Kevin “Lich” Polich went to the resort town of Breckenridge, Colo., for a winter to be a ski bum.
After graduating in 1989 from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a degree in criminal justice, the Ashland native harbored hopes of getting into the FBI. Instead he fell in love with Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and began building log homes and working in the plumbing trade to support himself.
Polich admits that becoming a builder/plumber-ski bum is a long way from being an FBI agent, but the biggest twist in his life’s path happened when he became a founding partner in what was to become one of the nation’s most inventive craft-distilleries.
“After I finished college I moved straight out to Breckenridge and I’ve been here for 30 years,” he said. “I went to Colorado every year when I was in college during Christmas break to ski, and I knew I wanted to move to Breckenridge at some point in time.”
Polich became involved with the craft distilling in an oblique fashion. Through a real estate agent friend of his, he became acquainted with a doctor who wanted to join the nascent craft whiskey movement and open his own distillery.
“So we opened a distillery,” he said.
Polich is now part owner and partner of the Breckenridge distillery, involved in product development for its eight varieties of bourbon, four vodkas and its gin, spiced rum and bitters brands.
“My unofficial title is ‘booze hustler,’ he laughed.
The other owner and chief executive officer is Bryan Nolt, a radiologist who was inspired to found the operation after a distillery tour of Scotland.
Breckenridge distilling began marketing artisanal bourbon and vodka in 2011, and it wasn’t long before their product was riding the crest of the movement that prompted an explosion in microbreweries across the U.S.
“It was perfect timing for us,” he said. “At that time there were maybe eight or nine distilleries in Colorado. Now there are about 100. I would not want to be doing this now as a new distillery.”
Since its start, Breckenridge’s has stood out from the crowd, gaining a national following in every state in the union and in 70 countries, Polich said. It has also won four straight best American blended categories in the World Whiskies Awards competitions, and the Bourbon of the Year in 2011 from the International Wine and Spirits competition. There have been many other awards as well.
“It was fantastic for us. We had a great whiskey with our bourbon; people were really interested in it,” Polich said.
One of the whiskey’s fans is Ashland businessman Scott Bretting.
“It’s a smoother bourbon whiskey,” he said. “He has a couple of different series that are a little older age class, and the older it gets, the smoother it gets. The younger whiskey has a little snap to it. It’s a good product.”
What separates Breckenridge bourbon from the crowd is its comparatively high use of rye, along with the corn and barley that are more traditionally associated with bourbon. The rye gives the whiskey a distinctive spicy flavor that singles it out as something special, Polich said.
The other component that stands out is the water that flows from the snow-packed peaks surrounding Breckenridge.
“Just like in Kentucky, the water is crucial to the taste of your whiskey,” he said. “We have the perfect minerals that make our taste so good.”
The flagship bourbon is a blend consisting of the locally produced product, combined with whiskeys from Indiana and Kentucky, locations steeped in whiskey-producing tradition.
Polich is bringing those flavors home for a tasting July 26 at Super One Liquor. He will attend with a number of offerings produced by the distillery.
“It’s a proud moment for me,” Polich said. “Ashland is my roots. I am proud to be from there, and when my friends can go to the liquor store and pick up a bottle of my bourbon or vodka, it’s pretty awesome,” he said.
Super One liquor store manager Tom Tardiff said he was delighted to have a former resident come back representing a prestigious brand.
“It will be nice to see him again,” he said. “It will be nice for local people to know there is a local guy who is doing this, and doing good with his product.”
That is also one of the reasons Bretting likes Breckenridge.
“I’ve known Kevin all of his life and I still have coffee with his dad Mike every day, he said. “It’s great to see a hometown boy when I go skiing there with my boys.”