Out of dire necessity frequently comes unexpected success. In 1962, the Four Corners Ute Tribe needed a solution to the decades-long drought affecting much of the West, so many of the area’s indigenous farmers turned thousands of dry acres into sustainable fields of grain and alfalfa. Thus, the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise was created. Now a high-tech operation, giant fertilizer applicators are controlled by satellites, and massive water pipelines are used to irrigate the crops.
The Farm and Ranch is a tribal success story and a model for what can be done with one-time barren land. In addition to the farm project, there are 700 cattle roaming the grounds, descendants of the original herd brought here 60 years ago. General Manager Simon Martinez oversees the 7,700-acre farm and ranch on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in Southwest Colorado and was recently appointed by Governor Jared Polis to serve on the Colorado Agriculture Commission District 4.
However, Mother Nature continues to challenge the Ute, and in 2021, because of continuing water shortages, the farm and ranch operation had to lay off half of its workers. Yet the blue corn crop, grown for tortillas and corn chips, has taken a new direction: making whiskey under the sister brand Bow & Arrow. “We are a dry reservation,” says Martinez, “but due to the drought, we came up with a distillery brand of blue corn that garners us more money for less product, and we now sell to 8 or 10 distilleries. The tribe’s experience operating the mill and marketing its products, including Bow & Arrow brand LLC, offer valuable lessons for the agricultural community statewide.”
He adds, “We created jobs and a value-added product that is grown and produced locally, and I manage to keep workers rotating wherever there’s work to be done.” The corn is milled on the farm and ranch site, which has 13 full-time employees with most being Ute Tribe members, and then packaged and sold to small distilleries, including Whistling Hare Distillery in Westminster, Durango Craft Spirits, and Snitching Lady.
Snitching Lady Distillery is an award-winning whiskey and brandy producer based in Fairplay. Distilling a half dozen premium whiskies and brandies, the company makes Button’s Blue 100% blue corn whiskey, which is named after cofounder Thomas Williams’ cat Button and has won several awards, including best American whiskey at the 2020 World Whiskey Awards, and it is made with Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch grain, coming from the Ute Reservation in Towaoc. Williams says he loves “the grain’s subtle yet distinct flavor.”
He says, “Right before I started my business, I was distilling in my backyard and, during this process, came across the Ute Mountain Tribe and their blue corn crop. I was using my father’s recipe from North Carolina, but he was using yellow corn, and I wanted to try the blue as I’d always loved blue corn tortilla chips. Sure enough, it was a different taste, more like butterscotch, almost like melted butter. So I was extremely happy to find Simon and the Ute Mountain Tribe to deliver all that corn. I didn’t want to buy corn from anyone but Bow and Arrow.”
Another spirit being distilled at Snitching Lady from blue corn is the Burrobon Bourbon. “Due to the whiskey’s buttery taste, even before it’s aged in the barrel, it’s best sipped straight,” Williams says. “We use 60% blue corn, Antero red wheat, and a bit of local rye grains for the bourbon. The fermentation of the bourbon takes a bit longer, and we distill it twice over an open flame to keep that backyard smoky taste.”
As a result of mixing of the red wheat and rye with the blue corn, Burrobon has a slight peppery aftertaste with an almost sweet finish. Snitching Lady uses about a ton of blue corn each month, but keeps to the small-batch philosophy, only distilling 300 to 320 bottles a month. The distillery self-distributes and sells to more than 100 liquor stores across the state as well as Bottles & Taps in Colorado Springs. “We like to distribute our product as an extreme treat,” says Williams.