First things first: despite myths to the contrary, you don’t get drunk faster, when drinking at higher altitudes. You might feel the effects faster than you do at sea level, but the body processes the alcohol in the same way, regardless of the elevation. But elevation sickness is real, and its symptoms are hauntingly familiar to the impacts of over-drinking: dizziness, lightheadedness, fatigue, drowsiness, unsteady gait, headaches… The solution to avoid that sudden onset of overwhelming sensations, other than checking into a hyperbaric chamber, is to stay hydrated. Simply put, drink water, before you arrive and don’t stop until it’s time to go back home.
This is important to remember when visiting Telluride, a snow globe-perfect Colorado mining town that measures six blocks wide and 12 blocks long, all of it nestled into a picturesque box canyon. The town sits at 8,750 feet, and its eponymous ski resort tops out at 13,150 feet, making it one of the highest-elevation winter-ready locales in the country. Come from sea level, and you’ll feel the effects of the high altitude almost instantly. One flight of stairs at 8,750 feet will leave even the most in-shape person winded.
Other than the cliff-exposed high-elevation terrain, this might be the only tricky part about visiting Telluride (save the potential for weather to stymy your efforts to reach the resort in the first place). But once you arrive, it’s easy to get to some of the area’s best drinking establishments, whether you choose to ride the free gondola from the base of Telluride Ski Resort, which hops over a ridgeline before plunging down to Main Street, or hop on a fat tire snow bike tour that ends at the city’s award-winning brewery.
Just don’t forget to measure each sip of the good stuff with…oh, about a gallon of water. Here are five spots you have to hit while visiting Telluride this winter.
Founded by brewmaster Chris Fish and bartender/friend Tommy Thacher, Telluride Brewing poured their first pint in 2012. Six months later, they took home the gold medal at the World Beer Cup for their Face Down Brown, a brew that was created largely because Fish didn’t like the other brown ales on the market. These were the heady days of Colorado’s craft beer infancy, back when the state only had about 150 microbreweries. Fast-forward to 2017 and the state boats more than 500 breweries, and Telluride consistently ranks among the best, continuing to win awards and make great beer year after year. And while they do have plans to move from their current location just outside of Telluride proper, their ambitions don’t include leaving Telluride—or even distributing out of Colorado. To do so, as Fish explained, would mean leaving Telluride, which is where he’s lived for more than 15 years, and where he always plans to stay. In this brave new world, where microbreweries can demand price tags in the millions of dollars by macro-brewers yearning for a touch of “authenticity,” that “local first” approach is refreshing.
Drink: The Face Down Brown lives up to its reputation, both in taste and in its quiet nod to Telluride’s lifestyle (the skier that’s face-down on the can’s graphic is wearing a pair of custom Wagner Skis, also made in Telluride). But when visiting the brewery, try the Fishwater Project, their Fishwater Double IPA that’s been aged in bourbon barrels for six months to deliver an oaky, hoppy brew with a boozy 11% ABV.
Photo by Nathan Borchelt
Located in the same complex as the Telluride Brewing Company, the founders took a decidedly more scientific approach to crafting their sugar cane-based vodka. Two of the four founders boast backgrounds in engineering and molecular biology, basically making the exercise one big chemistry experiment. It’s an experiment that works. Most of the equipment and processing used was constructed in-house, including the still, which is wired to a computer that distiller Abbott Smith can even control via his smart phone while he’s riding the ski lift. They’ve been distilling for three years, and the tasting room has been open for eight months, giving you a chance to sample their vodka, which goes down smooth and bracing, and schnapps. Why schnapps? As Abbot explained, “I’m from Wisconsin, and I love schnapps.” But forget all schnapps you’ve had before. Brewed at 100 proof, Telluride’s version, aptly dubbed the Chairlift Warmer, isn’t cloying or sweet. You get the nose-tickling hit of peppermint, but it goes down almost too easily, especially when added to hot chocolate.
Drink: The Telluride Mule—which is a Moscow mule made with Telluride Distilling’s hand-crafted vodka and their own ginger beer. And if you are fortunate enough to visit in a few years, when their second batch of whiskey is released, don’t hesitate to buy a bottle. The first batch sold out in one week.
You can arrange to take a guided fat tire bike tour to both the brewery and distillery with Bootdoctors, a tour operator and sport shop located in central Telluride on Oak Street. The 45-minute route carves a serpentine path through the snowfields adjacent to the meandering San Miguel River.
Photo by Nathan Borchelt
In operation since 1895 and still boasting some of the original woodwork throughout the establishment, the historic bar attached to the New Sheridan Hotel may command most of your time while in town. Depending on the time of year, you may encounter motley crews of vacation UT frat boys or a cadre of locals bellied up to the bar drinking Telluride’s unofficial cocktail, the Flatliner Martini. This mix of vodka, Bailey’s, cold espresso, and three coffee beans helps fortify locals against the cold, elevation and occasional tourist hordes, and will provide a second wind when your day of skiing hits the unavoidable wall of exhaustion. The bartending staff here are tops, and the beer list—as you’d expect from any respectable Colorado drinking establishment—presents many conflicting priorities, from legions of offerings from local faves Telluride Brewing to other state darlings like Denver-based Crooked Stave.
If you’re yearning for a quintessential frontier town experience that echoes back to Telluride’s storied mining past, this ain’t the place. The There Bar feels more an NYC export, complete with bartenders with “ironic” hair styles and a “because we like it that way” attitude that’s surprisingly at home in this sleepy mountain town. Like its sister bar in Denver, There offers legions of cocktails rooted in mixology like the Diablo, a mix of mescal and orange liquor along with blood orange puree, fresh lime, and a hearty dose of chili. But go for one of their Jam Drinks: choose a jam (yes…jam, as in jelly; options include Maine blueberry, red pepper, and pumpkin) and then a spirit (vodka, gin, rum, tequila, or rye). Or better yet, choose a jam and ask for a recommendation. You’ll get something that’s sweet, bright, and surprisingly complex. And don’t miss the brussels sprouts—individual leaves tossed in spices and then flash-friend in canola oil. The dish will change the way you think about this vegetable.
Telluride Resort suffers from an embarrassing richness when it comes to on-mountain dining and drinking. In addition to options at the mountain base, you can also hit a plethora of on-mountain spots, including the stellar modern French cuisine served at the open-air Bon Vivant, which also includes a killer beer list with a handful of rare lambics; Gorrono Ranch, its neighboring saloon, housed in an old ranch house with a full bar and wood-burning oven; and Allreds at the top of the gondola. But nothing tops dinner at Alpino Vino. This 26-person-capacity wooden shelter sits at 11,966 feet, making it the highest restaurant in North America. And while you can enjoy its Italian-inspired food and wine menu throughout the day, go for dinner—if you can get a reservation. The experience starts with disembarking at the top of the gondola, and then taking a 20-minute snow cat ride up the slopes, where you’re greeted with a glass of Champaign. Walk inside, and breathe in the atmosphere—hand-hewn beams and furniture crafted from reclaimed wood barrels, a wood-burning fireplace, stone floors, and exposed wood beams. Then take a seat and start your five-course meal, where each dish and paired wine reflects the chef’s northern Italian heritage. And if you choose to opt to upgrade to the “premium” wine pairings, know you’re in solid hands—every waiter in this cozy, intimate restaurant is a certified sommelier.