A Conversation with 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirits Company
The 10th Mountain Division made soldiers out of skiers during World War II. Its namesake 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Co. in Vail, CO, now makes award-winning whiskey and rye out of Rocky Mountain snowmelt as a tribute to that legendary elite force of winter warriors. We recently sat down with Ryan Thompson and Stephen Jacobs to discuss how 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Co. came to be and their commitment to veterans everywhere.
Q: Obviously Colorado’s awesome — tell me a little bit about 10th Mountain, how 10th Mountain came to be and the story behind it.
Ryan: We’re named in honor of the 10th Mountain Army Division that originated in our area just a couple miles south of here in an area called Camp Hale in the 1940s. And they trained here, getting trained in their skills, mountain warfare specific tactics, and then they went off to Europe and fought some very significant battles in World War II. One of those battles being the Battle of Riva Ridge. When they returned here back to the states, they wanted to share the sport of skiing and the mountain outdoor lifestyle that they had fallen in love with when they were doing their training missions. So, over 62 different ski resorts, ski schools and ski patrols across the country were started by 10th Mountain vets. Vail Mountain being one right here in our backyard. Aspen Mountain being another, just to name a couple here. The National Outdoor Leadership School NOLS experience was started by a 10th Mountain vet. Nike was actually started by a 10th Mountain vet. Phil Knight’s business partner was a guy named Bill Bowerman, who served in the 10th. They’re still one of the most active military divisions today. They’re stationed at upstate New York, and they’re a quick point division, and have been in all of the major confrontations over the last 20 years. And they’re also, have a presence at Fort Polk Louisiana and with the Colorado National Guard back here in the state of Colorado.
Q: You have a tremendously strong veteran following.
Q: That’s really neat. Will you guys introduce yourselves first?
Stephen: I’m Stephen Jacobs and I’ve been with the company over five years now, and I handle sales and distribution here locally in Eagle County. We're really proud to be affiliated with the 10th Mountain Division. Those guys have done a lot of good work and fought a lot of hard battles for us, and without them we’d be standing on rocks right now. They founded all of these resorts so we could come around and have a lot of fun here, down the line. And we do, we live a good lifestyle out here; we know we’re lucky.
Ryan: I’m Ryan Thompson, the founder of 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Company, and right next to me is Stephen. Stephen is actually one of the vets, himself, he doesn’t talk about it much, but he did serve. When did you serve, man?
Stephen: Oh gosh, I was active back in the mid 90s, but that’s all I can talk about. I’d have to kill everybody here if we go on.
Ryan: And we’re very aware that without those guys and gals that are out there doing what they’re doing, then we wouldn’t be able to be here making whiskey and doing what we love as well. So it’s something that’s near and dear to our hearts and something we’re very conscious of, and love when active or retired soldiers come into tasting rooms and sit down and share some whiskey and share a few stories with us too.
Q: So, what’s the unit called that’s local here that we talked about?
Ryan: The HAATS Facility. The High Altitude Aviation Training Site.
Q: Yeah, you guys are pretty good friends with those guys, right? They support the brand and the mission that 10th Mountain puts out, correct?
Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. So what the HAATS Facility does is train helicopter pilots to fly at altitude. It’s a little bit of different techniques going on there. And so it’s the only location in the U.S. It’s the High Altitude Aviation Training Site, just about seven minutes away. The airport that they fly over, our distillery, all day long pretty much. And once they’re done with their training missions at the end of the day, they’ll come in here to a tasting room and hang out and have a few and unwind a little bit with us.
Q: So who’s the brains behind the whiskey making? You guys have been awarded some awesome rewards in the whiskey community including Jim Murray’s Bible. It’s hard to get much better than that. You guys have done really well in that. Who’s got the background in the whiskey making?
Ryan: Yeah, sure, right, well Jim Murray, that’s a really nice accolade that he paid tribute to us with 94 points on our rye whiskey and 92 points on our bourbon. So, really that was a fun day when we got that news, wasn’t it?
