Co-founder and distiller Nels Wroe uses local and regional ingredients to produce spirits that speak to the land in which they’re made.

“Our focus as a [distillery] is to genuinely celebrate Colorado and the West,” says Wroe. In practice, that means using “indigenous, local, or appropriate ingredients” in order to “represent the places that we love,” he explains. To state it further poetically: “We are recreating dry land in our spirits.”

For example, take Dry Land’s mezcal-like cactus spirits. Unable to source raw agave in order to make a Mexican-style bacanora, Wroe began using prickly pear cactus, instead, which grows abundantly throughout the Southwest. He says, “We discovered that, indeed, [by using prickly pear] cactus pads we can get enough carbohydrates converted to sugars to make a viable spirit.” The distillery’s one-of-a-kind spirit “was born out of frustration” at not having a specific ingredient readily available, “and then looking around what we have in Colorado” that would be an ideal substitute.

Photos by Jonathan Castner

The prickly pear is currently grown by small farms in Texas and California, but Wroe hopes to establish a working relationship with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Colorado to grow the cactus as well. After their harvest, the cactus pads are smoked over mesquite, which lends “a lovely smoky profile that is dominant, but is not overwhelming” within the spirit. For Wroe, it calls to mind hiking on a “hot, dry, dusty prairie,” he says. “It really does spark that type of memory.”

And then there’s Dry Land’s whiskeys. “We are one of the few distillers in the country today that produce and distill a single-grain wheat whiskey,” says Wroe. In fact, Dry Land makes two of them: its Heirloom Wheat Whiskey (made from a strain called White Sonora — which might be the first strain to ever grow in the Americas) and its Antero Wheat Whiskey. Both wheat varieties are now being grown by Arnusch Farms (which pioneered Antero Wheat cultivation) and malted at Troubadour Maltings. Given its “backbone” and “spice notes,” Wroe says the Antero Wheat Whiskey “just sings Colorado” — ideal for sipping around a campfire after a hike.

“Wheat’s notoriously difficult to work with as a distiller, because of the protein content,” notes Wroe. “If you make a mistake during your cooking process with wheat, you have a gigantic vat of sticky cream of wheat.”

Clearly, Dry Land doesn’t do things the easy way, whether in terms of making its spirits or in terms of sourcing much of its ingredients.

“The gin [just] about killed me,” says Wroe, citing a year’s worth of trial and error for that spirit. “We finally had to stop trying to create a classic style of gin.”

A challenge arose: to incorporate only Colorado botanicals. “We use one of the few native junipers to the state,” Wroe says. “It does not have that huge hit-you-over-the-head juniper profile to it.” Other ingredients include elderberry and rose hips in order to lend citrus character. And there’s the addition of wild chamomile and the native medicinal plant, bee balm. “There’s a lot of complexity to [the gin], but it’s very gentle, very sippable,” he says. Standard tonic waters are too sweet, so the tasting room’s bar manager concocts Dry Land’s own version for their gin and tonics.

As of summer 2020, Dry Land is making due with a 700-square-foot production space in downtown Longmont. It’s crammed with three fermentation tanks; a mash tun from Rocky Mountain Vessels that’s made specifically for “raw ingredient mashes”; and a 200-gallon, 14-foot-tall whiskey still with a “very thick copper column” made by Rod and Forge.

While the distillery produces about two barrels of its whiskeys and two barrels of its cactus spirits per month, Wroe says he hopes to expand production in the coming year at a larger, new facility. “We see ongoing demand for true craft spirits like we’re producing,” he says. Presently, Dry Land’s spirits are sold at about 20 retail outlets, mostly on the Front Range.

When asked what it is about the business that he enjoys the most, Wroe answers, “We believe we make great spirits. We’re very proud of what we make, and when people try them, they’re like, ‘Wow!’ You see their faces light up. . . . That is extremely rewarding for us. So, it comes down to people, in all aspects.”

For Wroe, those people include the cultivators who grow the plants and grains for the spirits, the experts who’ve helped to inform him about ingredients and processes, the distillery’s equipment fabricators, and of course his customers.

In other words, dry land people.

Challenges: Funding sources willing to wait for the return on profits. “There’s a long lag between the time we build a facility, distill the product, and have product that is out of aging and ready for sale,” says Wroe. “A two- to three-year cycle.”

Opportunities: Expanding into a larger production facility. “We see huge growth prospects,” says Wroe. “We have huge demand for our spirits from Florida, from California, from Texas, from Nevada, from Illinois. And we have no practical way, right now, of servicing that demand.”

Needs: “COVID has impacted our business, every aspect,” says Wroe. “The biggest need is for COVID to settle down.”