You wouldn’t know by meeting Todd Leopold that he is one of America’s best distillers. Soft spoken and amazingly understated, Todd Leopold doesn’t boast about his talents or accomplishments; instead, he lets his spirits do the talking. We met Todd and his brother Scott (together known as Leopold Brothers) in a small industrial office park at the outskirts of Denver. Unlike many other craft distillers, Leopold Bros doesn’t have a tasting room, they don’t really give tours, and they don’t really seek out the media. Instead they spend as much time as humanly possible making a line of fourteen different spirits, including everything from their award winning gin (which we named one of the best gins in America) to an alpine liqueur for their friends who ski and snowboard.
As we entered the distillery, Johnny Cash was blasting on a small stereo. ”Johnny Cash is good for the soul,” commented Todd, turning it down enough so we could speak but letting it play as the soundtrack for our time at the distillery.
Our time at Leopold Brothers started at a large photo album filled with pictures of Todd and Scott’s journey. An enormous bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan was the genesis for the Leopold Brothers, who due to a unique distilling law ended up making all the spirits that they sold in their bar. An unexpected turn of events convinced the brothers to close their bar and move back to their home state of Colorado to open up a distillery. Todd Leopold flips through the pages of the photo album like a proud father showing off pictures of his children. You can sense the weight of the journey they’ve been on.
Leopold Brothers is an extremely small company with only five employees, including the two brothers. Every aspect of the distilling process is done by hand with painstaking detail. As Todd Leopold describes the process for his rye whiskey, he sounds more like a painter or sculpter talking about their work than someone in spirits. If there’s an easy way to do something in distilling and a hard way, Todd Leopold always seems to pick the hard way. This isn’t driven by bravado, but rather from an unwavering commitment to doing things the best way possible.
While other small craft distillers often start with an existing neutral grain spirit to make things like gin and absinthe, the Leopold Brothers ferment and distill their own vodka which is used as the base for many of their spirits. While it would be easy to pick a grain or source for this vodka, Todd Leopold instead makes a vodka based on wheat, potato and barley – an exceptionally complicated and difficult feat that results in one of the best vodkas we’ve tasted yet. With Leopold Brothers award winning gin, Todd Leopold individually distills each of the eight botanicals used for the gin. This ends up taking eight times longer than the standard gin where the botanicals are soaked and then distilled all at once. “Each botanical has a different sweet spot and dealing with them individually allows me to capture that,” explains Todd Leopold.
Leopold Bros Absinthe Verte gets the same kind of unbelievable commitment to detail. While most absinthe on the market is based on a neutral spirit, the Leopold Brothers import Pisco (a peruvian grape based brandy) and age it in barrels before distilling it with the botanicals. This preparation is so extraordinarily above and beyond what anyone else is doing in this space, it’s the equivalent of hearing that someone uses solid gold baking pans to get a more even crust.
The result of all this is an absinthe that is so amazingly exceptional, vibrant and tasty that it represents the single best absinthe we’ve ever tried anywhere. As Todd Leopold adds water to this breathtakingly vibrant spirit, he describes “The anethole is hydrophobic in absinthe so it transforms from vibrant green to a milky creamy green color.” As he talks about each spirit he makes, Todd Leopold talks as if it’s the only one he makes, and then you realize he makes fourteen different spirits. It’s mindblowing.
Although Todd and Scott don’t spend a lot of time championing their spirits, people have started to take notice. During our time in Colorado, where we visited both Denver and Boulder, there wasn’t a single bar or restaurant cocktail menu that didn’t have at least one of the Leopold Bros spirits listed. This is a feat unmatched by any other spirit. As we sit and taste through the line of Leopold Bros spirits, Todd is backed by a wall of bottles, each with medals around its neck.
“We’re just glad people like them,” remarks Todd. This truly humble approach was simply disarming as we tasted nearly all of the fourteen different spirits they offer, including their award winning gin, a ‘Triple Dry’, their take on Triple Sec with Curaçao and bergamot, a pre-prohibition style whiskey, a Maryland Style Rye Whiskey, New England Cranberry Liqueur, an Alpine Liqueur, and their base vodka called Silver Tree Vodka. Of the 14 or so spirits we tried, there wasn’t a single one we weren’t impressed with.
Todd and Scott Leopold in many ways embody the best of the craft distilling movement, with their myopic commitment to quality and a work ethic that means always doing things the right way (even if it’s the most difficult way). Although spirits are very much a business and a science, at its heart it is a craft and an art, and it’s hard to think of better artists in this space than the Leopold Brothers.