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Lee’s Distillery in Colorado Springs is bringing back the gin cocktail

Lee’s Spirits in Colorado Springs specializes in one thing, the best pre-prohibition gin you’ll find in 2017.

Cole Chapman sits at the bar in Brooklyn’s on Boulder, which is separated from the small distiller by a glass garage door. Photo by Kara Mason

Add together two ounces of gin, a splash of dry vermouth and orange bitters; stir, then strain over a chilled cocktail glass, and finish with a lemon twist garnish thus creating a gin martini.

Sound fancier than your run of the mill martini? It is.

Invented in the late 1800s, before prohibition, the gin martini is considered to be a classic cocktail. It is one of many classic cocktails on the menu at Brooklyn’s on Boulder, the Colorado Springs tasting room for the onsite gin distiller, Lee Spirits.

Hidden behind the facade of a haberdashery – a richly decorated, old-fashioned speakeasy turns out pre-Prohibition-style cocktails with each drink starting with pre-Prohibition style gin.

Cousins Nick and Ian Lee founded Lee Spirits in 2013 but didn’t put product on the market until April 2014.

Nick Lee said before the distillery he had a tech startup, but wanted to create something more hands-on that could contribute to a growing creative culture in Colorado Springs.

He said his cousin Ian’s family had experience with wine, and both were passionate about classic cocktails and the era that came with, which led them toward gin.

“We made 32 different iterations before we landed on the recipe we have now,” Lee said.

He said they started distilling in a basement, until they found their current location in November 2014.

The current location serves both as Lee Spirits Distillery and Brooklyn’s on Boulder, which is the tasting room associated with the distillery. The two areas are separated by a just glass garage door that goes down when the tasting room is open. It’s the law.

Legally one can’t have a liquor license and also have a distillers and whole-sale liquor license, so they have the tasting room separate.

The distillery itself is no bigger than a one-car garage and looks more like a mad scientist’s lab rather than a distillery.

Large barrels filled with distilled gin, one being flavored with peppers and cinnamon sit on the floor, while off to the side a table is scattered with miscellany of current flavor experiments being constructed.

The distillery at Lee’s Spirits is riddled with jars of spices and ingredients the bunch use to experiment. Photo by Kara Mason

The gin is corn-based and flavored through botanicals added in during the distilling process; the main rule for gin is the lead botanical must be juniper. Lee said the process they use to distill their gin is called single-shot distilling, which means they leave their botanicals in the still while the gin is distilling.

“By leaving ours in, it gives it a fuller flavor,” Lee said.

After the gin has finished cooking in the stills, they are then put into the barrel drums to be diluted down with water and then bottled.

Lee said they can bottle about 1,000 bottles in a week.

“Nobody really sits around sipping gin, so we made a gin that could be made with any and all cocktails,” said Lee, who said the duo decided to distill gin the way they did before prohibition because it was the golden-age of cocktails.

Cole Chapman, one of the distillery’s employees, said if Lee Spirit’s gin didn’t make a perfect martini, a perfect Negroni or a perfect Martinez, then they would go back and see what was wrong with the gin and figure out how to tweak it to make it work for any drink they make.

“A lot of distilleries would make their product and go with how it tastes like on its own, but gin is meant to make into a cocktail,” Chapman said.

As Lee Spirits got closer to its final product, the distillery’s head bartender Nate Windham would make five cocktails to see how their gin tasted in each cocktail.

In addition to gin, Lee Spirits has also created their own liqueurs, some that have gone to market and some that have been made just for the tasting room.

“Because we don’t have a liquor license we can’t buy some of the other things you need to make certain in drinks, so we make everything in house,” Chapman said.  

One example of a cocktail “ingredient” they had to make on their own is Campari, which is used when making a Negroni.

At Lee Spirits, they made their own version of Campari, spelled Kamparee.

Chapman said no one really knows what is in Campari, because the recipe hasn’t been released, so when creating their own it was mostly from taste.

“It’s a clear knock off of the original…but it’s not just distilling gin here, but we are making everything,” he said.

Windham is also responsible for creating a lot of the liqueurs used at the distiller’s tasting room.

“We’re really lucky to have him (Windham) making us all these products,” Lee said of Windham, adding their diverse and extensive cocktail menu is one of the reason’s why Brooklyn’s on Boulder does stand out in Colorado Springs’ growing nightlife scene.

Last year, Chapman said the tasting room had 16 drink menus in one year.

“Because this is a tasting menu, not a full service bar we can put a bunch of eccentric menus,” he said.

Last Christmas, the tasting room had a Christmas-themed menu based on the song, “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Chapman also said they have something for everyone on their menu.

“Say if you like whiskey, well we have five cocktails that you wouldn’t realize is made with gin,” Chapman said. One those “whiskey” cocktails are made with gin that was made with staves from a Maker’s Mark barrel.

“It (gin) will bring out all sorts of nuisances hiding in the background,” Chapman said about the complexity of gin’s taste.

Lee said they’ve enjoyed the success of the tasting room, and like how it can give them instant feedback about the products they are trying out.

“The great thing about the tasting room is we use it has a tasting bed, to test if we can use something on the larger market,” Lee said.

At this moment, the distiller’s lavender gin and a handful of liqueurs have each found their way out of the tasting room and onto liquor store shelves throughout the state.


Lee’s Gin Recommends

A Gin Buck

What you’ll need:

  • 1.5 oz gin
  • 1.5 oz lime juice
  • Ginger beer
  • Limes

How to make it:

  1. Chill a copper mug
  2. Crush up some ice in a bag
  3. Pour that ice into the chilled mug
  4. Add in gin
  5. Add in lime juice
  6. Fill the rest of the mug with ginger beer
  7. Make it handsome and garnish with a lime

The Classic Martini

What you’ll need:

  • 2 oz gin
  • ¾ oz dry vermouth
  • Orange bitters
  • Lemon twist

How to make it:

  1. Chill a cocktail glass
  2. Add gin to a glass
  3. Add dry vermouth the same glass as gin
  4. Add orange bitters to the gin and dry vermouth
  5. Add ice and stir — yes, stir
  6. Strain into the cocktail glass you have chilled
  7. Finish it off with a lemon twist

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