Vail Veterans, 10th Mountain Whiskey: A spirited partnership |

Vail Veterans, 10th Mountain Whiskey: A spirited partnership

Local distillery aids local nonprofit for injured vets

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Chris Fesmire helps bottle a special batch of 10th Mountain Whiskey and Spirit rye whiskey Wednesday at the distillery in Gypsum. The whiskey was aged two-and-a-half-years and will be donated to the Vail Veterans Program.
Chris Dillmann/

Chris Fesmire lost his legs in combat. After active duty in the Marines, he found his purpose in Colorado.

Fesmire was wounded in 2004, in Iraq. As he recovered, he was transferred to Walter Reed military hospital in Washington, D.C. On his first day there, in March of 2005, Vail Veterans Program founder Cheryl Jensen came by, looking for volunteers to participate in the then-new program to bring wounded vets to the Vail Valley.

“Cheryl came in and asked me if I wanted to ski Vail,” Fesmire said. His answer was an immediate “yes,” although Fesmire added, with a laugh, that quick decision may have been influenced by the medications he was taking at the time.

A few days later, he was in Vail for the first time, taking his first monoski runs down Vail Mountain.

“I had no idea how my life was going to change,” Fesmire said.

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That first life-changing visit was followed by more trips. After a while, Fesmire became an ambassador for the program.

Fesmire acknowledges that he “floundered” for a while after his injury, going through a divorce and being the only survivor of an automobile crash.

He moved to Colorado full-time in 2008, and now lives east of Buena Vista near the summit of Trout Creek Pass. He also gives as much time as he can to the Vail Veterans Program.

“Giving back to the cause is better than any pills,” he said.

Labels are put on bottles of a 10th Mountain Whiskey and Spirit rye Wednesday in Gypsum. Chris Dillmann/

Special duty

Fesmire pulled some choice duty recently, helping bottle a special run of rye whiskey from 10th Mountain Whiskey and Spirits. At the 10th Mountain warehouse in Gypsum, Fesmire helped tap a barrel of the special stuff, then filled the first couple of dozen bottles.

That rye is special stuff indeed.

Starting about six years ago, 10th Mountain provided the contents of a barrel to the Vail Veterans Program. A good bit has been enjoyed at the dinners that conclude their winter programs. There, participants, caregivers, volunteers and others sign the top of a barrel. That barrel is then filled with another batch of rye.

Ryan Thompson, a founder of the distillery, said bottles from this barrel are destined for a farewell dinner a couple of years from now. This batch was barreled in early 2019.

Each barrel holds roughly 300 bottles. Most of that is used for fund-raising and gifts to participants and donors.

“It’s a fun way to help the Vail Veterans Program,” Thompson said.

A barrel of 10th Mountain Whiskey and Spirit rye whiskey that has been aged for two-and-a-half years signed by veterans is ready to be tapped and bottled Wednesday at the distillery in Gypsum.
Chris Dillmann/

High-test spirits

The whiskey coming out of this barrel — every barrel is different — tests at about 114 proof, about 57% alcohol. Once poured into the large container that’s attached to the bottling line, purified water is added to “proof down” the whiskey to 87 proof — not quite 44% alcohol.

Bottling at 10th Mountain is decidedly low tech, although Thompson said that may have to change soon.

Spirits pour down into a bottling device, then are hand-filled, five bottles at a time. Putting in corks and adding labels is also done by hand.

Fesmire quickly finds a rhythm to filling bottles, with just about every one filled just to the bottom of the bottle’s neck.

“We try to bring in a veteran every time we do one of these barrels,” Thompson said.

This veteran, on this day, is having a grand time. The mood is light, especially after a few samples of straight-from-the-barrel rye are passed around.

It’s just one more thing Fesmire has learned through his association with the Vail Veterans Program.

“It’s changed my life,” he said.

For more information

Go to to learn more about that organization.

For more information about 10th Mountain Whiskey and Spirits, go to

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