Aspen’s Rio Grande Bike Trail: Burgers, Bourbon And Basalt

biking a bridge on rio grande trail
Courtesy of Jeremy Swanson

I can probably be kicked out of Colorado for admitting this, but I’m just not that into bikes. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been lugging my vintage, fixed-gear cruiser around for over 21 years. Even though I rarely ride it these days because I live in hilly Boulder, I’m devoted to it. But mountain biking and road cycling plain freak me out, and in this state, that’s like saying you hate snow.

So, when my friend S. urged me to join her on an 18-mile bike ride down Aspen’s Rio Grande Trail to the former mining town of Basalt, I was dubious. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 7. I have terrible balance. What about getting back up valley? Still, there was the allure of flying down a riverside path in the high Rockies on a summer’s day. I caved.

The Rio Grande Trail is a part of the former Denver-Rio Grande Railroad bed. It starts at Aspen’s Herron Park, just off Main Street on the east end of town, and runs the length of the Roaring Fork Valley, all the way down to Glenwood Springs, 41 miles away. The trail, especially the Aspen-to-Basalt leg, is enormously popular with cyclists, walkers, and runners and, in winter, cross-country skiers.

aspen grove
WanderingtheWorld, Flickr

Last week, I met up with S. in Aspen. It was a bluebird day, one that begged for a picnic or al fresco lunch. Our plan of action, after picking up two titanium, single-gear cruisers, was to ride down to the nearby community of Woody Creek (home of the late Hunter S. Thompson), and hit the Woody Creek Tavern (bar of the late Hunter S. Thompson) for lunch. Their famous hamburgers and a margarita on the patio are an Aspen summer staple. Alternatively, if you want some truly excellent breakfast pastries or picnic bread, take a slight detour over to Louis’ Swiss Bakery in the Aspen Business Center.

The first mile of the Rio Grande Trail runs alongside the Roaring Fork River. This time of year, the vegetation is lush: wildflowers are in full bloom, and the aspens and pines provide ample shade. You’ll cross a wooden bridge or two, and after about five minutes, the pedestrians disperse, and can really start moving (do watch out for other bikers, stay in your lane and always wear a helmet).

After about 15 minutes, we arrived at the Tavern, which is essentially a roadhouse/bar/tribute to all that’s weird (there’s a reason Thompson was a regular). The burgers really are all that, if nothing fancy, and the Mexican dishes also win raves.

biking the rio grande trail
Courtesy of Jeremy Swanson

Post-lunch, we hopped back on our bikes and rode to Basalt, which has become an alluring little hamlet in its own right. Don’t expect much in the way of excitement, but it’s a cute, quiet place to kick back for a few days, and enjoy the many outdoor activities the Roaring Fork Valley has to offer.

The ride from Woody Creek to Basalt changes from sub-alpine terrain to open valley and ranchland. Horses and cattle graze ipeacefully, and the rust-red hematite cliffs so indicative of this region loom to the right. Below us, on our left, was the river. The path remained smooth and the light was so bright it almost hurt. I started to remember why I’d been hauling my old cruiser around with me all these years. Being on a bike was exhilarating, especially in a place so geographically blessed. I certainly didn’t care that I wasn’t hammering it on half-track.

When we reached Basalt, S. and I pulled into a nondescript business park. We’d decided to cap off our ride with a visit to the the four-month old Woody Creek Distillers (they’re killing it with their whiskeys and vodka made with Colorado-grown ingredients, including Polish Stobrawa potatoes farmed up-valley on co-owner Pat Scanlan’s family farm.

woody creek distiller's copper still
Courtesy of Woody Creek Distillers

The gorgeous, state-of-the-art distillery houses a gleaming, copper-and-stainless steel German still, which can be viewed from the tasting room. Distillery manager David Matthews walked us through a whiskey tasting, which made me long for an accompanying wedge of bandage-wrapped farmstead goat cheddar from Basalt’s own Avalanche Cheese Company (pick some up at Whole Foods just north of Basalt, off of Highway 82, along with some famous Palisade peaches, grown just over the mountains on the Western Slope).

Back in Boulder, I paid a visit to my dusty cruiser, which has been languishing in the basement for nearly a year now. I’m going back up to Aspen in September to see the fall foliage; my newly-tuned up bike will be making the trip with me. Thanks, S.

The details
If you’re not bringing your own bike, the best place for rentals in the Aspen/Snowmass area is Four Mountain Sports (various locations). Note that many Aspen hotels, like the The Little Nell (which will comp rentals September through the first snow), have bike rentals for guests. The easiest way to return to Aspen is to catch the Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) bus from Basalt.

For more summer biking ideas, consider one of these great coastal beach cruiser bike rides.

