It was a bottle of absinthe and a French book on distillation from 1855 that served as the inspiration for Golden Moon Spirits, a distillery based in Golden, Colorado. “I came across a case of circa 1950 Spanish absinthe and became intrigued with the spirit,” says co-founder Stephen Gould. “I thought to myself, ‘I could make this stuff.’” Many years and research findings later, Gould and his wife Karen Knight made just that, along with more than a dozen of other esoteric spirits — from amer picon and curacao to crème de violette — for their distilling company’s quirky and accessible portfolio. Here, we chat with the former saucier and corporate executive about absinthe as a double-edged sword, what product he’s most proud of making, and the European-inspired spirits we can expect from them next.
BoozeMenus: Your spirits lineup has some classic products, but perhaps even more surprises. How did you land on these offerings, in particular -- and in what order did you do so?
Stephen Gould: I’ve always been a booze geek, so that, coupled with my starting this segment of my distilling journey led me to look at unusual spirits that I thought I’d like to have on my own bar. That led my wife and I to create a spirits line that would fill a lot of the gaps on a craft cocktail bar — ingredients that were essential to the types of cocktails we like to drink. Spirits that were made in a way that we could be proud of and that would set us apart from others.
BM: Which product has proved to be the most challenging to perfect?
SG: I would say that absinthe has been my biggest challenge to create for several reasons. First, having good absinthe to use as a reference point was extremely difficult prior to 2007 when the U.S. again allowed absinthe to be imported and produced. At that time, if you were lucky enough to taste real proper absinthe, it was old — either pre-ban or early 20th century Spanish — very costly and extremely hard to get a hold of. Second, there really weren’t any books or manuals that actually discussed how to manufacture the spirit. There were a number of very good books on distilling dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s, with lots of recipes for various styles of absinthe, but they were typically written as reference manuals for trained distillers, not for people trying to learn how to distill and produce absinthe at the same time.
There was, however, a community of absinthe enthusiasts around the world that were working on producing absinthe, and in some cases, working on making it legal to do so as well. I was fortunate to be befriended by a number of these folks, and through this loose-knit community, I was able to find answers to many of my questions and to gain access to samples of rare, pre-ban absinthes to use as a reference point for what proper absinthe should taste like. This allowed me to develop my own absinthe palate, which in turn allowed me to ultimately create my own absinthe — an absinthe that is designed to appeal to the serious absinthe connoisseur, while being approachable enough to be enjoyable to the first-time absinthe drinker, as well.
BM: Which product is the most fun to create, and why?
SG: Either the absinthe or our small-batch grappas. They’re difficult products to do well, and judging by our customers’ reactions to these products, we do them well.
BM: Which product have you been most proud of?
SG: Our Amer dit Picon. This is the only product we produce that is not our own recipe. I’ve been a fan of Amer Picon, the spirit created in the 1830s by legendary distiller Gaetan Picon, for many years. His original recipe hasn’t been produced since the early 1900s. I was extremely lucky to acquire a set of distiller’s notes from 1851 with the procedures used to produce his original product in his original production distillery. Using those, it still took me the better part of a year of experimentation with how to build the sub-components of the spirit to get it tasting close to what his original product tasted like. Our Amer dit Picon tastes a little more peppery and a little “hotter” that the 120-130 year old samples I used for a taste comparison, but then again, they were well over 100 years old.
BM: What sets your curacao apart from the electric tiki ingredient we're used to seeing?
SG: What curacao — the original “triple sec” — was originally and what consumers know now as “curacao” and “triple sec” are extremely different spirits with little in common, other than a base orange flavor.
In creating Golden Moon Dry Curacao, we wanted to create a spirit that would work well as a modifier in cocktails and still be smooth enough and dry enough to be enjoyable neat or on the rocks. We’re finding that some barmen are even using it as a base spirit in cocktails. Ours is made much the way historical curacao liquors were made. It’s distilled with dried laraha orange peel and traditional spices, then lightly oak aged and infused with Spanish saffron to add additional color, flavor and aroma. It’s dryer than all other Curacao and triple-sec products on the market, containing substantially less sugar. It has a higher alcohol content than all but one other similar product. Most importantly, because of the way we’ve put the product together, it mixes well with most other spirits, including agave spirits, such as tequila and mezcal.
BM: Tell us about your speakeasy.
SG: Golden Moon Speakeasy was opened in February of 2014. We decided to open the speakeasy for a number of reasons, the most important of which was to showcase what can be done with our family of spirits, and to do so in a high-end venue similar to those in which we wanted our product to be served in. Just shy of a year ago, Golden Moon Speakeasy has been named as one of the best cocktail joints in the greater Denver area by Denver A List, Denver Eater, the Denver Post and Westward Magazine. People seem to like what we’re doing.
BM: Your products are diverse, but what do you hope to reveal unanimously throughout the line?
SG: That every spirit that carries the Golden Moon Name has been crafted with highest quality ingredients, attention to detail and integrity possible.
BM: What are you currently working on?
SG: We’re going to be launching several new products in the near future. Golden Moon Kummel is a classic central European caraway liquor, with hints of lemon and mint. Ex Gratia will be a modified Genepi — a style of liquor from Europe’s alpine regions —inspired by the description of an elixir in the notebook of an executioner that operated in Bavaria in the 1580s. This elixir, often given to the condemned as a last act of kindness, contained several unusual spices and herbs that we’ve used to create an absolutely delightful unique spirit that works well straight or in classic cocktails such as the Bijou. And lastly, Golden Moon Colorado Single Malts. We’re currently distilling and laying down malt spirit which will ultimately be sold as our Colorado Single Malt Whiskies — but not until it’s ready.
BM: What's your go-to cocktail?
SG: The Gin Wink, created by London’s Tony Conigliaro, has to be one of my all-time favorites. This is essentially a gin sazarac. It’s on the menu at Golden Moon Speakeasy and works extremely well with our spirits. The Golden Eagle, based upon the Eagle from New York’s legendary Stork Club, is another favorite that’s on our menu. A mix of gin, violet, lemon juice, sugar and egg white, double-shaken to make a frothy taste treat that is especially good on a hot summer day.
BM: What has been your favorite aspect of this process so far?
SG: That’s easy: watching people enjoy drinking the spirits we’ve created. There is something extremely satisfying about seeing people enjoy something we’ve created from scratch.
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos From Left: Polar Vortex Cocktail - Photo by Rick Souders; Redux Absinthe Verde - Photo by Rick Souders; Co-Founder Stephen Gould , assistant distiller Joey Stansfield (formerly of Breuckelen Distilling) and sales manager Noah Heaney - Photo by Geoffrey Knight; Golden Eagle Cocktail - Photo by Rick Souders)