Colorado produces dozens and dozens of delicious craft beers and an ever-growing list of top-quality wines. But it also boasts a bevy of small distilleries.
One is Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, an award-winning spirit distilled in Denver, which recently moved to a new location at 200 S. Kalamath St. After five years in downtown Denver, Stranahan’s could barely produce enough whiskey to meet consumer demands. The new location, an old brewery closed years ago, is home to not only the distillery, but a restaurant as well.
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey
Jeff Graber and George Stranahan, after whom the whiskey is named, founded the company. It seems the two met at a fire. Graber, a volunteer firefighter, met at Stranahan’s barn – it was on fire. Graber was there to help extinguish the blaze. After everything was under control, the two started talking. It seems the subject turned to whiskey. It was not long before the two were in business together. Stranahan was a long-time brewery owner and whiskey connoisseur. It did not take long for the two to discover they had a great passion for Colorado outdoors. The two took advantage of their surroundings and developed a distinctively smooth and flavorful American single malt whiskey recipe.
Stranahan’s was one of the first craft whiskey distillers in the U.S. Rumor has it that Stranahan’s “kicked off the Colorado distilling craze.” The distillery was Colorado’s first microdistillery. It was the state’s first legal distillery since Prohibition.
The Rackhouse Pub that shares the space offers a long list of cocktails made with Stranahan’s whiskey or a variety of other locally made spirits, plus a great menu of pub fare. Many items on the menu are made with Stranahan’s whiskey as well, such as whiskey glazed wings and Colorado whiskey chili.
The Rackhouse has an impressive tap wall with more than 15 carefully selected craft beers from producers like Avery, Breckenridge and Odells. Tastes of the whiskey are available for $3.50 for a sample size, $7 for a proper pour or $10 for a pour of the distillery’s new limited edition variety, Snowflake.
Stranahan’s, Colorado’s first whiskey distillery, has been producing since 2004. (Tours are given by appointment.) This new guy on the shelf is a one-of-a-kind spirit. The distillation is 100 percent kiln-roasted barley. Other American whiskeys are made with a blend of corn, rye or low quality grain alcohol filler.
Stranahan’s once contracted with its next-door neighbor, Flying Dog brewery, to process its four-barley fermented wash. When Flying Dog moved to the East coast, Stranahan’s contracted with Oskar Blues brewery in Lyons, Colorado.
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey was the first distillery to use a wash. The four-barley mix is crushed and boiled. Then the solids are removed from the sugary liquid and only the liquid is used. The sugar water is trucked to the distillery and goes into a closed, sanitary distillation system where it is fermented. This preserves the integrity of the product by protecting the distillation from yeasts in the air.
The distillery uses custom-made copper kettles from Vendome Copper Co., a top-end distillation equipment producer that’s been around more than a century.
“It’s like getting Ferrari to make you a go-cart,” said Jacob Norris, head distiller and production manager.
Stranahan’s ages its whiskey in 100 percent new American white oak barrels. The barrels are fired to the heaviest char possible. The char picks up the tannin vanillins that caramelize with other oak sugars. These give the whiskey 100 percent of its color and 60 to 70 percent of its flavor.
Stranahan’s aging room is kept hot and humid to keep the whiskey thin and the barrels’ pores large and open. This ensures the whiskey will continue to interact with the barrels year round, unlike old-fashioned whiskeys from Scotland or Ireland. There, the coolness of the barrels during winter months lengthens the aging process significantly.
In January, Stranahan’s released Snowflake, a limited-time-only whiskey aged in Hungarian white oak barrels. The whiskey was aged for two years in Stranahan’s standard new American oak barrels, then transferred to the Hungarian whites, which were originally used to age blended red wine from Napa. Norris says the blend of the two oak styles is stunning and the flavor of the red wine haunts the whiskey more than inhabits it. Bottles of Snowflake can be purchased at the distillery for $75, and bottles of regular Stranahan’s Whiskey sell for $55.
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey raised the bar for hard liquor producers in the area when it won Best of Show and a gold medal in the whiskey division at the American Distilling Institute’s blind tasting in 2008.
“If you want something that tastes exactly the same every time you open a bottle, buy Jameson,” Norris says. “Our goal in doing this is to put the fingerprints back on the bottle. It’s like your grandma’s apple pie. It may not always taste the same, but it’s really good. That’s what we want.”