Strange Spirits - Dancing Pines makes award-winning chai liqueur
By Steve Graham
On snowy mornings, Kimberly Naslund blends loose-leaf black tea and spices into homemade chai. She needed plenty of chai to warm up while she was renovating a small mountain cabin during a huge blizzard. Kimberly and her husband Kristian were forced to stop work and watch the dancing pines outside the cabin.
The sight inspired their distillery name, and the drink inspired one of their first concoctions. The Naslunds launched the business in 2010, and Dancing Pines now has an award-winning Berthoud distillery and an elegant Estes Park tasting room. The third spirit on the menu was the chai liqueur.
“It seemed like a natural thing to make into a liqueur,” she said, noting that her spice blend didn’t quickly translate to the distillery. “It took a lot of trial and error to get the recipe where we were happy with it.”
Dancing Pines never uses extracts or artificial flavoring, so she experimented with several different spices in different concentrations, and figured out a way to effectively scale up production. She is keeping a tight lid on the final recipe, only revealing that black tea and five spices are added after distillation.
The secrecy leaves drinkers guessing at the flavors, which seem to include cinnamon and clove, as well as a hint of orange peel.
While some might expect something milky, like a spicy Irish cream, it is a clear and sweet drink with mild spice notes. The spices are prominent, but not as strong as Boulder’s Bhakti Chai or another strong chai mix and Kimberly said the mild flavor may help attract a broader range of drinkers.
“Chai is a flavor that some people don’t find appealing, but people that don’t like the flavor of chai still like our liqueur,” she said.
Experts like the drink, too. In 2011, it won the double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competiton and in 2012, it was listed among the top 50 spirits in the world in Wine Enthusiast magazine.
Kimberly said the drink is very popular served neat, but it’s also “surprisingly versatile.” In her tasting room, she makes chai Manhattans with rye or bourbon whiskey, or she recommends mixing the chai liqueur with cranberry juice. The tasting room also offers the Dancing Tiki cocktail, which combines the chai liqueur with spiced rum, pineapple and grapefruit juices.
Steve Graham is a Fort Collins writer who enjoys the outdoors and great spirits.