Eating And Drinking In Estonia

Estonia
I always enjoy dipping into a new cuisine, so when I headed off to Estonia I was curious as to what kind of food I was going to get. Would it be like Russian cuisine? Scandinavian? A bit of both since the country is sandwiched between those two areas?

Turns out it’s a mix with its own local twist. At least that was my impression. I was only in the country a week and so take all my observations with a dash of salt.

The first thing I noticed is that bread comes with everything. The most distinct kind is a heavy black rye bread. Breakfasts include bread and an assortment of cold cuts and cheeses to fortify you against the cold day. Bread reappears for lunch and dinner and snacks. You’ll see kids tromping down the street with a slice of black bread and butter for a snack.

Estonian cuisine includes a lot of meat, especially pork, usually served with some form of potato. One dish I tried was juniper-smoked pork with honey cabbage, mustard sauce and potato-groat porridge. A good recipe that was only adequately done at the place I tried it. In the winter Estonians like soups and stews. My favorite is seljanka, a meat soup that warmed me up after a cold morning chasing the Estonian army through some snowy woods. More on that story in the next post. The vegetable soups thickened with cream or yogurt will keep you going too.

%Gallery-180003%Despite being a maritime country, fish doesn’t rank high on the menu. Herring, eel and flounder are found the most, although I didn’t try any of them.

Eating Spanish food every day, I’m accustomed to simple, direct flavors, while Estonians like to mix up their flavors. Trying to buy pure honey was a bit of a challenge. Most brands are mixed with pollen or bits of various herbs.

A lot of Estonian cheeses tend to have seeds in them, like this sampler plate shown above. My favorite was the one mixed with the rye seeds. I got this at the Seaplane Harbour Museum, which unlike many museums has a surprisingly good and affordable restaurant. The best cheese I tried was a heavily smoked cheese called Lepasuitsu Eesti juust. If you like smoky cheeses, hunt this one down.

This mixing of flavors even extends to beer. Some of the main brands and microbrews I tried were sweetened; one of them was honey flavored. Mead, sadly, was nowhere to be found. A good place for Estonian beer in Tallinn is Hell Hunt, a bar/restaurant that’s hugely popular with both locals and tourists.

As for the harder stuff, there’s no shortage of Estonian and Russian vodka. Estonia is also known for Vana Tallinn (“Old Tallinn”), a sweet liquor that wasn’t to my taste. It’s made with vanilla pods, orange, lemon, bitter orange oils and a bit of cinnamon mixed with Jamaican rum. Often called the “Baileys of Estonia,” I brought some back to my Baileys-loving wife and she found it overly sweet just like I did. We’ll foist it off on some unsuspecting guests. Apparently this is what the Estonians do. Several told me that it’s mostly an export brand.

In the bigger cities you’ll find plenty of other cuisines. Besides the usual staples such as Chinese, Indian and Italian, there are plenty of Caucasian restaurants featuring the cuisines of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. These places will give you a very different dining experience and I recommend visiting at least one while you’re in Estonia. At Must Lammas in Tallinn I tried a dish of crisphead lettuce with grilled chicken filet and garlic-cheese sauce that was excellent.

Visiting Estonia in winter, I missed all the fresh herbs, berries and nuts the country folk like to gather. Everyone raves about the local strawberries. I did have a fun culinary experience, though. Plus I took the Estonian advice to eat a lot of garlic to keep from getting a cold. It worked!

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Chasing The Estonian Army (And Finding A Different One)!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Doing Shots At The World’s Highest Distillery

liquor While trying local spirits is always a fun way to get to know a city’s flavor, the Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado has something special to offer. Not only do they make small batch bourbon, vodka, whiskey, liqueurs and infusions, they’re also the highest distillery in the world.

Their hooch is made at 9,600 feet, using snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains. If you visit their distillery, which is located at 1925 Airport Road, you’ll be able to take a complimentary tour, and watch as the spirits are mashed, fermented and distilled. Additionally, a trip to their downtown tasting room, located at 137 S. Main Street, will allow you to browse their gift shop of mugs, shirts, glasses and flasks, as well as taste their products.

There are three options for the free tasting: Breckenridge Vodka, Breckenridge Bourbon and Breckenridge Bitters. The vodka is very flavorful, mashed with 100% Midwest sweet corn and filtrated with coconut shell charcoal. Moreover, the bourbon has a long finish, and is mashed with yellow corn, green rye and unmalted barley, and is fermented in 100% new American White Oak barrels. The tasty concoction you’ll sample will be at least 2-3 years old. Lastly, you can try the bitters, my personal favorite. Unlike most dash bitters, this version is meant to be sipped. Likewise, it has a neutral grain base featuring 13 herbs, spices and fruits, giving it a delicious tea flavor.

For more information, visit their website by clicking here.

