Golden Moon founder Stephen Gould's unlikely path to whisky

Golden Moon founder Stephen Gould's unlikely path to whisky

The founder of Colorado's Golden Moon Distillery shares his winding path to whisky – from teenage homebrewing experiments and bartending in college, via a career in the car industry and military service in Iraq

News 28 Dec 2023 | By Maggie Kimberl

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Stephen Gould opened the Golden Moon Distillery in Colorado in 2008, and his journey to craft distilling is one of the most unique in the business.


Gould started out his career as a teen working in restaurants and came from a long line of restaurateurs. His grandfather had been known to moonshine and bootleg during American Prohibition, and he himself experimented with home brewing as a teenager, a harbinger for what would come later in his life.


During his university training and after graduation, Gould often found himself working in restaurants and bars, including a long stint as a bartender. His professional career was with Ford, and he travelled internationally, mainly throughout Asia, where he often made time to sample local food and beverages. “I've always been fascinated by food and beverage,” he says.

One of the pot stills at Golden Moon Distillery in Golden, Colorado

During graduate school in the early 1990s, he and some friends from his cohort decided to put together a business plan for a craft brewery in Reno, Nevada.


“This is pretty early on in the first wave of microbrewers,” Gould says. “And at that time, I’d also made a little bit of very bad and very illegal American single malt.”


Gould had already decided to build a craft distillery when he graduated from his business school programme, but Old Potrero founder Fritz Maytag talked him out of it.


“What he said was, you need to give it five to 10 years to let the regulations catch up,” Gould recalls. “You need to go out, get a real job, learn how to run a business, build your resume. And then when you're ready, come back to this. I ended up graduating with my MBA in '93. I had an import-export company at the time dealing of all things vintage aeroplanes and motorcycles coming out of South America. That skill set was something that became very attractive to Ford Motor Company, so they hired me and I went through the management training programme. Pretty quickly I was doing things around the world for Ford. But I never lost the love of distilling.”

Inside the warehouse at Golden Moon Distillery

Gould spent several years on the road 70 per cent of the time, travelling in Europe and Asia, while he was also in the US Marine Corps Reserve. In his downtime, he would always try to find a local distillery or scope out the local bar scene. As a side business, he began exporting American craft beer into China. Then he met the managing director of Allied Domecq during a business trip in India and started working with him to export Scotch bottled in India to China. He was still working for Ford, but his hobbies all centred around beverage alcohol.


At the time, it was still illegal to make absinthe in the US, so he got involved with an underground group of international absinthe distillers. They were called HGers, short for ‘hausgemacht’, the German word for homegrown.


“A lot of them, especially in Europe, were very open about what they were doing once you were part of the community,” Gould recalls. “I found myself spending my recreation time as I travelled around the world, oftentimes being invited to distill on small stills in places like rural Switzerland, rural France, and Japan. I had walked away from distilling to do what I did at Ford, but yet now I was back working a small still and playing with herbs and really began to craft a skill set with botanical distillations with the underpinnings of the science of distillation circa 1850 to 1890, which really is the high point of alcohol beverage production in many ways.”


Most of the improvements in distillation since that time, he says, are process controls. The basic methodologies are still the same.


“Spending time with a lot of these geeky illicit distillers allowed me to take my rudimentary knowledge of distillation and turn it into a pretty solid skill set,” Gould says. “As I moved forward in my professional life, the flame was reignited that I needed to be a distiller, and I left Ford.”

Golden Moon Distillery's trio of American single malt whiskies

He did a short stint at another company working with the international supply chain but continued to take distilling courses and work in other people’s distilleries whenever he got the chance. He had also started to collect rare and vintage books on distillation and had made a number of friends in the craft distilling world. One of those friends was the late Dave Pickerell.


“Dave ended up becoming a mentor of sorts, a dear friend, sometimes consulting partner,” Gould explains. “There were times when I would work for him. There were times when he would work for me.”


His journey took another sideways step when he was deployed to Iraq with the Marine Corps to search for weapons of mass destruction.


“From a distillation perspective it was interesting because every distillery in Iraq was viewed by the UN as a potential producer of weapons of mass destruction because biological weapons, you know, use both fermentation and distillation as manufacturing steps,” Gould explains. “I had an Iraqi interpreter with me. We walked in and the guys were trying to explain what they were doing. They take us into this room, and there's the 100-year-old French brandy still. They were distilling arak off of dates in huge quantities and had been doing so for decades. They told me the still had been there since 1905. The next thing you know, I'm hugging these two Iraqi distillers drinking new-make date spirit right off the still, which was an amazing experience. But with what's happened in Iraq since it makes me very sad because I doubt that distillery exists and I doubt those individuals are still alive.”

Golden Moon Distillery has four antique pot stills in its pilot plant

Gould had been collecting vintage stills during his travels and finally decided in 2008 that it was time to open a distillery. He and his wife wanted to move out west, so they settled in Colorado and got to work.


“We took a very slow path, spent a lot of time developing processes, formulas, a lot of experimentation,” he says.


The distillery now produces a range of Golden Moon American single malt whiskies, as well as bourbon and rye whiskies under its Gun Fighter brand. It has won numerous awards, including ADI’s Distillery of the Year in 2019 and Icons of Gin’s Bar of the Year in 2021. Learn more about Golden Moon Distillery here.

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