Master chef and distiller Victor Matthews brings a culinary — and spiritual — approach to the creation of unique spirits.
“I think we’re the only distillery in the world owned by a master chef,” says Matthews.
Not only is Matthews the owner and master distiller at Black Bear Distillery, he’s also a World Master Chef Emeritus and the founder and dean of Paragon Culinary School, housed within the historic Briarhurst Manor Estate in Manitou Springs. What makes the school unique? Matthews notes its smaller class sizes, leading to more one-on-one learning opportunities. But he also points out how, “We’re the only culinary school in America with a craft distillery.”
Over at that craft distillery in Green Mountain Falls, Matthews makes traditional, mountain moonshines, based upon family recipes. Growing up in Wilkes County, North Carolina (which Matthews notes has been called “the moonshine capital of the world”), he learned the clandestine craft — and his family even shared a fenceline with NASCAR legend and onetime bootlegger Junior Johnson.
Matthews says his Mountainshine, based on his grandfather’s 1949 recipe, possesses “a pure corn flavor, but on the sweet side, as well as some grassiness, almost like a fresh field.” He also makes a spirit, based on his great-great-grandfather’s recipe, which dates back to 1889; and, although Matthews calls it a moonshine, the Tax and Trade Bureau insisted the distillery label the concoction, made with malted rye, a vodka. No matter what it’s called, “It tastes beautiful,” he says.
There’s also an Irish-inspired American bourbon, using both malted and raw barley as ingredients, aged in bourbon barrels, then finished in sherry barrels. “It’s the only Irish-style bourbon in the world,” says Matthews of the two-year aged product. Additionally, Black Bear Distillery has received “Best of” honors at the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition in 2018 and 2019 within the category “Single Barrel American Whiskey 10 years or less” for its one-year aged Irish-style American whiskey. And there’s a Brazilian-influenced, Cachaca-style gold rum, which Matthews has called in a promotional video “a whiskey lover’s rum” with “a flavor from the Caribbean.”
“The flavors we have are just stellar,” says Matthews of his lineup. He views his spirits like they’re culinary creations, requiring the extraction of maximum flavor from their Colorado-sourced ingredients. (The corn is grown by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the malted rye and barley come from Colorado Malting Company.) In terms of applying his chef’s approach to the creation of spirits, Matthews says, “I think it’s the secret to our success, to be honest with you.”
Matthews spent his twenties in New Orleans working at world-renowned restaurants like Broussard’s and Arnaud’s, as well as alongside Kevin Graham at the Windsor Court Hotel. He became an executive chef by the time he was 28: “I was the youngest four-star executive chef in Louisiana history,” he says. Matthews later worked in Houston at another heralded restaurant before moving to Colorado to buy the Black Bear Restaurant in Green Mountain Falls. Under his direction the restaurant received positive reviews and press. But a regional fire and then flood caused business to dwindle away, he says. That’s when Matthews shuttered the restaurant, opening his distillery.
With five employees, many of them veterans, Black Bear Distillery produces about 1,500 cases per year — up from about 1,000 in 2019 — distributed throughout Colorado. An online distributor in California, Great American Craft Spirits, also ships its spirits across the country.
Despite undergoing trials and tribulations (such as weathering the COVID-19 pandemic), Matthews sees his work as part of a higher calling. He’s even called his business “God’s Distillery.” Matthews says miracles have taken place, setting his distillery in motion. He tells of the angelic carpenter, who passed through and built the distillery’s bar, leaving without accepting any payment. And then there was the unexpected windfall that allowed Matthews to place the down payment on his 18-foot-tall, 400-gallon, single-pot copper still, before the maker, Trident Stills of Maine, had to sell it to someone else. “We’ve had maybe a dozen [distillery] tours turn into prayer meetings,” adds Matthews.
Matthews sees no conflict between making spirits and the Holy Spirit. And, whether he’s educating students at his culinary school, certifying experts in the study of spirits (he’s also written a book about bourbon), serving as the Dean of Theology at Warnborough College, or making mountain moonshine at his distillery, Matthews counts his blessings: “I’m just living the dream, to tell you the truth.”
Challenges: “Distribution is definitely the number one problem,” says Matthews. “Figuring out a way to get your products in as many places as you can, but having the people in those places understand your products.”
Opportunities: Business returning to some semblance of normal. In addition to getting out and doing tasting events — including participating in benefits for veterans, rescue animals, and children’s health — there are tours to conduct again at the distillery: “People want to come back. You want to welcome them back.”
Needs: More outlets and events where Matthews can introduce people to his line of spirits: “Because once they try it, it’s really delicious, and they fall in love with it,” he says.