Vail, Colorado: From moonshine to mountain whiskey

Where do you go to learn how to make moonshine? Moonshine University, of course. Christian Avignon and Ryan Thompson had no experience distilling spirits, so they figured they'd better learn from the best before starting a distillery in the ski resort of Vail, Colorado. Clearly they were given good advice at Kentucky's Moonshine University, because since launching in 2014, the 10th Mountain Whiskey and Spirit Company has already moved to bigger premises and is now sold in more than 700 outlets around the state.

Today, it produces five different spirits and has a stylish wood-floored tasting room near Gore Creek in the centre of town. It's one of an increasing number of Vail businesses that have embraced the use of local produce, an ethos that's relatively easy to pursue among fertile farming land at sea level; less so in the high-altitude, inhospitable Colorado Rockies.

We work our way through the range, starting with a silky smooth vodka made from local Mesa County potatoes, before moving on to a clear 40 per cent moonshine made from Colorado Olathe sweet corn. Never having sampled moonshine before, I half expect it to relieve me of my tonsils, but it's surprisingly light, with a hint of sweetness and a crisp, clean finish.

The bourbon is their most popular drop (they're on their eighth batch), its rich amber colour and toasted-nut aromas coming from charred oak barrels.

We finish with the Alpenglow Cordial, a sweet, syrupy grain-based schnapps that our barman describes as "a Werther's Original for adults". It's dangerously quaffable and is apparently lethal drizzled over ice-cream.

Another business that is championing the use of local ingredients is Mountain Standard, the latest restaurant from the team behind the perennially popular Sweet Basil. "Local produce is like gold in our area," says owner Matt Morgan. "Sourcing it can be a real challenge at many times of the year but we're committed to doing whatever we can to obtain as much as we can locally."

The restaurant has an agreement with Borden Farms – a family-owned farm two hours away near Delta, Colorado – to buy whatever it can supply. The result is a menu infused with delicious local tomatoes, greens, radishes and peaches. "We pay a premium for these true farm-to-table products," says Morgan, "but it's worth every penny."

Thankfully, it's not just independent outfits that are embracing the cause. Over at the Four Seasons, the impressive new Remedy Bar, fresh from a $US2.5 million refurbishment, uses produce from Vail's local farmers' market in its weekly specials. You'll often find local Palisade peaches gracing the charcuterie boards and drinks infused with Rocky Ford melons. The same approach is taken next door in Flame, the hotel's upmarket steak house, which serves Rocky Mountain elk, lamb from Rosen Farms and local Greeley tomatoes.

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Game Creek restaurant might be best known for its spectacular setting among the back bowls of Vail Mountain but what's less well publicised is its commitment to sourcing local produce. Much of its beef, lamb, bass and vegetables are obtained from small local suppliers, an effort that has earned it membership of Colorado Proud, an association that promotes the use of Colorado produce.

Of course, the ideal scenario is to grow your own vegetables but that's no trivial matter in a ski resort where the temperature regularly drops below freezing. All of which makes the efforts by the staff at Beano's Cabin, a rustic log cabin in neighbouring resort Beaver Creek, all the more admirable.

As soon as the snow melts in May, the chefs plant a wide range of vegetables which are then harvested throughout the summer and used in dishes alongside locally foraged raspberries, huckleberries and rhubarb. Even more impressive is that they've created North America's highest beehive, which contains 50,000 bees and is located in a secluded aspen glade near the restaurant. After being carefully nursed through winter, the hive produced its first batch of honey earlier this year. Needless to say, it's created quite the buzz.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

vail.com

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas/Fort Worth with onward connections to Denver. See qantas.com.au 

STAYING THERE

Ideally positioned in the heart of Vail Village, the Sebastian Hotel features a world-class art collection, an award-winning restaurant and a stylish bar with a decadent range of hot chocolates. Rooms from around $US275 ($358). See thesebastianvail.com 

SKIING THERE

Vail Resorts now has an Australian version of its popular Epic Pass, which provides unlimited skiing and boarding at Perisher plus access to nine resorts in the US. See epicaustraliapass.com;  snow.com/Australia.  Alternatively, you can purchase the US version of the pass which provides unlimited access to all 13 of the company's resorts. See epicpass.com 

Rob McFarland was a guest of Vail Resorts.

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