Manitou Springs restaurateurs create Colorado-inspired vodka
Pure mountain spring water the key to smooth refreshing, clean-tasting spirit.
Colorado Premium Vodka was created in the heart of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, in the little mountain town of Manitou Springs, at the base of Pikes Peak. Gail and Rob Stephens, proprietors of historic restaurants (past...Craftwood Inn / present...Stagecoach Inn) in the area, have been serving their guests the foods and flavors of Colorado for many years. Here at these restaurants the Stephenses first made Colorado Fruit-infused vodka for their customers. The infusions were an incredible, delectable success. Their love of things Colorado inspired them to establish a Colorado distilled beverage company and launch Colorado Premium Vodka as their flagship product.
A Colorado vodka demanded Colorado water.
"Living here in Colorado, we knew we had the best water in the world, and we wanted vodka that tasted as clean and pure as our water." said Gail.
They began with a quest for the right . The couple tasted every Colorado spring water source they could find. Enlisting the help of friends, family members and business associates, they conducted blind taste tests until they found the purest, cleanest tasting spring water. The actual location of the mountain spring water used in Colorado Premium Vodka is a closely guarded secret to ensure its purity and integrity. The water comes from snow that melted thousands of years ago. It bubbles to the surface from 8,000 feet below, creating a unique spring that only Colorado can call its own.
The spring water glistened like a pristine mountain lake and is naturally filtered to a submicron level, which still allows for healthful minerals like calcium and potassium to impart a fresh, clean spring water flavor.
Triple distilled Colorado Premium Vodka is made in small batches with a proprietary blend of the finest Midwestern grains and the purest Colorado mountain spring water. It is then charcoal filtered and passed through a state of the art filtration system to ensure its purity.
To test their choice, the Stephenses Arranged to produce a sample batch of vodka using their chosen water and proprietary blend of the finest Midwestern grains. "We had blind tastings for the vodka, and without exception, our vodka was judged smoother, cleaner and purer than any other vodka." Gail says. "That's when we knew we had something special."
New company created to market Colorado Premium Vodka.
To produce and market the new spirit, which they named Colorado Premium Vodka, the Stephenses formed Colorado Spirits Corporation with Gail as President, and Rob as Vice President of Operations. Gail and Rob met Jeff Shank during the product development stage and quickly realized that his vast industry experience was invaluable to the growth of their company and hired him as the Vice President of Sales and Marketing.
As experienced restaurateurs, the Stephenses believe Colorado Premium Vodka compliments a variety of menu and cocktail options. According to Jeff Shank "Our vodka is very smooth and clean, so you can have it as a cocktail before dinner and can prepare your palate for the food and wine you'll be enjoying with dinner."
"I associate the taste of Colorado Premium Vodka with the outdoors and with living an active Colorado lifestyle." says Gail. "It's the only vodka made from Colorado water, and one of only a few in America made with pure spring water."
Colorado Premium Vodka to be marketed first in Colorado.
"We created Colorado Premium Vodka for the enjoyment of our guests," says Rob Stephens, Vice President and Co-founder. "Now we want to share that enjoyment with others." The Stephenses now have their vodka available in fine restaurants and bars, and in retail liquor stores in Colorado. Within the first year, Colorado Premium Vodka will be marketed nationwide.
Colorado Premium Vodka will be offered in distinctive 750 ml., 1.01 and 1.75 L bottles and priced to compete with ultra premium and imported vodkas.
The Stephenses have created a pure, original, American vodka in the truest sense and offer you the rare opportunity to enjoy the pure taste of Colorado.
A Conversation with...Rob and Gail Stephens
by Steve Mayne
Gail, let's start with you. Owners of?
G: Owners of Colorado Premium Vodka.
Colorado Premium Vodka. And you say that
with a smile and Rob says that with a big smile. Rob, who came up with the name?
R: Oh, I think it was a joint effort.
Okay, before going any further, I want the
readers to know that you are also the owners of the Stagecoach Inn in Manitou
Springs. Gail, can you tell me a little bit about when you got involve with the
G: Sure. We purchased the Stagecoach In in April of 1994 in Manitou Springs. Spent the next 10 weeks renovating it, doing a lot of our own constructions, and opened June 29, 1994.
Rob, this has been a success story. It's 10
years and you're still known for having one of the best restaurants out there,
quality, service, pricing. How are you able to maintain that?
R: I think from the beginning, it was a hand-on, day-to-day effort in training our staff. It evolved to a process of finding great management --- our General Manager, our chef and our kitchen staff, who have been with us for a long time. Also, the longevity of our front of the house staff.
So the two of you opened it. Your are
married, you've been together for years, but the saying foes, you don't work
with your wife, especially 24/7. Gail, how do you survive?
