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The BEST of the WEST

The BEST of the WEST


The River House is one of several guest cabins located on the ranch. – Photo by Audrey Pavia

When I received an invitation to visit the Smith Fork Ranch in Colorado to sample some the finest whisky in the West, “no” was not an option. Saying yes to spending time in the western Rockies at a luxury ranch to explore quality spirits was a no-brainer.

I arrived at the Montrose Municipal Airport in Montrose, Colo., on a crisp fall evening and took a shuttle an hour or so out to the ranch. It was dark during the drive, and the driver assured me I would be stunned when I woke up the next morning and saw the scenery around me. I knew we were climbing to more than 7,000 feet, so I was expecting something very special.

I was not disappointed. After spending the night in the ranch’s River House, a majestic three-bedroom cabin furnished in luxury western décor just above the creek-like Smith Fork River, I was greeted with a stunning array of fall colors as I gazed out my window.

The restored wooden barn is the centerpiece of the ranch’s stable. -Photo by William Campbell

Breakfast was scheduled for 9 a.m. at the Dinner Bell Cook House, so as I walked the path from the River House, I took in the nearby pond and the cascading hills that towered all around me, covered with orange, yellow and red foliage.

The meal was wonderful and featured a variety of homemade delights, including a blueberry cobbler and avocado toast. A breakfast cocktail featuring Pendleton Whisky—the first of many to come—was also on the menu. I had a chance to meet the other guests who were here to take in the delights of the Smith Fork Ranch. They were all staying in one of the other four opulent rustic-opulent cabins located on the property.

A view of the Elk Lodge, the main gathering place at the Smith Fork Ranch. – Photo by William Campbell

After breakfast, we were scheduled for a horseback ride. I and the other guests gathered at the riding stable, which featured a majestic two-story wooden barn. The wranglers asked us a few questions about our riding abilities and then chose suitable mounts for us. I was given a white gelding named Ghost.

After all were mounted, we headed up in the hills, going single file through several miles of single-track trails that wound through stunning groves of yellow, red and orange scrub oak and strands of yellow aspen. We wove our way up into the hills until we hit a plateau with a view of the surrounding mountains. After some photo ops, we made our way back down to the ranch. Lunch was next on the agenda, and guests were given a choice of gourmet burgers or salads. Since the Smith Fork has a farm-to-table philosophy, the greens in the salad were grown right at the ranch’s Farmstead Garden.

Guests had the chance to taste four different Pendleton whiskies, each with its own distinct palate. – Photo by William Campbell

As part of our lunch, we were all offered a special cocktail made with Pendleton Whisky. I chose the Barrel Racer, a coffee drink with whisky and three donut holes on a skewer lying across the top of the mug. The coffee/whisky blend was amazing, and the donut holes tasted like they had been soaking in whisky for longer than it took the bartender to make my drink.

Next on the agenda was clay shooting and hiking. I chose instead to stroll around the pond and take photos down by the creek. I then spent the rest of the afternoon reading on the picturesque porch of the River House.

Later that afternoon, we gathered in the pavilion of the Elk Lodge to meet Linda Hodgson, who owns the ranch with her husband Marley Hodgson. The Hodgsons founded the legendary leather company Ghurka, and Linda gave us a detailed history of their beautiful resort. Situated in the Northfork Valley, the land now occupied by the 300-acre ranch was once home to the Ute Indians. The Hodgsons discovered the neglected property in 2000 while searching for a ranch home in the West. The buildings, many of which were built from the 1920s to 1950s, were in bad shape, but after 2 ½ years of renovation, the ranch became a place they could truly enjoy. Every building was disassembled, each log numbered, and then re-built from the inside out. This attention to detail allows the ranch to retain much of its original style. In the process, the Hodgsons inserted their own sense of classic style and taste.

Horseback riding in the hills above the
ranch is one of the Smith Fork’s most
popular pastimes. – Photo by William Campbell

After adding all this charm to the ranch, the Hodgsons decided the ranch was too nice not to share. They opened it to the public in 2002, and have hosted guests from all over the world, including Britons, Italians, French and many visitors from the East Coast. The surrounding towns of Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia provide guests with places to shop, although when you’re at the Smith Fork Ranch, you feel like the nearest civilization is many miles away.

The Smith Fork partnered with Pendleton Whisky for this event, so next up was Randy Severe, owner of Severe Brothers Saddlery, who told us all about the town of Pendleton, Ore., where the whisky got its name, and where the famous Pendleton Roundup rodeo is held every year. Randy’s connection to Pendleton Whisky became obvious when he showed us the handmade leather case he made for the limited-edition Pendleton Directors’ Reserve.

Prior to dinner, it was time for the Pendleton Whisky portfolio tasting we had all been waiting for. Although Pendleton Whisky bears the name of a famous Oregon town, it is actually blended in western Canada, where it is aged in oak barrels using the finest ingredients. Before bottling, Hood River Distillers in Oregon add glacier-fed spring water from Mt. Hood.

Randy Severe and Jodi Severe hackeray entertained guests around the campfire. – Photo by William Campbell

The portfolio whiskies we tasted were the Pendleton Whisky, Pendleton 1910, Pendleton Midnight and Pendleton Director’s Reserve. I was impressed with the smooth finish and lack of bite. My favorite was the Midnight, which is aged in American brandy barrels, and features notes of leather mix with warm cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and a hint of ginger, with subtle undertones of dried fruit.

After the tasting, it was time for dinner, prepared by Smith Fork’s resident chef, Marcus Parrott. Guests were provided a number of 5-star choices that featured ingredients grown at the ranch’s organic farmstead garden, which cultivates more than 80 varieties of herbs, fruits and vegetables. Dinner also featured meat and fish selected from local farms. Besides cocktails made with Pendleton Whisky, guests could also choose from the ranch’s extensive selection of fine wines from around the world.

The evening ended with an incredible time around an outdoor campfire, where guests enjoyed s’mores, and Randy Severe and his daughter Jodi entertained us with yodeling, along with guitar and fiddle playing. As the smell of campfire smoke and the sound of traditional bluegrass filled the air, I knew it would hard to leave the next day. It became clear that saying good-bye to Smith Fork Ranch is the hardest part of the visit.

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