While craft breweries are certainly catching on in a big way with drinkers, small batch craft whiskey distilleries are right behind them. One of the leaders in the new wave of whiskey manufacturers is right down the street, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. Luckily for me, they offer free tours seven days a week, so I thought I would drop by and see the similarities and differences between brewing beer and distilling whiskey.
The story of Stranahan’s starts back in 1998, when volunteer firefighter Jess Graber responded to a barn fire on George Stranahan’s property. Once the fire was out, the two got to chatting about whiskey, and soon they hatched a plan to create a new small batch distillery, the first Colorado whiskey maker since the end of Prohibition. Stranahan had the business know-how, as he had previously founded Flying Dog Brewery. It took a few years to put everything together, but the first batch was brewed in 2004, and bottled in 2006.
The reaction was enthusiastic, and a few years later they expanded into to their current location. They took over the location and equipment of a brewery that had gone out of business a few years prior.
The whiskey starts with 100% malted barley, not that different from making beer. They mix the barley with hot water in a mash tun, then transfer it into the boil kettle. Here is where you’d add hops when making beer, but of course none are used in whiskey. After a short boil the wort is cooled and transferred into the fermentation tanks. A few weeks later fermentation is complete and the result is distilled twice in two different sets of distillers. Then comes the really important part, the barrel aging.
Like in bourbon whiskey, Stranahan’s uses fresh white oak casks with a hefty char to add flavor and color. It sits the barrels between two to five years before being mixed and bottled. What sets Stranahan’s apart from bourbon is the grain bill, bourbon contains malted corn in addition to the barley while Stranhan’s only uses barley. The water for Stranahan’s comes from a spring north of Boulder, and some of the barley comes from around Colorado, so it is an actual local product, which is nice in these days of obscured origin marketing.
The tour was a lot of fun. The whiskey making process is just different enough from brewing beer that I learned a lot, but just similar enough that I could follow along easily. We got to take a look inside a barrel, with a very bright light shining through the aging whiskey. You could see the char, and the deep colors the wood was imparting to what started as raw white alcohol.
Without doubt the best part of the tour was the aging room. When whiskey is barrel aged, some of it evaporates through the porous wood. This lost volume is known as the “angel’s share” and is inevitable. However, if they just left the barrels out in the dry Colorado air much more of the precious alcohol would evaporate. To prevent this the aging room is kept at a cooler temperature and higher humidity than the rest of the facility. The whole room smelt of oak and sweetness and smokey whiskey. It was amazing, and certainly the highlight of the tour. It’s also the reason that you are required to be 21 to take the tour, as there is a non-zero amount of alcohol in the ambient air!
Like any good tour, things finish up with a taste of the goods. Not only did we get a wee-dram, we got a guided tasting, looking at the smell, flavor, and mouth feel. We started with a bit of it straight, and then followed up with a bit cut with room temperature water to bring out different flavors. Stranahan’s is bottled at a slightly higher than average abv of 47% (94 proof). Many spirits are bottled at 40% (80 proof). This really adds a bit of kick to the straight whiskey. The all barley grain bill gives an overall sweetness that is counteracted by the higher abv and the smokey oak flavors from the wood. While I may generally be a Scotch Whisky kind of guy, I do feel some home town pride for a true Colorado original.
Have you ever tried Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey? What did you think? What’s your favorite whiskey? Let me know in the comments!