Stephen: We cracked it open and celebrated right there.
Ryan: Sean, our distiller on a day-to-day basis, he and I both went out to Moonshine University out in Louisville, Kentucky, and that was back in 2013 when Moonshine U first started getting going. I home brew quite a bit and then started messing around with a 15 gallon still, and then out to Moonshine University, and now we have the 500 gallon still combination pot, Vendome. We affectionately call that the “War Angel” named after the 10th Mountain Platoon. Actually it’s an interesting story of how it got its name. A couple of guys from the 10th Platoon that supported us on our Kickstarter Campaign years ago, now. We ended up sending out a bunch of merchandise to them. This was before we had, when we first started getting going, before we could even sell, before we were fully licensed. In turn they sent us a couple t-shirts that had the War Angel logo on it. I took one and just hung it on the still, and it was early on in the life of that still, and we were kind of searching around for the right name. I was doing an employee training and the gal looked up at the still and saw the t-shirt, and just under her breath “the War Angel, that’s cool.” And I looked at her and I’m like, well shit, there’s the name, right there.
So I called the boys back up in the platoon, and like hey do you mind if we name our still after the War Angels? And they were like, damn right, you better. Hence the name of our still. It’s operating in the back right now, we can hear it humming, humming away making some good new mixed spirits. But we owe a lot of credit to Moonshine University out in Louisville. And we still, I think we learn something new every day. But we don’t lean on Moonshine U as much as we used to in the beginning, but certainly if something comes up that has us perplexed, then we’ll give a call to them.
Q: What makes you different? What do you think makes it? Is it the water here, is it the barrels you’re using?
Stephen: It’s the love, the love we put into it. The passion for whiskey. Three stories of copper back there. The War Angel. I give her a hug every time I come in.
Q: Yep, that’s true. I saw it.
Ryan: You know, certainly the love, the pride and the passion we have for making each batch. It goes a long way and I think you can taste that in the end product. You mentioned water real quickly. The Gypsum water coming down, it was literally snowing yesterday. It was Rocky Mountain snow melt that we bring in house, so it has a really crisp, unique taste to it. We run it through a reverse osmosis system, so it strips the minerals out, so it’s neutral water. So I think that has an overall result in the flavor. We age in 5, 10, 30 and 53 gallon barrels, all with the number four char on it, and obviously American new oak barrels. That certainly plays an aspect in it. Where we’re located here, the temperature fluctuation, I think it was probably 15 degrees this morning and it’s going to be 50 degrees this afternoon. And that temperature fluctuation certainly helps mature the whiskey a little bit quicker. All these things combined certainly have an overall result in the end flavor. We could geek out on whiskey a little bit more and talk about the different yeast strains, and the still and the importance the still has on the overall flavors and the process, where we make our heads, hearts and tails cuts, and all that. There certainly are a ton of different variables that go into the end product, and I think they all play a very important aspect in it.
Q: They absolutely do. Have you ever tried making the whiskey with the water before the osmosis process? Did it taste different?
Ryan: Yeah, we have, and it does taste a little bit different. The reverse osmosis water technique allows us to control that one variable. So it takes that variable out because no water anywhere, in any city, is going to be exactly the same throughout the year. There’s going to be some slight modifications to it. So that’s one way we can control that variable.
Q: That makes sense. Well it tastes great, and the water out here is cold and ain’t too bad either.
Stephen: It’s good. You know, we also have a little advantage too being at altitude, it sucks the whiskey into the char of the wood a little more, and we’re able to really get some good flavors out of that.
You gotta love it. Love the whiskey and the whiskey loves you.
Q: That’s awesome. And now you have two locations. There’s one here and then you have a tasting room in town in Vail, right?
Ryan: Yeah, you got it. We have two different tasting rooms, which you’re referring to. One here at the distillery, which is where we are currently in Gypsum, and then we have one in Vail Village, right on Bridge Street, right in the heart of the pedestrian village at the base of Vail Ski Mountain.