G: Well, I think Rob and I have traits, characteristics that complement each other. I tend to be the engineer, the straightforward organizer and he's much more of the creative visionary. I call him my visionary. We figure out a way to make something work as a tem effort.
As a tem effort, but, even so, on a daily
basis, 24/7, are there times Rob that you've looked at Gail and said, "We're not
talking about the business tonight."
R: Unfortunately, we're always probably talking about our businesses. Of course, we're talking about the vodka business quite a bit now also. I don't know, it's just a natural rhythm. We know when to stop and relax and separate ourselves from the business.
Are you able, the two of you, to take
vacations away from the business?
G: Yes, and that's the time we don't talk about business.
Gail, what do you feel is the thing that
you're most proud of pertaining to the Stagecoach Inn?
G: Opening it and its continued success over the last 10 years. Every time we go in, we're very proud of the facility and also of the staff. They're just like family to us. That's our extended family.
Rob, basically the same thing, but regarding
the food, what do you feel has been your strong suit over the 10 years that
you've been open?
R: I think working with the individual chefs and cooks that we've had over the years, stimulating them to be not only creative, but to adhere to a higher set of standards.
G: Insisting on quality.
R: Food handling, food quality, everything from ordering it, receiving it, to properly storing it away. To having clean surfaces and a clean environment to work in. And bringing to them, always, new ideas, new products. I try to get them to think ahead.
Gail, obviously the menu's changed over the
years. What has been your favorite entree on the menu that has maintained over
G: The slow-roast buffalo. It's been on since we first started. It's just by far the best. It's a very flavorful, rich-tasting piece of meat, and the way we cook it, we slow-roast it like a prime rib, slice it thinly. It's just my favorite.
Are any of your wine tasting coming up?
R: We have actually ---[laughs]. How about vodka tasting?
G: We did do a martini tasting.
R: We did, and it was really very good. We maintained a hiatus from our wine tasting primarily because we are developing a new business. (Colorado Premium Vodka). I was also in the process of winding down our old business, the Craftwood Inn.
The vodka. Vodka tasting, martini tastings.
All of a sudden Colorado now has their own vodka, Colorado Premium Vodka. Gail,
who thought about doing the vodka?
G: Again, it was a joint effort. It stemmed from---
You never want to take any credit, do you?
G: No, I think it's always collaborative. We both have our strengths.
So how did it come about?
R: It was because of ---
G: --- the wine tasting.
R: It came about because of the wine tastings. We were doing a Chilean wine tasting dinner, and we were looking for a dessert wine from Chile to finish off our dinner. We could not find any Chilean dessert wines here in Colorado. We came across a recipe in the Chilean cookbook for a raspberry liqueur. We thought, we'll do that. It calls for pisco, which I don't know whether you've ever had that or not, it's a pretty strong, powerful white spirit drink from Chile. We tried it with pisco and we didn't like it so we went and used vodka, a neutral spirit. We took fresh raspberries, and then strained it a couple of weeks later and sweetened it with cane sugar. It was the most wonderful, refreshing raspberry tasting liqueur you can imagine. We served it to our guests and they loved it. Because of the Craftwood Inn and Colorado cuisine, and the Stagecoach Inn, and also a variation of more casual Colorado cuisine, we wanted to do something of Colorado. We wanted to create a product line of Colorado, a natural extension of our restaurant. Originally, we thought, let's do Colorado liquor like this. Then we realized that we needed some kind of white spirit to infuse our berries and fruits and things of Colorado. That's how we came across the vodka idea. Through our research we found out that vodka represents about 25% of the spirits industry. So we though our first initial product will be the vodka, but pretty soon we're going to be coming out with some really nifty other Colorado spirits.
Gail, are you a vodka drinker?
G: Vodka is my drink of choice if I'm having a cocktail. Otherwise, I'll drink wine or beer.
Rob, what about yourself? Are you a vodka
R: On occasion, again, Fail and I are wine drinkers. We love wines, and we're more attentive to wine and beer, but whenever a cocktail---I like a good martini.
G: Typically a gin martini.
R: Gin martini, but I've switched over, after doing a taste test of all the vodkas.
Right---that's exactly what I was going to
R: We found out that there was a difference.
When you did the taste test, Gail, could you
explain first, number one, how much of a buzz did you get?
G: Well, first you taste the water, and we tasted about seven or eight different waters to find the best water that we could use to make our vodka. We honed that in; then we decided to taste the vodkas. We tasted nine, I think, the first time. It was a blind tasting; we had no idea what kind; had one person poring and writing notes. The people that we had---first of all, everybody wrote their own thoughts down, so that nobody knew. It wasn't influenced by anyone else's decision. We tasted it, we didn't really drink the vodka. We just tasted it to get mouth fell, smell, sensation. So, yes we got a little buzz.
