Nestled in Colorado’s southeastern corner, in the shadows of the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains, barley fields in the San Luis Valley struggle to blossom. Over 7,000 feet above sea level, hot days, plenty of sun and low precipitation lead to the kind of arid environment that might normally mean high mountain desert; however, because of the Valley’s surrounding mountains, ample snowmelt, and rivers, it has the capacity for irrigation that crops demand. Additionally, massive diurnal temperature swings prevent crops from either withering in the heat or freezing in the winter cold. In other words, this is barley country.

While in the national imagination, Colorado is a state of vast mountains, incomparable ski slopes and legal marijuana, the state’s economy — and history — is predicated upon agriculture. From the Eastern Plains down to the San Luis Valley and across to the Western Slope, ranches, orchards, potato farms and wheat fields speckle nearly half the state’s landscape.

“Colorado is as beautiful as it is because agriculture is here,” says Kate Greenberg, Colorado’s Commissioner of Agriculture. “Agriculture is not just our economy, jobs, workforce and landscape; it’s our sense of identity.”

The state’s varied growing regions — not to mention its history with Coors, which started cultivating barley in the mid-20th century — and history of craft brewing has led to a craft distilling boom in the last decade. The innovative pioneer spirit that defines both Colorado’s history and modern mentality has led to unparalleled creativity on both the agricultural and distilling side. The Western Slope’s “Million Dollar Breeze” inspires peach and pear brandies at Peach Street Distillers; Roaring Fork potatoes, which thrive at high elevations, create a unique vodka at Woody Creek in Basalt and heirloom junipers harvested in Colorado allow drinkers to taste the season in Dry Land’s gin. And, while the flavors created though local agriculture ensure incomparable spirits, relationships between distillers and their agricultural partners has helped reenergize farmers and ranchers in areas throughout the state, changing the fabric of the state’s agricultural economy.

One such story is that of Jason Cody, whose great-grandfather homesteaded their San Luis Valley farm generations ago. After downsizing the dairy portion in the mid-90s, the Cody family looked for ways to diversify amidst increasing pressure on small, family farms. In a stroke of genius that jump-started a statewide agricultural reenergization, the Codys turned their 300 acres of San Luis Valley barley into the second craft malting business in the United States.

“The actual dirt that is on our farm in our area of the San Luis Valley is tremendously different, profile-wise, from dirt even ten miles away,” said Jason Cody of the Colorado Malting Company. “We are able to create flavors that literally no one else can create. No one else really comes at malting and distilling from the agricultural side.”

Al Laws, the founder and master distiller at A.D. Laws, one of Colorado’s oldest and most renowned whiskey houses, was one of the first to use the Codys’ grains.

“Using grains from Colorado Malting Company changed everything,” Laws reflects. “The distillery smelled completely different: It smelled fresher, it felt brighter, the taste was sweeter. We get the malts, and sometimes the sack is still warm in the middle.”

Dozens of distillers across Colorado echoed Laws’ sentiment regarding not only the quality of local grains but the importance of capitalizing on the state’s agricultural heritage to create unique spirits.

“We wanted to create spirits that were genuinely representative of the agricultural heritage throughout Colorado and genuinely representative of all of Colorado,” Nels Wroe, a co-founder and distiller at Dry Land Distillery echoes. “We didn’t want to put just any grain in a bottle, put a picture of the mountains on it and say it was a Colorado spirit.”

The distillers at Dry Land use Antero wheat for their single-grain whiskey. Antero is an heirloom grain whose relatively low demands for water, low impact on soil and overall resilience make it a perfect grain for Colorado’s naturally dry land.

“We’ve taken great care in selecting the actual grains that the growers grow to make sure they’re appropriate for Colorado,” Marc Staats, Wroe’s co-founder at Dry Land Distillers, explains. “Craft agriculture and craft distilling go hand in hand, and we want to make sure Colorado grains don’t disappear.”

Indeed, the flavor created by Colorado grains produced by small farms is only one part of the larger ecosystem supported by a hyperlocalized “grain chain” between distillers and growers throughout the state. The distilling boom in Colorado — the number of licensed distilleries has nearly doubled in the last five years, and the Colorado Distillers Guild is the largest in the nation — has trickled down, reenergizing agriculture in areas like the San Luis Valley where economic downturn, drought and the industrialization of agriculture have hurt family farms. As more and more family farms are lost to changing times, partnering with distilleries was a way for the Cody family to diversify.

“Family farms are dying and have been for the last forty years or so,” says Cody. “Apart from some sort of value-added project, our farm wouldn’t be here. Distilling, in particular, has always been a large part of our business. Distillers really seem like they’re able to catch the dream. The still spirits are products that have a lot of heart and soul in them.”

Indeed, Craig Engelhorn of Lyon’s Spirit Hound Distillers, which sources its grains from the San Luis Valley, agrees that the relationship between farmers, maltsters and distillers in the region is special.

“The growers in the San Luis Valley grew up on these farms and came away with good family values, appreciation for their heritage and a strong sense of community. They’re doing what they can to keep this place alive,” he says. “I sure hope to hell that the barley that we buy has helped out the folks in that area.”

What’s happening in the San Luis Valley isn’t unique within Colorado, which though founded on agricultural heritage, has struggled to keep its farms alive in the face of growing population and changing priorities.

