After the tale of the fun, but sadly un-pitchable group press trip around Baden-Württemberg, Germany, I thought I’d follow it up with one of the best press trips of my entire life: a solo road trip stopping at some of the best places to visit in Colorado, with a focus on chocolatiers, cheese makers and distilleries.
Come young travel writers, gather ’round the propane gas stove for a press trip tale so amazing, you may doubt its veracity. Actually, this whole experience was a master class in media pitching on the part of Colorado Tourism, so if any people from destination marketing organizations are reading this, you should probably take notes.
Our story begins many months before the trip. One day in 2014, as is my way, I was busy tweeting about chocolate. I don’t recall exactly what I was tweeting about, but based on the timing it was probably a photo of my Easter chocolate haul, because I still get a chocolate-filled Easter basket from my mom every year, and yes I’m a middle-aged man and you can shut up about it.
Someone at Colorado Tourism locked eyes onto that chocolate tweet and, without even a heads-up, a box arrived at my home some weeks later containing a jaw-dropping assortment of Colorado-made chocolate. It turns out, among its many enticements, Colorado has an unusually large artisanal chocolate scene.
I was dazzled. In my entire travel writing career, no one had ever courted me with such Leif-centric precision – completely out of the blue no less. I reached out to the sender of this month-making care package to lavishly thank her. She, of course, extended an open invitation to visit Colorado on a press trip.
I’d always associated Colorado with winter sports and, at the time, their newly legalized weed industry, two indulgences that weren’t anywhere on my âTop 100 things to try on a press tripâ list. Colorado wasn’t even on my radar, as I was still a snooty âdomestic travel is boringâ guy. That chocolate delivery changed my attitude instantly. It was so thoughtful and laser-focused, how could I say no?
A few months later I landed in Durango to start a week-long road trip, crossing Colorado generally from the southwest to the northeast, ending in Boulder.
At some stage Colorado Tourism had the epiphany that if they wooed travel writers with their interests, instead of whatever the executives and stakeholders were promoting that week, they’d land more exposure. During the planning stages of the trip, I was asked to provide a list of things that made *me* happy. I half-jokingly replied âchocolate, alcohol and cheese.â I might have added an âLOL,â knowing this reply would be of little help and expecting the usual itinerary of new/improved attractions and activities that needed promoting.
Naturally, I was dumbfounded with excitement when I received an itinerary that had me doing almost nothing but driving from chocolate tasting, to cheese tasting, to booze tasting, to lavish meals – usually featuring all three items.
This was also when I received the almost unbelievable news that I would be doing the trip alone and mostly unsupervised. No tourism rep would be attached to me, handling messaging and careful guiding my experience for maximum good vibes, while quashing any problems or off-message input from rogue players.
Instead, I was given a car and a carefully plotted route of some of the best places to visit in Colorado, making frequent stops to indulge in chocolates, cheeses and spirits, with only occasional company from the local tourism offices.
What made this trip even more exceptional is that I didn’t have any confirmed articles lined up beforehand. Destinations rarely fly in travel writers, even ones with dazzling resumes (cough), who don’t already have at least one destination-approved assignment letter in hand upon arrival. This was truly the white whale of press trips.
For those of you visiting Killing Batteries for the first time, in 2014 I was slowly winding down my travel writing career after the freelancing landscape never quite recovered from the belt-tightening and closures after the 2009 financial collapse. But I was still, by my humble standards, an in-demand travel writer with a decade-long track record for placing stories, with or without an assignment letter. Colorado took a gamble with me. (I eventually published three stories from that trip.)
Apart from enduring a few butt-numbing long drives, my days were a sizzle reel of Happy Leif activities. Breakfast, drive, chocolate, drive, more chocolate, lunch with local cheeses and (responsible amounts of) booze, drive, craft cocktails, fancy dinner (usually with a local tourism rep or stakeholder), more cocktails, bed, repeat. For a week.
Check it out.
They even found a cidery for me.
Press trips range from âI never want to leaveâ to catastrophe-riddled death marches. I have never wanted to never leave a place so hard in my life. 10/10. In fact, as I write this, I’m entertaining the notion of a self-funded repeat of this trip. That’s how much I enjoyed it. (Also, I need to get the hell out of my Minneapolis pandemic monotony.)
Despite what you may see on Instagram, travel writing is like any job. It certainly has thrilling moments, but more often than not it involves long stretches of lonely, feverish, deadline-driven work and copious amounts of unpaid hustling. A full week of tailor-made pleasure happens about as often as a slow week at the office while the boss is in another time zone.
And to reinforce my appreciation of that long ago trip, and so you might seek out some pleasure for yourselves, I am providing a partial list of the many places that hosted me along the way.
Places to visit in Colorado: Distillers
Highlights include their Goat Vodka, Jackelope Gin and a pear brandy with a whole pear in the bottle. They have a bar and tasting room in Palisade.