Rob, saying the first time you did nine,
there was a second tasting event that you did more?
R: Actually, we did less. We were trying to hone down the flavor profiles that we were looking for. We were trying to find what made a good vodka. We took the super premiums and tasted them against each other---
G: And against our.
R: ---yes, and ours, to really try and hone down and identify what the characteristics are of a super premium vodka.
How did you actually come about, Gail, with
the end result, the taste of Colorado Premium Vodka. I don't mean the different
way you mixed it, but how did you decide, this is the taste.
G: A lot of it stemmed from the water. We knew that if we had a superior water, and used that in the processing, and used a very pure distillation, filtration, the whole state-of-the-art system, we could have an ultra-smooth vodka, ultra premium vodka. That's in fact what it shows.
Rob, the end result, before you decided on
this particular flavor, and not that it's raspberry or any of that, just the
vodka taste, how did it come about?
R: The flavor followed the water. In other words, we sere looking for a smooth, fresh, pure, clean-tasting vodka. We figured that if we used the right water, we would get a smooth, pure, fresh, clean-tasting vodka, and that's exactly what happened. So we knew the type of flavor profile we wanted, but not in particular. We just knew that if we used the best water, we were going to get a great vodka. That's what happened. Most distilleries and producers use reverse osmosis waters, municipal reverse osmosis water or municipal treated water or even distilled water in the process. We're the only that use pure Colorado mountain spring water.
So, therefore, with the distillation of the
vodka itself, you are gong to get a flavor that is more in tune with the water
that you use?
R: That's what we're after. And, of course, it's also the grains used, although the grains are not sourced exclusively from Colorado. They are a mixture of Midwestern grains, that is, obviously, the other part of the flavor profile that we needed to do. American vodkas are very much different from European and Eastern European vodkas. Eastern European vodkas can have a very distinctive, say, mineral taste or---
R: ---charcoal taste or---
A potato vodka has a little heavier taste to
it? And "taste" is what we mean by flavor, flavor-taste.
R: Exactly. In contrast to European vodkas, the American distillation technology is far superior. It's more advanced than what we've seen in Europe. So it's a totally different kind of flavor profile.
Gail, this venture, it's obviously not a
slam-dunk. It's something you both had a talk about prior to doing How risky was
G: The whole process started about three years ago. We thought we were just going to make, just the two of us, 500 cases and at that time we thought it a small risk, we can do this just to ourselves. As we talked to people and learned more about the process, and I'll say, maybe a year and a half ago, we got to the point where we realized that this is a really great idea. Now we have to get it to the market before somebody else does. That's when we got to the point of no return. We said, we're going to do what it takes to make this work and to do it right.
Rob, when you tell people about it and
people know you're in the restaurant business and as successful as you've been,
do people just say to you, you're crazy. It's too iffy?
R: I only presented it to people that I respected in the restaurant industry and the spirits industry. I have contacts with the spirit distribution industry in the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands, the East Coast, as well as in Florida. In meeting with various people outside of Colorado, as well as getting the Colorado perspective, it was all extremely well received.
It's still in the infant stage. Southern
Wine & Spirits has picked you up. They're representing your product
R: Two weeks since we hit the ground running.
Do you have any idea---are you on track---
G: We're ahead of track. We're doing extremely well.
---in acceptance with liquor stores, with
G: Yes. Again, we knew people would gravitate toward it initially because of the name, and it's a hometown thing, and everyone wants to try it. The response from those that have tried it is just overwhelmingly positive that it's better than a number of the normal vodkas that they drink.
Within that price range.
G: Even above that price range.
R: It has exceeded our expectations by many fold and we're really encouraged and excited by it.
On a daily basis, Gail, what do you do to
relax? When is the day over for you?
G: That's an interesting question. The day is not really over, but it has ebbs and glows. We have two daughters and what happens is we work in the morning before they go to school, if they're going to school that day. Or we work during their naptime, like one of them is napping right now. But then we---you know, I take a mental break when they're with me and we have playtime, go to the parks, read books, whatever. Then after dinner, after they've gone to bed, then we'll go back and capture more time as we need to.
Rob, what about yourself? What's your normal
R: Oh, I get up real early, about 6 o'clock, 5:30. A lot of times I go down to the restaurant just to check on the coolers and how things went the night before. It's very telling in the early morning hours what's happened to our restaurant the night before. We have a lot of quality time with our kids. We spend a lot of time at home with the kids, even in the morning and in the afternoon. Throughout the day, I'm in and out of the restaurant making sure everything's running properly. It'll be a surprise for you to know that, usually, by 5:00 or 6:00 I'm back here cooking dinner for the family. Then my unwind time is after dinner. Last night it was unusual. I had to go back into the restaurant and take one of our cooks to the emergency room. He'd splashed hot grease in his face. But I'm always there, standing by, if they need anything. We have actually a very sane lifestyle, I think.
