BroVo Spirits founder Mhairi Voelsgen describes the making of liqueurs as a marriage of liquor, sugar, flavor, and water. “We’re more chefs than bartenders,” said Voelsgen. “What we’re doing is more kitchen-based than distillery-based.” That’s because the traditional way of making liqueurs is that these makers procure the base and utilize it as a blank canvas, crafting the flavors that go into it.
In Voelsgen’s kitchen, one of the first liqueurs she focused on developing was a rhubarb liqueur. After perfecting a test batch at home, she bought a ton of rhubarb to scale it. And that’s not just a figure of speech – she bought a literal ton of rhubarb. But unfortunately, the big batch wasn’t as beautiful as the test batch. When they sat down with a bartender to get feedback on the big batch’s variations, the bottom line was clear – it didn’t work.
The bartenders suggested BroVo make an Amaro with the batch instead, as several Amari use the vegetable as a base flavor. “We thought we couldn’t do it. That it was too complicated for us. So, we asked for help.” Voelsgen put out the call to seven bartenders thinking that, if they were lucky, one would agree to help them develop the liqueur. All seven said yes, and Voelsgen didn’t have the heart to pick just one, so they embarked on the development of seven different Amari from scratch. When they released them, they sold out within two weeks. In the next round, they did ten. Out of these initial 17, three became BroVo’s flagships. These days, BroVo continues the Amaro tradition with the Amaro Project, going market-by-market to develop one new product a year, typically an Amaro.
This isn’t the first time Voelsgen has turned to bartenders. The founders of BroVo’s core beliefs rests in the ingenuity of the profession. “Our subject matter experts are bartenders,” said Voelsgen. “They have authored the recipes for all of our products.” Just as liqueurs marry liquors, sugar, flavor and water, bartenders marry liquors, sugar, water, and liqueurs to make a cocktail.
“We view ourselves as the second ingredient in a cocktail,” said Voelsgen. “The way I think about liqueurs is that they bring balance and flavor overall. When you add a great liqueur, it brings out the flavor. And it’s not a single flavor. A great cocktail is like going on a journey and you’re going to taste different components as you move through it.”
That’s why the flavor element is so important. Liqueurs need to be able to mix beautifully in a cocktail, as well as stand on their own and sipped neat, as they are in Europe. It’s a concept that Matt Estrin knows well as the founder of 477 Distilling, which is named after the 477 votes that overturned the dry county mandate in 477 Distilling’s hometown of Greeley, Colorado in 1969.
“We pride ourselves on the flavor. It’s so important to us. For every product that we put out, we have tried 50-60 prototypes to test various methods and finishes to develop the best flavor profile and help it shine through,” said Estrin.
Of course, the process is only as good as the ingredients. The team at 477 Distilling utilizes a local roaster for its Coffee Spirit and peels 1,000 lemons by hand for its Lemondrop, which then soaks for ten days in the distillery’s own gin. At BroVo, they combine three different types of oranges for their Curaçao. “We incorporate oranges from Seville and Curaçao, as well as oranges from a small farmer in California to get sweet orange peel. We’re proud to be an American company, so this is a nod to our heritage. We’re not trying to recreate what the Europeans do. They do a great job. We want to be different.”
Interestingly enough, it’s that passion for flavor that led both BroVo and 477 Distilling to make liqueurs that, by legal definition, aren’t actually liqueurs. The federal government requires that liqueurs are sweetened with cane sugar, but both Estrin and Voelsgen chose agave over cane. “When we were prototyping, we tried it every which way possible, every sugar, every extract. Ultimately, we found agave to be a little less sweet than cane, and it also has a unique flavor which added a layer of complexity to the liqueur. We were more concerned with quality and taste over the legal category we landed in.” But even though they can’t call their 477 Almondretto an Amaretto, by all intents and purposes, it is still a liqueur.
Unlike a lot of other folks in the alcohol industry, the makers at BroVo, 477 Distilling and Colorado Cream aren’t from generations-long lineages of craftsman. Voelsgen is trained as an architect and eventually found her way to a successful career in design and marketing. Estrin took an even more unlikely path, jumping into distilling at Moonshine University (yes, it’s a real place!) from a career in worship music. And, while Colorado Cream founder John Lundquist doesn’t come from an industry pedigree, he does come from a generation of farmers and finds nostalgia there.
“Everyone as far back as my great grandfather makes a living off the land. I used to think that I didn’t have any history in the alcohol industry, but everything that goes into alcohol and liqueurs has a farmer behind it. The wheat, the corn, the milk, the flavors,” said Lundquist.
The milk is the key for Lundquist, whose family were dairy farmers in Minnesota. That inspiration, tied with the desire to develop something that people would toast with post-adventure, led him to create Colorado Cream. It’s similar to a traditional Irish Cream, but mixes in a little butterscotch, hazelnut, and vanilla for a unique take. Unlike many Irish Creams though, it doesn’t use a whiskey base. “I really enjoy whiskey on its own. I don’t like to mess with it too much,” Lundquist said.
Their passion drives all three founders to continue experimenting and creating. BroVo just celebrated the launch of the American Aperitivo this summer, which Voelsgen describes as “bright enough to replace Aperol, bitter enough to replace Suze, and serious enough to replace Campari.” 477 Distilling continues to spin out new products in their tasting room, releasing a flavored whiskey or liqueur every month, including a peach whiskey, peppermint schnapps, anise whiskey, and orange schnapps to round out the year. When the flavors are successful, they make it official and put it up for larger distribution. For Colorado Cream, they’re looking forward to giving their Peppermint Cream a fair shake this holiday season, as well as bringing all mixing and bottling in-house.
At the end of the day, there’s one thing that’s certain – liqueurs and winter go hand-in-hand.
“Chai is definitely the most sought after for Thanksgiving,” said Estrin. 477 Distilling utilizes local Free Leaf Tea out of Greeley that incorporates notes of cinnamon, vanilla, coconut, and more to create what Estrin calls “fall in a glass.” It gives the traditional old fashioned a spicy Chai spin or blends beautifully with bourbon and maple syrup for a French toast cocktail.
The BroVo spirits team is already in the holiday spirit in the spring when they harvest the buds of Douglas Fir trees for their Douglas Fir liqueur. They infuse the buds into vodka, re-distill the base, sweeten it with agave nectar, and proof it with water to finish the perfect liqueur. While it’s great year-round, it’s hard not to think about a Christmas tree in a glass during the holidays. The liqueur can be used to mix up festive cocktails such as “Santa’s Whiskers” using vodka, BroVo Douglas Fir, and crushed candy canes.
And what better way to end a holiday meal with friends and family, elevate your morning coffee, or pair with pumpkin pie in lieu of whipped cream than a glass of cream? While Colorado Cream does enjoy developing fun seasonal flavors such as pumpkin and peppermint, one of Lundquist’s favorite combinations throughout the holiday season will always be enjoying hot chocolate combined with the original Colorado Cream and whipped cream fireside. However, when you do venture outside, Lundquist’s go-to ski day combination is a half and half mix of Peppermint Cream and Peppermint Schnapps. After all, paired with adventure is the way Colorado Cream was always intended to be enjoyed.