Leopold has a 1,900 square foot tasting room in northeast Denver. Their exacting process includes bringing in freshly harvested Colorado barely and malting it themselves on site – the distilling equivalent of farm-to-table. This is the place that finally turned me into a whiskey drinker in my mid-40s.
Based in western Colorado, near the town of Hotchkiss, JRHF doesn’t seem to have a physical retail outlet anymore, but you can still buy their James Beard-nominated spirits, cider and wine online. And probably in select liquor stores, if you look hard enough. Much of their fruit and hops are grown on the farm, just steps from the distilling shed where they produce about 6,000 cases of product per year from a single still.
Located in the pleasingly named town of Loveland, Spring44 uses Rocky Mountain artesian mineral spring water to make their gin. They also make honey vodka using Colorado Honey. It appears they’ve discontinued their Friday happy hour (formerly 4pm-7pm) and their tasting room hours (formerly Saturdays, 2pm-7pm), but hopefully that’ll change when (if) the world returns to normal.
Located in Denver, Stranahan’s make their whiskey with Colorado Rockies water and mountain grown barley, which they produce at 94 proof (47% alcohol by volume), versus the 80 proof of most whiskys. You can tour their distillery six days a week (reservations strongly recommended). Their on-site lounge appears to be shut due to covid. But let’s hope they someday re-open (former hours: Friday and Saturday 4pm-8pm).
If you would like to sample some of the spirits listed above, and many more all in one place, seek out Williams & Graham, a classic speakeasy style bar in Denver, hidden behind a “bookstore” front, complete with a secret bookshelf door. Reservations are strongly recommended and you should âhave a 2-hour window set aside for your entire visit.â
Places to visit in Colorado: Artisanal and small batch chocolate
Based in a small retail shop in Durango, Animas’ Belize-sourced chocolate goes into a variety of artisan truffles like “Green Fairy” (absinthe-infused salted caramel), “Canyon Cranberry” (milk chocolate shell with white chocolate cranberry ganache), and the one-bite wake-up that is the “Cowboy Coffee.” They also do hot chocolate, chocolate-covered potato chips and a dark chocolate espresso cheese cake.
Operating out out of the mountain town of Ouray, Mouse’s produces hand-made Belgian chocolate truffles, among other delights. They’re probably best known for their “Scrap Cookies,” made from leftover and imperfect truffles, toffee, chocolate bark, and anything else that didn’t turn out.
Located in a wide spot in the road called Eckert, southeast of Grand Junction, Drost’s legacy goes back to 1906. They make their own fudge, caramel, toffee and marshmallows. Big sellers include the Double Dark (dark truffle dipped in dark chocolate) and their caramel dipped in chocolate, covered with Hawaiian sea salt. Instagrammers will want to set aside several minutes to photograph the shop’s impressive collection of antique cash registers.
Before or after your sojourn to Drost’s, stop in at Enstrom’s, a fourth generation business located in Grand Junction. They specialize in almond toffee, chocolate truffles and bars as well as high-end ice cream. (They rotate through 84 flavors seasonally.) You can also order online.
Their tiny shop in Boulder is decorated with hanging umbrellas and faux-foliage, but those aesthetics will be quickly forgotten when you lay eyes on the glowing, breathtaking beacon that is the display case filled with over 60 different types of wildly creative chocolates.
Located in Denver, Ritual produces single-origin chocolate to create just seven types of chocolate bars out of their miniscule production area, including the “Costa Rica” (earthy, with hints of blackberry and walnut) and the “Nib Bar” (combination of “fruit-forward” Belize chocolate and nutty Madagascar nibs).
Colorado Artisanal cheeses
Located outside Durango, the ranch welcomes drop-in visitors to tour the ranch, eat their products (the Signature Burger with Belford cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce and rosemary garlic mayonnaise is sublime) and buy cheese, eggs, milk and beef in their market.
Avalanche makes hand crafted goat cheese (specifically, pasteurized fresh, aged and raw milk cheeses) and invites people to get dirty on their goat farm near Paonia, gathering eggs, tending chickens and feeding and milking their 180 Saanen, Alpine and Nubian goats.
Haystack produces award-winning fresh, bloomy rind, Monterey Jack and raw milk cheeses in their facility in Longmont. Tours and tastings are available. Their products can also be found in a variety of stores.
This is Colorado’s first (and, last I checked, only) artisanal sheep dairy and creamery. Alas, this is not one of the best places to visit in Colorado, because you can’t actually visit the farm, but you can purchase their award-winning sheep’s milk ricotta, pecora, and shepherd’s halo at shops around Colorado. Or dine at the outstanding Fruition Restaurant in Denver.
Did I forget any important best places to visit in Colorado in regards to chocolate, cheese and booze? If so, leave a comment below.