I want to be in Aspen this September. Not because of the foliage or rumors of early snow, but because September is potato harvesting time in central Colorado. That’s when Woody Creek Distillers pluck their potatoes from the soil by the truckload and, just a few hours later, cook them into arguably the cleanest and smoothest vodka in production.
Famous beyond jetsetters and fur mukluks, the Aspen area also boasts a significant relationship with potatoes. As Pat Scanlan, co-founder of Woody Creek Distillers, told me, “At the turn of the 20th Century, the Aspen Valley produced more potatoes than the entire state of Idaho. The Aspen climate is ideal for this type of agriculture.”
Woody Creek cooks their potatoes into a mash and finishes the product with local Rocky Mountain spring water. Everything about this product is local: their farm to your liver. And that’s what makes Woody Creek so exceptional, they control all aspects of their process, from tilling to labeling and everything in between. Woody Creek is the first and only craft distiller doing this.
I visited Pat Scanlan and Woody Creek co-founder Mark Kleckner on a recent visit to Aspen. Incidentally, Pat and Mark met during their former lives as top security clearance engineers for the U.S. Department of Defense. They’re both funny and generous, plus they’ve got an edge to them. Craft distilling homegrown potatoes is no doubt a departure from their previous lives, but I imagine they chatted with me the same way they used to debrief with top brass at the DoD–with a deftness and calm meticulousness–and, for me, with a promise of cocktails not far on the horizon.
What I learned from Pat and Mark is that there’s no secret recipe at Woody Creek. They use the best ingredients to make their spirits—and that absolutely matters—but they also get a little help from their state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line, custom-built German distilling system, which creates the purest alcohol possible in just one pass. As Mark Kleckner told me, there are just a handful of comparable brother and sister stills in the western hemisphere. In fact, so rare are these stills that the manufacturer only supplies the system software in German, which Kleckner laughed about. “We had some challenges when we were getting up and running… but their phone support was great.”
Woody Creek offers their flagship potato vodka and an ultra-premium vodka made from internationally sourced Polish Stobrawa potato seeds. These vodkas have mellow flavors and are delicious. There are mild earthy tones, and the potato is present too, which might sound strange, except that a perfectly ripe potato straight from the ground is actually sweet and even delicate. These vodkas are best enjoyed neat or with an ice cube. And, Woody Creek vodka is such a pure product that the feeling you get after a few fingers is somehow cleaner and clearer than when you drink a lesser premium spirit–that’s miraculously apparent when you wake up the next morning, too.
(Originally published in Matrix Magazine, Montreal, CA)
Coach House Books
John Golbach’s debut novel, The Devil and the Detective, can’t easily be folded into a genre. It’s a detective novel at its core, yes, but it’s not an iconic Raymond Chandler detective story, not exactly (though some Chandler can be found in there). It’s not really in the vein of an offbeat Jonathan Ames caper, either (but Ames is in there, too). It’s noir, yes, but, as Padgett Powell’s dust jacket blurb purports, “it’s noirtire, or satoir.”
The story begins with a straightforward detective novel-punch. “Robert. Bob. Bob James. TheDetective,” a.k.a., our whiskey-pickled protagonist narrator, receives a phone call in the middle of the night. There’s been a murder. Elaine Andrews, his new client, says of her husband, “Gerald has been stabbed in the chest!”
Cue the bullheaded, contemplative gumshoe, who accepts the gig with little to go on, other than his own chronic fatigue and high octane head fog. But don’t let the ham handed actions of the protagonist be confused with the sharpness of his narration. The writing is tight and aware, with a distinct rhythm. Here’s a sense of the timing:
Something’s fishy, I thought, without a doubt. Her lawyer was overly cautious, I thought, sitting on the couch, whisky in hand, contemplating the case. The case of Mr. Gerald Andrews, and a knife in his chest. Their names were so boring, so commonplace as to seem improbable. At the very least, I thought, groggy from the drink, Mr. Andrews’s death, whether caused by murder or suicide or some freak accident, would bring considerable excitement to Mrs. Elaine Andrews’s life.
And so begins the case. The plot of The Devil and the Detective takes interesting turns—deceit, corruption, brutality, sex—but the book isn’t just plot-driven. The same could be said for Goldbach’s exploration of the human condition: love, loss, lust, friendship, aloneness, etc. along with a strong undercurrent of existential inquiry. Indeed, the thrust of emotion fuels the novel’s urgency, and it does so in subtle, highly effective ways. Desperation, for one, is a key theme of the book, adetective’s desperation, a seductress’s desperation, life and death desperation, and, more to the point, how desperation motivates and modifies human behavior. Goldbach negotiates this landscape with clear vision.
Goldbach also has a bent towards philosophical inquiry. These heavy ideas could have weighed down the narrative, but they don’t; they’re relatively bite-sized within the text. This philosophical discourse is sometimes delivered via the narrator’s internalizations, but the bulk of the ruminations appear in dialogue between the detective and his trusty flower-delivery-boy-sidekick, Darren. Darren—a young dude with an old hatchback—may not be the first person you’d expect to spout off about a theoretical “Philosopher A” in conversation with “Philosopher B,” but Goldbach makes it work. Here are Darren and the detective engaged in a conversation about death, for instance.
“You live on in other people’s minds,” I offered lamely, and Darren said, “Sure, yes, for other people, not for you. Mere imitations. You’re dead. Your conscious mind is dead, your heart no longer beats and your lungs collapse.” Perhaps, I thought, consciousness is ideology; perhaps it’s that simple and that inescapable. I tried to express that to Darren but couldn’t find the words.
The sum total of the detective-narrator’s contemplation of existence and morality has weight. Bob James is a bona fide loner, but in the end, his empathy outweighs all else—smart twists in the story require the detective to exercise his resolve, to not only make decisions, but to act on them, too.
Goldbach in places departs from conventional form and style, like a violent dream sequence at a moment when the detective is shoulder-deep in his anxiety, which is, if you’re up for the challenge, apparent only after a bit of detective work on the reader’s part, i.e. flipping back to the table of contents to see that the chapter is subtitled, “Long sleep—Long dream.” (Incidentally, the table of contents is an interesting little work in its own right.)
The Devil and the Detective succeeds, and, ultimately, it does so because it’s a book that’s very good to its readers. The novella-type length feels right for this story. It’s highly engaging and moves quickly; I read it in one sitting. The prose is ultra clean. Its ideas may appear simple on the page, but they’re actually quite dense. Plus, the book is funny, smart-funny, great-funny, it’s its own kind of funny, like jokes about Rick James and Magnum P.I., and a drunk’s irresistible compulsion towards ice water to combat his hangovers. The Devil and the Detective was good to me, and I look forward to more from John Goldbach.