When does your head hit the pillow?
R: Oh, no, no, no. Nine o'clock.
R: I'm gone by 9:00
Gail, over the years, has there been
anything that's been really frustrating for you pertaining to working a
G: I think the most frustrating, or I'll say difficult more than frustrating, would be the seasonality of it and what that does for the employment staff. We have to reduce our staff in the fall. And then we have to gear up again in the spring. I would ultimately like to be busy enough year round that I don't have to do that.
What about rewarding? Does something stand
out that's just been, Wow, this is great!
G: When we go and have dinner there and the staff is happy and we have a fabulous meal. That's when it feels great, when you know that everyone else is having the same experience that we are.
Rob, for you, frustrating?
G: Oh, the breakdowns. Equipment failures can be frustrating. Also the time it took to find the right staff and to put together the right team. We had to go through a lot of employees that just weren't working out for us.
What's rewarding over the years?
R: Walking into that restaurant every single night and smelling those wonderful aromas. I'm proud of it. Every single time I walk into it, it always seems to be efficient and well-running and---
G: Happy. Happy energy.
R: ---happy. It's a happy energy there and so it's fun to go there. I'll stay there---between 4:00 and 4:30 in the afternoon is our lineup with our staff---and I enjoy sitting in on our lineups and interacting with staff and talking to them, then spending between 4:30 and 6:00 at the restaurant. watching over and seeing how they're doing things, interacting with them again. When I walk out to come home, I feel really good, every single night.
Do you find that Colorado Springs is growing
enough, let's say, to support the Stagecoach Inn? You're not terribly expensive.
G: I think the Stagecoach is a great fit for the community, both for value and quality. We have people that it's a really nice mal for and something they'd want on occasion, and then we have folks that will come in two or three times a week or a month. I think it's a great balance, for business travelers, as well as the family. People that are bringing family in from out of town that want to try some real Colorado food, but not pay a fortune for it.
Basically, you've fallen into a niche?
G: I think so. The hardest thing for us is to get people to come to Manitou Springs. Once they come, we've got them for a long time. But there are a number of people that we've met over the years that say, "This is the first time I've been in here," or "I haven't been here in 10 years," or they say, "This is great. We'll come back. We'll tell our friends."
Rob, what's your take on basically that same
R: In terms of how we're competing in the marketplace?
Well, let me preface that. There are maybe
12 restaurants out there, that you're right there with, and they're all
independently owned and run.
R: Well, you know, over the last, what, five, seven years there was a major influx of not only chain restaurants, but a lot of new, independents that came in. In the mid 90's, the Craftwood Inn and only a couple of other restaurants really stood out. Then we opened the Stagecoach In at the time there was a huge influx of chains and independents. I feel as though we are a bit different. We're in Manitou. It's a unique building. Each year we've had increases in sales. And although the independent is really being assaulted by the competition of the chains, we're holding our own and even growing. It's not easy, though. I really feel for a lot of the independents out there that are having difficulty or just feeling the sting of the chains.
From what you just said, holding your own
and growing, that deserved a hell of a congratulation, because that is something
extremely difficult to do. Again, it's because of the quality that you have and
what you've always had at the Stagecoach Inn.
R: Well, thanks Steve. Appreciate it.
No problem, thank YOU. I've enjoyed dining
there. It's been awesome. Okay, you are able to tie in Colorado Premium Vodka,
you have it at the Stagecoach Inn, are you going to do any special tastings?
R: Oh, most definitely. We'll probably start them up in the fall. Right now, in the middle of our visitor season, we're pretty busy.
G: We do have Happy Hour from 4:30 to 5:30 every night with a dollar off all drinks. That's a great way to sample our Colorado Premium Vodka and make your own taste test evaluations.
Congratulations. I can't wait for more
spirits to come, because the quality of what you have now will go into all your
other products that you're going to be coming out with.
R: That's how we feel. A quick mention is that if you want to learn more about us, you can go to ColoradoVodka.com and we are setting ourselves up with an e-tailer, so people that read your publication outside the state or can't get it in their are, can log onto our e-tailer and get the product that way. They will be able to ship to all the reciprocal states, which are about 14, I think. And also the web site has some great recipes, not only drink recipes, but some really food fun food pairings with vodka, as well as the whole infusion process. So you can make your own infused liqueurs.
That's great! Gail, Rob, thanks, I
appreciate the time. Can't wait for a martini tasting at the Stagecoach Inn
G: Absolutely. Thank you.
R: Very much.