I first heard of Altius Vodka at the downtown bar 15C, which recently hosted a tasting gala to kick off the distillery's launch in Colorado. Ick, I thought. Colorado vodka? When I think of vodka, what come to mind are ruddy-faced field hands, not rock climbers slurping it out of Nalgene bottles.
So I wasn't itching to taste the stuff. Snob that I am, I couldn't conceive that any good liquor could come from Colorado Springs.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I sipped it next to both Chopin and Grey Goose and it effortlessly and flat-out whomped 'em. Altius was smoother, more refined and had the character of a truly world-class and established vodka -- and they'd only been making it for a few months.
Before, I'd been dimly aware of Colorado Premium Vodka and Vodka 14, ostensibly from Manitou Springs and Boulder, respectively. In truth, both are private-label vodkas made at massive out-of-state distilleries, whereas Altius originates about five miles from my house.
Pure Distilleries, the company that makes Altius, is the baby of Mark Nigbur and Brian Peterson. Altius' genesis took place during the National Hockey League strike, when Nigbur's previous business, a commercial hockey equipment company, found itself in a lull.
"I was flying back from a trade show reading a Continental Airlines magazine article on micro-brewing," says Nigbur. "I was drinking vodka and I put two and two together. I'm a vodka drinker, so I thought, 'It's got to be a new industry.'"
That new industry is micro-distillation. Perhaps a logical counterpart to Colorado's flourishing microbrew movement, micro-distillation simply applies the small-production, handmade treatment to spirits. This means that Altius is produced in batches of 10 cases, and comes out of a handful of stills, rather than dozens or hundreds.
At the distillery, a mash of yeast, water and grain sugar -- made from Colorado grain -- generates a low-alcohol slurry, which is transferred to preliminary pot stills, where it begins the distillation. The primitive vodka then is moved to the finishing stills. Pure Distilleries uses the only all-glass finishing stills in the world, handmade by a pharmaceutical supply company.
"[The stills'] tolerances are just incredible," Nigbur explains. "Most vodka companies have to distill five or six times to achieve pure alcohol, which is 95.6 percent. We can strip once and finish distilling just once and achieve that purity with this still."
After distilling, the vodka is charcoal-filtered in order to polish the alcohol. It's filtered again and diluted to 40 percent alcohol, or 80 proof, with Deep Rock water, another Colorado product. It then is bottled and shipped.
"Now, anyone who drinks vodka knows it has a taste," Nigbur says. "We're trying to achieve not really a vodka that has no taste or no smell, but more of one that has our own signature fingerprint."
If Altius does have a fingerprint, it's because of the makers' focus on purity. This concept comes up at each stage of the distillery tour and seems to encapsulate the practice of producing alcohol in a micro-distilled way. And because Altius is among the few artisan spirits in the country, they're poised to do very well for themselves.
"We're on the forefront of micro-distillers because there aren't any. There are maybe four in the United States. As the years go on, you'll see more of them. It just is small-batch, hands-on, artisan vodka making," says Nigbur.
"It's not to say that we're the best vodka around. Obviously, we'd like that title, but we're so new. We're just getting our feet wet."
-- Aaron Retka
Available at more than 300 bars and restaurants statewide.
For more, visit altiusvodka.com.