Words: Eli Pace
The founder of Breckenridge Distillery celebrated 10 years in business in fall 2018, a nice milestone for Bryan Nolt, a doctor-turned-distiller who was only looking for a hobby when he started it.
Since coming online in 2008 and releasing its first vodka and bourbon three years later, Breckenridge Distillery has quickly become an award-winning producer of fine spirits, earning Bourbon of the Year and Distillery of the Year awards and being named Icons of Whisky for Brand Innovator of the Year, in addition to being designated one of the top three whiskies in the U.S.
Led by its flagship bourbon, the distillery’s products are available in 48 states. The business employs almost 100 people from California to New England, and Nolt can boast having the largest distillery in Colorado.
How it all came to be, however, stems from a mix of just the right ingredients, a hint of luck and a deep love for quality whiskey. None of it might have happened, however, if not for a fishing trip.
With a successful medical practice, Nolt was feeling quite accomplished as a radiologist, even though the demands of the medical industry had worn him thin. “We were turning and burning,” he said of the medical center. “Radiology is about productivity, and we were a very productive group, but man, it wears on you.”
“I think that, when you’re in a position like (I was), where you’re working that much and making great money doing it, your hobbies get kind of weird,” Nolt said. “My weird hobby became whiskey.”
The doctor soon fell into a whiskey club of like-minded individuals who were always trying to one-up each other with increasingly rare, unique whiskies, the kind of stuff you can’t get in the U.S., Nolt said.
As the story goes, Breckenridge Distillery might not have happened had it not been for a fishing trip to the Mohawk Lakes near Breckenridge, shortly after Nolt had returned from Scotland, where he had searched for those super-rare spirits. “I can go into a lot of detail about that day and how epic it was,” Nolt said.
“Hiking down from the lake, the light went off. It’s not like I found salvation, but I found an inspiration.”
The real question was: “Can I get to the point where I could establish this business as sort of my second passion after medicine and not lose my ass completely?” Nolt recalled.
In his mind, with a few employees and Breckenridge’s amazing water, there was a clear opportunity to make great spirits and “just revel in it.”
“I didn’t expect it would replace my career,” said Nolt, who still practices medicine on a limited basis. “But that was the motivation behind it.”
Starting up a distillery was a learning process, Nolt said, explaining that even though he came into it as “a whiskey nerd,” he quickly began taking distilling courses where he met a key piece of his operation in instructor Jordan Via.
Needing help with the distillery, Nolt reached out to Via in hopes Via might recommend a good master distiller. As it turned out, Via was interested in the job himself, and that’s when things really started to take off.
Now, Nolt sees the distillery coming of age after transitioning from the mom-and-pop business he started with into an entity that functions like a finely tuned, publicly traded company.
“All we wanted to do was make great whiskey,” he said of then and now. “That was really the goal. I wasn’t trying to get rich or market some crazy story. I just wanted to make great whiskey.”