Co-founders Austin Adamson and Eric Strom want customers to have a peak experience after imbibing a cocktail or two made with their creative takes on traditional spirits.
“We want people to think Ballmer Peak is a mountain and that’s why we lean into the mountainous designs in a lot of our labels and branding,” says head distiller Adamson wryly.
But here’s what Ballmer Peak actually is: It’s the theoretical point after imbibing a drink or two when a person’s blood-alcohol level leads them to maximum productivity or creativity. The concept is attributed to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. “The more you drink — [up] to a point — the better you get at something,” says Adamson.
The distillery offers a distinctive lineup of craft spirits for potentially summiting that peak.
There’s its top-selling gin. “Our gin is Australia-inspired,” says Adamson, who’s traveled that continent, “so we take botanicals and flavors from Australia and incorporate that in with the juniper to make it more floral.” In addition to lemongrass, coriander, pepperberry, and juniper berries, the additions of lime zest and eucalyptus are meant to emulate the flavor of finger limes.
Another vehicle: its white whiskey. The flavor’s derived strictly from the malted barley — and there’s no shading or flavor from the spirit aging in a barrel. Adamson says, “We age it no longer than we have to — which is to say, not long at all. The way we have it, it enters an oak container and then leaves it immediately. Just long enough to call it whiskey.”
But it’s not like the distillery eschews the use of wood. It sometimes uses oak chips and charred oak spirals to lend some of the same flavors that a barrel can provide. An example being its golden rum. Charred oak is added to glass containers containing rum, which are then heated and cooled in a sous vide-style water bath for 10 to 15 days in order to “maximize the flavor extraction,” says Adamson.
“Some people say if you don’t let it sit for 10 years in a warehouse that it’s not worth anything,” says distillery manager Strom about their “unique” spirits — which, so far, result from minimal aging. “But, at the end of the day, if you like what you’re drinking, that’s the important part.”
The distillery also believes in sustainability and the reuse of materials — in more ways than one.
Take the creation of its dunder rum. “Dunder is what’s leftover in the still after you distill a rum for the first time,” says Adamson — in other words, “dead yeast bodies, solid minerals, and vitamin content from molasses.” The distillery placed its first dunder in a 50-gallon drum, allowing wild yeasts to feed on it and grow. Five gallons of the dunder will then be added to a new 130-gallon batch of the spirit, in order to make dunder rum. “It’s funky, it’s kind of earthy and vegetal, but it has these really interesting, hard to pin down flavors and aromas,” says Adamson, calling the concept of using dunder “similar to a sourdough” in breadmaking.
Excess dunder waste also gets donated for agricultural use as a natural fertilizer. It’s used at “dozens of different green spaces around the area, and urban gardens,” says Adamson. The distillery also reuses the water it utilizes as a heat transfer. Strom says, “Somewhere around 400,000 gallons a year . . . doesn’t go down the drain, because we’re recirculating it.” Adamson adds, “Eric and I both kind of grew up in Arizona, and we . . . know and value the limited resource that drinkable water is.”
The two have known each other since middle school. Strom was the first to move to the Denver area for a job. After reuniting for a wedding in the area, the two devised a plan to start their own distillery.
Adamson first practiced the craft at the Denver Distillery following his subsequent relocation to Colorado. He also appeared on an episode of the reality show, Moonshiners. “When people say my ideas are crazy, I show them why they’re wrong,” Adamson says during the program. “Crazy means something unexpected, something new, something challenging, something that seems impossible.” (Although Adamson didn’t win the competition, he says the appearance has led to people following what he’s been doing at his latest distillery.)
After four years of brainstorming, Strom and Adamson finally located a site in Lakewood, making their distillery dream a reality. 1,500 square feet is divided between a tasting room and a production area. In its first full year in operation, Ballmer Peak Distillery produced 5,000 bottles.
At their tasting room, they also show off their spirits in Tiki-inspired — as well as other types of — cocktails. “I like the drinks, I like the aesthetic, and I like the kind of weird history behind Tiki,” says self-described “Tiki nerd” Strom. “There’s a reason people have been drinking [Tiki drinks] for 80 years — because they’re actually well-balanced cocktails.”
Adamson says achieving a Ballmer Peak — perhaps via one or two of those Tiki-inspired cocktails — can increase someone’s confidence in their own abilities. “You’re less afraid to make mistakes, you’re less anxious or pressured by external circumstances,” he says. “It lets your true self, and your true abilities, shine through.”
Challenges: Sales during a pandemic. “The COVID restrictions are extremely limiting,” says Strom. “We essentially got an hour notice whenever something would change and whenever we would have to switch up what we were doing.”
Opportunities: Expanding the brand’s presence at more than just a couple of retailers. Strom says, “With COVID, we’ve found people hesitant to bring new stuff on, which is very understandable. We’re hoping that as the vaccine rolls out — and things start getting back to normal over the next few months — that that changes and we have an opportunity for a little expansion as far as distribution goes.”
Needs: “More space for production,” says Adamson. “We’re in the process of hopefully soon installing some pallet racks in order to take advantage of some vertical space. But we’re in a very small space here and we don’t have much room for traditional cask maturation. If we want to really grow — and get into that side of things — there’s just a need for more space.”