Q: That’s awesome. Now you were talking a little bit earlier about how the tourism and stuff like that obviously helps from a business point of view.
Q: Is that, if it was anywhere else, would your tactics be different? Would you change things in any way?
Ryan: Yeah, I think they would be a little bit. We certainly would love to place a taste room down in downtown Denver, and maybe one in another ski town in the future. But as the current law stands here in Colorado, we’re only allowed two tasting rooms per DSP license. And so we’re restricted to just the two, but it was always part of the game plan to put one in Vail Village somewhere to take advantage of the vacationers coming through town and having a good time. They get introduced to our spirits, get introduced to our brand, and what we’re all about and our story, and then take that back with them, be in the form of a bottle, a hat, a t-shirt, and then maybe go back to Texas, where we have some distribution there, as well and they can find a bottle there, or even better, buy it through RackHouse.
Q: How is the community of the distilleries in Colorado? Is it a tight-knit group? You know, depending on the state that you go to, it seems like it’s all over the board. We went to Kentucky and met with Steve Nally and Bardstown. Those guys are all supportive of each other. And then you go to some states and they just don’t really talk to each other, which is totally cool too. It’s more interesting. How is the community in Colorado since it’s a growing one—there are a lot of distilleries popping up.
Ryan: Yeah, last I heard I think the number was at 92 distilleries here in Colorado.
Some bigger than others, but everyone’s kind of doing the same thing, having a good time with it, making some delicious spirits. I think overall as a distillery community here in Colorado, it’s very tight-knit. Very supportive.
Although we’re here in the Vail Valley, kind of excluded from all the front range distilleries. We all get together at different events throughout the year at the Distilleries Guild, always have a good time, learn from one another, support one another, see what’s working, what’s not working. It’s one of the things I’ve loved about the industry since day one. Not only here with Colorado distilleries, but other distilleries from around the country—everyone’s just very supportive.
Stephen: And we all know that we’re lucky to be out here, so just, you know, onward and upward.
Q: When we first got here, we were kind of laughing about how back in Iowa when it’s a long snow season everyone’s like, I gotta get out of here. We’re waiting for this thing to melt and when the spring hits, everybody’s pumped. But here in Colorado, when it’s a long snow season, everyone says it’s been a great year, we had a great year this year, snow just lasted forever.
Stephen: Yeah, in the deep South when you see overcast and dark clouds, you get a little depressed because you know it’s going to be that way for a couple of weeks. Out here it’s just the opposite. We want that precipitation; we want all that snow. You know it’s like a switch, it just makes people jazz up. They want to go skiing, they want to drink more whiskey, they just want to celebrate life with us.
Ryan: Spirits are lifted across the board when it snows.
Stephen: Ah, it means everything living in a ski town. Those little, I call them like little dollar bills falling from the sky.
Ryan: Yeah, the more snow, the merrier for us, that’s for damn sure.
Q: Do you both ski?
Ryan: It’s not a, it’s an unwritten requirement of the company is to get out and slide on snow somehow. We don’t care if it’s on skis, or a snowboard or if it’s on your butt, as long as you’re getting outside and sliding down a hill and having a good time, then we’ll take you in.
Stephen: You got to get out and appreciate it. I tell a lot of the newcomers out here and even some of the old-timers, you’ve got to find a way to get on the hill, and it just lights you up inside. Yeah, it makes you appreciate being lucky and living in this town.
Ryan: I was going to say one of the best things we have going about us is the skiing in Vail resorts or any of the mountains out here is the après-ski we get to partake in afterwards. If you’re not familiar with the French term après-ski, it basically means “after ski,” and it means going to the bar, and hanging out, and getting your buddies together after a big day on the hill, and sitting back and enjoying a few and having a good time, and listening maybe to some live music or whatever’s happening. Après-ski, is certainly a big part of the skiing culture that we have going on here.
Stephen: That’s the only French I speak—après-ski and ménage à trois.