The History of Potatoes in the Roaring Fork Valley, Colorado

The History of Potatoes in the Roaring Fork Valley, Colorado

by Keith Hemeon, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Woody Creek Distillers 
I wanted to share a little bit of history about the Potato trade in the Roaring Fork Valley and how Woody Creek Distillers reintroduced the famous crop back to the Valley.
Woody Creek Distillers was founded in 2012 in the heart of the Rocky mountains of Colorado right outside of Aspen by Patrick and Mary Scanlan and their partner Mark Kleckner. The driving force behind its conception was to produce a world class Potato Vodka in the Roaring Fork Valley of the Elk Mountain Range in Woody Creek Colorado, which started with Patrick learning the history of the Potato trade in this valley in the early 1900s. 
Excerpt from an article in The Sopris Sun : 
In the late 1800s Thomas McClure left his family against their wishes. He did so with a single motivation: to strike out on his own in the New World. He sold a prize brood sow to buy passage from Little Kenny, Ireland, and landed in Philadelphia at the age of 21. Upon hearing of the gold strikes out west he moved to Colorado and ended up in Leadville in 1876.
Escaping his Irish heritage, however, was not as easy as leaving his family. From Leadville, he moved to Catherine – the current site of Catherine Store – and purchased a piece of land where he began cultivating that well-known Irish staple: the potato. McClure joined the throngs who were beginning to recognize that the climate and soil of the area were ideal for potatoes. E.H. Grubb, one of the foremost American potato experts of the time, and author of the 1909 book, “The Potato,” hailed from Carbondale. He claimed that one day, the area would be recognized the world over for its potatoes.  

The intensity, dedication, and scientific effort of the potato growers of the early 1900s near Carbondale shaped both the landscape and the culture of the area. By the 1930s, 400 railcars filled with thousands of tons of spuds left the Valley each year destined for market, and new potato varieties were growing in Carbondale fields.

Thomas McClure, like others in the valley, grew an Irish red potato cultivar known as a “Peachblow.” While selectively breeding this potato he noticed a naturally occurring mutation, and developed the oddity into a new potato that became known as the Red McClure. By 1910 the Red McClure had been released to the public and, along with the Russet Burbank, which was also developed in Carbondale, it became a commodity potato of the day. Specifically suited to the growing conditions of the Roaring Fork and Crystal River Valleys, the Red McClure thrived in the Carbondale soil.  
The potato trade in the Roaring Fork Valley had disappeared by 1933 when the silver mines of Aspen had closed as a result of the Gold Standard Act, which established gold as the only standard for redeeming paper money and stopped bimetallism (which had allowed silver in exchange for gold). Once the Silver Mine train cars stopped running between Aspen and Denver, the potato trade market also collapsed.
That is until 2012 when Patrick, Mary and Mark, through the trial and error of trying a few potato varietals, settled on growing and harvesting a Rio Grande Russet potato developed at Colorado State University. This potato was chosen for its high yield propensity, starch characteristics, heartiness against colder high altitude temperature and imperfections. 
Woody Creek Distillers now harvest roughly 1.6 million pounds of potatoes per year in Woody Creek, exclusively for our production of world class potato vodka and the base spirit for our gin. We only harvest and produce our potato vodka once a year - the growing season for potatoes at 7,346 ft. above sea level is short. We plant in May once the ground has thawed and normally end harvest in October.
How many potatoes does it take to produce a bottle of Vodka? It takes about 13-15 potatoes to make 1 bottle, and the entire process from harvest to bottle takes six days. The potatoes arrive by the ton at the end of the day's harvest, and we mash them fresh for about 90 days straight until the ground freezes and the snow flies. The other nine months of year, we roll into whiskey production, but I'll save that history and story for our next installment!
Now that you understand a bit of what makes our naturally gluten free Vodka so special, pick up a bottle and taste the difference for yourself!

This letter was sent from the Fellows at Woody Creek Distillers

Woody Creek Distillers is a grain to glass distillery founded in 2012 by Mary and Pat Scanlan and Mark Kleckner in the town of Basalt in the Roaring Fork Valley near Aspen, Colorado. After years pursuing their own careers, these three longtime friends came together to create a line of spirits whose quality is a lasting legacy for their community, families and friends. 

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