VAIL — Christian Avignon’s grandfather was in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. That’s where Avignon’s passion for the mountains was born. It might have something to do with his passion for a strong drink, too.
Avignon and partner Ryan Thompson still have their day jobs — Avignon at the stone company that bears his name and Thompson at the Westside Cafe — but they, along with Sylvan Ellefson, are barreling headlong toward the mid-summer opening of the 10th Mountain Whiskey Spirit Co.
CATCHING A RISING TIDE
More than two years in the making, the company is trying to catch another of Colorado’s rising tides — craft distilling. According to a January report on National Public Radio, the number of federal permits for craft distilleries nationwide more than doubled between 2008 and 2012. Just in the region, there are craft distilleries from Palisade to Breckenridge and Leadville, with products ranging from vodka to whiskey and various flavors in between.
The introductory product line from 10th Mountain will include whiskey — of course — as well as moonshine, vodka and cordials. The partners are nearly finished with their federal and state permit approvals, and their inaugural batches are nearly ready.
That’s common for vodka and moonshine, which are distilled, but not aged. The process is a bit trickier for whiskey, which must be aged in charred-oak barrels to get its color and flavor profiles.
“You can speed up the aging process using smaller barrels,” Thompson said, adding that full-flavored whiskey can be aged in as little as six months.
A GRAND EXPERIMENT
While 10th Mountain is working with a veteran of the Kentucky bourbon industry to add some art to the science of distilling, there are other variables that won’t be known until the first batches are ready.
“It’ll be interesting to see what (day to night) temperature fluctuations do to aging,” Avignon said.
Thompson and Avignon are tight-lipped about where they’re making booze right now, but once those final approvals come and sales start, 10th Mountain hopes to quickly open a very public location in Gypsum. The old Habitat for Humanity store near the Interstate 70 interchange has been leased, and initial plans for this year include a tasting room and shop at the site. A full-blown distillery should follow at the site next year. It will be in the rear two-thirds of the building.
That site, and the available water, will add yet another variable to the process, Avignon said.
USING LOCAL INGREDIENTS
The partners are excited about the prospect of a business that stretches from the east to west ends of the Vail Valley. When the distillery is up and running, about 10 people will work at the Gypsum facility. The partners are also looking forward to using ingredients from sources as close as possible to the distillery, from Olathe corn for whiskey and moonshine to Palisade peaches for cordials. The farms of Mesa County may also be tapped for potatoes used to make vodka.
“We’re trying to be as sustainable as possible,” Thompson said.
The 10th Mountain brand will also be available at the eastern end of the valley. Many craft distilleries have a hard time being distributed, but it will be available at Westside Cafe — of course. Avignon Stone Co. is just upstairs from Restaurant Kelly Liken in the Vail Gateway building, and Avignon said 10th Mountain’s products will be available there and other locations in the valley.
With much of the work done, the partners have also launched an online fundraising campaign through Kickstarter. That campaign isn’t essential to get the business started, but the partners say they’re using it to build more awareness of the brand. Kickstarter doesn’t allow companies to sell equity stakes — or alcohol — so what’s available is some neat items, from hats and hoodies to belt buckles and glasses. One $10,000 investor will get a 53-gallon whiskey barrel, as well as the opportunity to distill the batch of booze that will fill it.
Aside from the product, Avignon and Thompson see 10th Mountain as part of a bigger world of mountain distilling, and envision tours that might take people from Palisade to Leadville, Breckenridge or both, with an in-between stop in Gypsum, of course. Better, those tours, as well as visits to the distillery, can take place any day of the year.
“We want to see the valley have something special, and created a different kind of business environment,” Avignon said.
Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at email@example.com and 970-748-2930