“Small farms are going under and being replaced by Walmarts and parking lots,” says Keegan Knox of Elkins Distillery, located just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. “Distillers sourcing locally is helping small mom-and-pop branches that have been around for generations that could be on the verge of being bought out. Twenty years ago, that wasn’t something that was on their mind, and now with all the distilleries popping up, it’s an option.”

The Codys created the second craft malting house in the country, but they have since been joined by other Colorado farmers who see the potential to diversify assets based on their ability to grow localized grains. Felicia and Stephanie Ohnmacht of Whiskey Sisters, based in the town of Burlington, are one such group.

“Farming is having a real rough go of it now, and we felt bad because we really didn’t have a way to help,” Felicia says. “Then, by the grace of God, we were presented with this concept to be able to expand our reach and sell grain to distilleries.”

The Ohnmacht sisters found themselves chatting with Laws at an event where he mentioned still needing Colorado corn. “It made so much sense,” Stephanie adds. “It was another way we could help and diversify the income for our family.” Now, the Whiskey Sisters work with 4–5 growers in and around Burlington to grow buckwheat, millet and oats; while the corn, wheat and rye comes from the Ohnmachts’ family farm.

“Multiple different farmers benefit from this,” Felicia adds. “We’re building a community in Burlington, the distilleries are building a community in their neighborhoods and as they connect, they both grow and prosper.”

“Through distilling and brewing, we are able to, as farmers, identify with the product, and the distiller can tell the broad and better story that is agriculture,” says Marc Arnusch, who grows Antero wheat for Dry Land. “This makes a better micro economic system work.”

Root Shoot Malting, based out of Fort Collins, is another family farm that’s turned to craft distilling for a diversified approach in changing times. The Olander family, which still runs the farm, started growing barley for Coors; then, looking for ways to create a sustainable local economy and conserve farmland rather than let it become developed, turned to supplying malts and raw grains to local distillers.

“There are fewer and fewer farmers here,” says Todd Olander. When he was young, he estimates around twenty farmers tilled the land near and around their malthouse. Now, there are only four. “We decided to take the farm in a different direction because we knew it wasn’t going to be sustainable the way we had been doing it.”

For many other craft distillers in Colorado, they look even closer to home for grains and malts. In Carbondale, Connie Baker, who’s pioneered sustainable distilling in partnership with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, sources grains from a farm down the road. What started as an exchange of spent mash for cow feed turned into an offer for extra growing acres, helping reenergize a four-generation family farm.

“Ranchers have it tough here,” Baker says. “They have all this beautiful land that’s worth tens of millions of dollars, but if they sell it, they have no livelihood. Now, they can make money off of us growing our grains on their land; we know where they’re coming from, and we know the people who actually grow for us.”

And, while working with agricultural partners on the front end forms the basis of many Colorado distilleries’ flavors and stories, back-end relationships with ranchers drive further economic benefit in rural towns where distillers deliver spent grain and mash to cattle herds.

On the Nieslanik ranch in Carbondale, where Baker delivers her spent grain, the family previously fed their cows store-bought feed at 23 percent protein; spent mash from the distillery measures in at 33 percent protein.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Baker reflects. “The distillery can support the local ranchers. For us, it’s a beautiful, sustainable cycle so close to our distillery; for the ranchers, it gives them another avenue in addition to the cow. There’s no reason we should be sending our dollars out of state to farmers and ranchers when we can do it right here.”

The symbiosis of distillers, ranchers, growers and maltsters has created something unique in Colorado, where distilleries not only provide creative, excellent spirits but a source of jobs, economic prosperity and regional pride for the rural communities in which they exist. The Colorado Department of Agriculture works with distillers to expand opportunities beyond Colorado and even the US while also facilitating agritourism to further capitalize on the relationship between growers and consumers. Furthermore, like the Oregon trail that brought intrepid pioneers west, the ever-growing Colorado Spirits Trail — managed by the Colorado Distillers Guild — seeks to “expand people’s ideas of where distilleries are” by driving traffic to distilleries in more rural areas, according to Meagan Miller, president of the Colorado Distiller’s Guild.

“Buena Vista is, historically, a more rural ranching town. Alcohol jobs were the first year-round jobs in Chafee County behind the mine, prison and hospital,” Deerhammer’s Nic Blake says. “That’s why I’m here.”

Deerhammer’s founder, Lenny Eckstein, agreed that the distillery has created something special by being based in the mountain town of Buena Vista rather than in Colorado’s more travelled — but also more crowded — Front Range. “Being in the mountains fulfills all the things that your soul really yearns for,” Eckstein remarks. “Whiskey can’t be all of that. And the residents of this small town feel like we’re their distillery.”

“Their pride is so fulfilling,” Felicia Ohnmacht says of Burlington and the farms that Whiskey Sisters works with. “How many times does a farmer in Burlington grow a grain that directly ends up with a brand name on it?”

In the end, the symbiosis between farmers, maltsters and distillers is less about money and more about “what the world is supposed to be like,” Cody declares.

“I tell brewers and distillers, ‘when you get your malts on the truck, open up the pouch. Don’t you dare just grab it with a forklift,’” Cody says. “What’s in that bag is my dad, and myself, and my brother, and my grandpa, and my great-grandpa. It’s all of our sleepless nights — our blood, sweat and tears, and all that we do to make sure you can do what
you do.”