Monday, October 8, 2007

Pink Boots at Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey Distillery

"Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest." ~Mark Twain
October 3: Today was Jon's birthday, and being a big fan of whiskeys, I arranged for him to join me for my distilling day at Stranahan's in Denver. We arrived at around 10:00 am and Head Distiller Jake Norris showed us around as we waited for Distillery Manager/Partner Jess Graber to arrive.

Jon gave Jess the Pretty Prairie Rodeo shot glass that we'd picked up in Kansas for him. A quick discussion of grandfathers and ancestors established that Jon and Jess are 4th or 5th cousins, both descended from the Peter Graber clan of Mennonites that emigrated to South Dakota in the 1800's from Russia. Then after "The Children's Blizzard" of 1888 the clan moved to Pretty Prairie, where some members left the Mennonites and joined the Swedenborgen church.

The whiskey wash was ready to go in the primary still (the copper still on the left in the photo above). Stranahan's wash is produced by Flying Dog Brewery next door. George Stranahan is an investor in both places and his name was perfect for the reinvented top-shelf American whiskey that Jess wanted to produce.

The wash is not regular beer. It is a special high-gravity recipe jointly developed by Stranahan's and Flying Dog. I saw the wash and it is darker in color than the final whiskey. Of course it contains no hops. By paying Flying Dog to produce the wash, it frees up Jess and his crew to concentrate on distillation and barrel aging.

Stranahan's currently produces one whiskey, called Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey. It uses a process unlike other American whiskeys like Bourban and Tennessee whiskey. Stranahan's uses a custom-designed still that incorporates both the pot of Scotch whisky distilling and the column of American whiskey distilling.

Stranahan's primary and secondary pot+column stills were custom made by Vendome Copper & Brass Works of Louisville, KY. Head Distiller Jake Norris drew up the diagram (photo left) of "How to Reinvent Whiskey 101."

In the photo at the top of this page, L to R: Clarke Boyer, Jake Norris, David Nice, Jess Graber, Teri and Jon.

The whole crew was on board today because the original plan was to have both a primary distillation going, and a bottling of one of Stranahan's new line of whiskeys, called Snowflake. The Snowflake line (named because no two are ever alike) consists of Stranahan's regular whiskey that has been finished in special barrels prior to bottling. The plan was to bottle the Port-finished Stranahan's today, but bottling was postponed in order to work out a haze issue.

Therefore only the primary distillation happened today, and the crew went to work ripping out the old barrel aging shelves in order to replace them with forkliftable steel wine barrel shelves.

The old-style shelves are the kind I saw when I toured Woodford Reserve in Kentucky (photo on left). The new shelves are the kind that most breweries with barrel aging programs use (photo below right).

Jess gave us a full tour and told us his 30-year background in home-distilling. Jake also had a home-distilling background, and each of them independently came up with ideas for a combined pot & column still for the kind of whiskey they wanted to make.

Stranahan's uses new oak barrels like Bourbon does, but because the wash is fermented long enough and filtered prior to distillation, the wash contains less impurities and no bacteria in comparison to other American whiskey washes. This purity along with a specially humidified aging room allows the distillate to age more quickly and efficiently in the barrel.

Jess took us to lunch next door at the Blake Street Tavern. After lunch we had a tasting of five Stranahan whiskeys. The control sample was Stranahan's standard 2-year old whiskey. I had been skeptical of a whiskey that was only two years old, but when I tasted Stranahan's last year during the GABF, I was amazed.
This tasting completely convinced me that two years is the perfect age for Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey. In my opinion, the 2-year old Stranahan's starts sweet like a Bourbon, but finishes dry like a single malt scotch. It's perfect.
In addition to the regular 2-year old, we also tasted a 3.5 year old (which is not currently available), but the finish was more like a Bourbon, so the unique "Colorado Whiskey" profile was missing.

Then we tasted three of the Snowflake series, the Port wood finish, a French Cabernet Franc finish, and a local Colorado red wine finish. Of the three, I personally preferred the Cabernet Franc finish, but I really liked the standard 2-year old Stranahan's best. Photo above left is Jess and Jon enjoying the tasting.

A few weeks ago, after I'd set up the day at Stranahan's with Jess, I'd asked Jon what he wanted for his birthday present. A bottle of Stranahan's, of course! But Jess beat me to it and gave Jon a bottle of Stranahan's for his present. So I asked Jon what he wanted for his present from me, and he asked for a Stranahan's barrel. Since Stranahan's only uses their new oak barrels once, Jess has a continuous supply to sell. At $80 F.O.B. Stranahan's, I thought it was a good deal.

Jake, Jess and Jon wrapped a barrel with several layers of cling-wrap, and they loaded it into my Chevy Astro van right behind the driver seat. I'll be driving Jon's barrel all the way back to Oregon. Boy, it sure makes the van smell good!

1 comment:

Cellarrat said...

Thanks abunch for coming By the distillery! I dig your blog!