Iconic Absolut Vodka Ads On Exhibit at New Spiritmuseum in Sweden

Quick! What’s the first thing you think about when you think about Sweden? If it’s not IKEA, smorgasbords, or cold winters, then it’s probably Absolut, the vodka brand whose bottle inspired 850 works of Pop art from 1986 to 2004. Now, 70 of the best of those works of art are to be featured at the Spiritmuseum.Located in Stockholm on the island of Djurgården in some restored, 18th century shipping sheds, the Spiritmuseum is actually a relaunch and relocation of the former museum “Vin & Sprithistoriska,” a museum dedicated to Sweden’s drinking culture. The centerpiece of the relaunch is an exhibition entitled “Face It!” which features art from the iconic Absolut Vodka campaign. Included in the exhibit are works by Andy Warhol, whose “Absolut Andy Warhol” painting in 1986 sparked the worldwide advertising campaign; Keith Haring; Damien Hirst, and many other artists from Sweden and beyond. “Face It!” will be on display until January 2013.

Two other exhibitions join the Absolut exhibit in the Spiritmuseum relaunch. “Sweden: Spirits of a Nation” takes on the “bittersweet relationship between Swedes and alcohol,” with displays on Sweden’s alcohol production, prohibition, taxation, and recreation. Temporary exhibit “Finally Friday,” which will run through November 2012, will be divided into three rooms: Home, The Pub and The World of Dreams and Expectations. Beyond the galleries, the museum’s new digs also includes space for a tasting room, bar, restaurant and open-air café.

Five Alcohol Factories To Kick Off Spring Travel

Spring is in the air, which means that most of us will be swapping our mulled wine and spiked apple cider for beer gardens and rooftop bars. Behind every good brew, though, is a distillery that made your buzz possible. And many of those outlets have turned into touristic destinations for the curious traveler in search of an off-beat destination – something in contrast to the humdrum monument or public art gallery. Here are five factories to get your planning started.

Beer
The Guinness Storehouse: Ireland
Unlike many bartenders in the US, the Irish take their Guinness drinking very seriously and after a day at the Storehouse, you too can learn the “perfect pour.” Tickets cost around 13 Euros and include a free pint of Guinness at the rooftop bar, which arguably has one of the best views of the city. The building’s seven-story exhibit takes you though the brewing process, giving guests a better understanding of just how much effort goes into creating good tasting beer. Student discounts are available and for a more in-depth experience, schedule a specialty tour.
St James’s Gate, Dublin 8

Scotch
Glenkinchie Scotch Malt Whiskey Distillery: Scotland
If you find yourself in Scotland, good luck avoiding a Scotch tour, as malt whiskey distilleries are scattered throughout the country. The Glenkinchie Distillery is close to Edinburgh, making it an easy day trip for travelers. Tickets cost 6 GBP and tours are offered daily. A complimentary taste of Glenkinchie’s 12 year old single malt is given to anyone who pays the 3 GBP entrance fee. More extensive tours are available for a slightly higher price but more freebies are provided, making it a worthy investment.
Pencaitland, Tranent, East Lothian EH34 5ETGin
Plymouth Gin Distillery: England
Black Friars Distillery has been the happy home of Plymouth Gin since 1793 but the buildings themselves date back to the early 1400s. The Refectory Room is a medieval hall and cocktail lounge that is the highlight for many guests, as it’s said to be where the Pilgrim Fathers sat before sailing on the Mayflower. Tours are held daily but have limited space so make sure to plan your visit in advance. Don’t forget to drink your free and flavorful gin and tonic before leaving.
60 Southside Street, The Barbican, Plymouth, Devon

Vodka
Filliers Vodka Distillery: Belgium
Belgium is certainly known for top-tier chocolate but it is also home to Filliers Vodka Distillery. Tours are offered Monday-Saturday for groups of 15-20 people and last around an hour and a half, giving guests a sneak peak into the distillation process complete with vodka tasting. The minimum price for guided group tours is 120 Euros. For travelers craving a bit or solitude, Filliers is perfectly situated in the middle of the countryside and surrounded by meadows and picturesque fields. The distillery produces a number of liquors including Goldlys Belgian Whisky, Van Hoo Vodka and the traditional Bols Genever.
Leernsesteenweg 5, Deinze, Belgium

Rum
Bacardi Rum Factory: Puerto Rico
Those who prefer a little rum to their drink should head straight to Casa Bacardi in Cantano, Puerto Rico. Starting in Santiago de Cuba, the popular brand has since made its way to Havanna, San Juan, Miami, Bermuda and almost certainly your local bar. Daily tours run every 20 minutes and include an interactive glance at Bacardi’s history starting with the origins of rum making to a demonstration of how to make mojitos. Each guest is given two free drink tickets but drinks during the tour are not allowed, so make sure to hold onto your vouchers for the outdoor Bacardi bar.
Road 165, Rte. 888, Km 2.6, Cataño, 00962

[flickr image via chacrebleu]