw agave. We could look for it, but large-scale foraging is extremely damaging to our land – so that was ruled out immediately. When we couldn’t get hold of agave, we almost canceled our plans for a mescal spirit until Mei, our family’s border collie, brought us to an alternative. Once Wroe—and, sadly, the pup—realized just how prevalent the cactus was in Colorado, they realized they had a great idea on their hands. “A bit of research and help from a good friend who grew up in Sonora led us to a theory that cactus could be used in the same way agave is traditionally used. We had a harrowing few days harvesting local cacti to develop a recipe – and it worked! Cactus is perhaps the most authentic Colorado spirit on the market today,” says Wroe.
What Dry Land Distillery does goes far beyond making premium spirits. They work passionately with farmers, maltsters, artisans, and everyone in between to create an authentic Colorado spirit, a task many have tried and failed. While it may be quicker to cut corners, do the bare minimum and stick a “Colorado Proud” sticker on the bottle – a common phenomenon in the alcohol industry – it’s harder to actively realize what it means to buy locally grown, raised, and processed food and agricultural products that benefit Colorado’s economy, local farmers, and ranchers. Dry Land Distillery is a perfect example of how a consumer can achieve all of the above. It’s hard not to get excited about the future of Dry Land and its forward-looking ideas and collaborations with neighboring bakers and cider brewers. The infectious attitude and appreciation for local ingredients and the local food economy is palpable no matter who we talk to at Dry Land. As a consumer, it makes you think, “why doesn’t this exist everywhere?”
Dry Land Distillers is located at 519 Main St, Longmont.