By Jennings Brown
“Go West, work hard, and ski harder,” were Fred Vetter’s parting words as his grandson, Christian Avignon, left upstate New York for the mountains of Vail, Colorado, where Avignon would eventually cofound 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Company.
Vetter shared the axiom because it worked for him. He was a medic who served in the 10th Mountain Division—an organization established in 1943 to prepare soldiers for combat in cold, harsh conditions and alpine terrain. The National Ski Patrol recruited skiers from ski schools and universities, and enlisted Olympians to train the men. When veterans returned home after WWII, they laid the foundation for the ski industry by creating ski hills and building lodges and lifts.
“These soldiers came away from WWII with a love of the mountains and a desire to continue the mountain lifestyle of working hard and playing harder,” Avignon says. “They had come from around the country to Camp Hale and then, post war, moved back to their respective areas and wanted the public to experience what they had experienced training in the mountains of Colorado. Resorts from the east to west coasts were born overnight from a brotherhood of men who had found their passion.”
So when Avignon decided to join forces with his friend Ryan Thompson, and distill locally sourced whiskey that embodied the mountain lifestyle, it only made sense that it pay homage to the group that started it all. They named their new enterprise the 10th Mountain Division Whiskey & Spirit Company.
The two men were already entrepreneurs—Avignon, the founder of a masonry company, and Thompson, a restaurant owner—but for their joint endeavor they wanted to work with a product they both knew well—hooch. They had forged their friendship over many nights bonding over fine whiskey after a day on the slopes.
They enrolled in the Moonshine University in Louisville to learn the art of distilling. Once they had the knowledge of the ancient craft they turned to the modern method of crowdsourcing to launch their business. The Kickstarter campaign helped fund their 7,000-square-foot distillery, complete with a tasting room, store, and equipment provided by Vendome Copper & Brass Works.
Thanks to many whiskey-loving contributors, they’re now ready for the fun part. “To begin, we’ll be producing a corn moonshine, a rye whiskey, a Bourbon, a potato vodka and a sage infused, peach-vanilla cordial,” says Thompson. “We want to hang our hat, so to speak, on our whiskey and bourbon lines so we’ll be producing a number of different expressions as our distillery matures.”
The two men are just as passionate about the ingredients they’re using to make these spirits. “Our corn comes from Olathe, Colorado, which is world-renowned for its sweet, sweet corn,” says Thompson. “Palisade, Colorado, is known for its amazingly delicious peaches, which will be used for our cordial. Our cordial will also have a hint of Colorado sage, found growing in the wild all over the state. Our other grains are sourced from farms in central Colorado just a few hours away. Our water is pure Rocky mountain snowmelt being fed to us from a creek just up the road.”
But it’s the packaging that reminds consumers of the inspiration behind the brand. “A lot of our design influence, from our logo to our labels, comes from the 10th Mountain Division,” says Avignon. “Our logo has a silhouette skier soldier with gun and skis slung over shoulder marching in front of a mountain range. The mountain range is the outline of Riva Ridge in Italy—the location of an influential battle won by the division.”
A toast to the 10th
From the mountains to shining shore
By liberty they always swore
Though death did not cheat ‘em
They bestowed us a freedom
And a whiskey worth fighting for!
Avignon and Thompson don’t just value the original members of 10th Mountain—they also support current and future generations of soldiers by donating a portion of sales to the Wounded Warrior Project, Vail Veterans Program, and the 10th Hut Association.
The tribute has already caught the attention of at least one current member of 10th Mountain, who has had multiple deployments to Afghanistan. Ben Coon contributed to the Kickstarter fund, then personally congratulated the two founders on their successful funding in an email: “ I am extremely proud to contribute to your endeavor. You have paid tribute to the soldiers that have come before and forever persevered their legacy.”
Coon will probably be amongst the first to enjoy one of the original batches once they’re released this Summer or Fall.