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Whiskey Business: Colorado Distillers Cruise into Whiskies of the World

Whiskies of the World will unite hundreds of native and imported whiskey brands on March 13. Photo courtesy Whiskies of the World.

BY STEVE LYSAKER

There is no bad whiskey,” Raymond Chandler is said to have said. “There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.”

The author and whiskey enthusiast may have found the choices available today sobering. More than 200 whiskeys good and better from around the world will be poured Friday, March 13, at Whiskies of the World—formerly the Whisky Extravaganza—at the Four Seasons Hotel {1111 14th Street, Denver}.

This year’s event will spotlight Colorado’s flourishing craft whiskey market, with more than a dozen distilleries from the Front Range alone scheduled to attend. Home to about 100 craft distilleries overall, Colorado has one of the largest and fastest-growing distilling communities in the United States, according to data from the American Craft Spirits Association.

Much of that growth has been fueled by whiskey and its kin, including bourbon and rye. Colorado in particular has emerged as one of the country’s leading producers of single-malt whiskeys and bourbons.

There’s never been a better time to be a whiskey lover, and Colorado’s a great place to be,” says Ryan Negley, Whiskey Fellow at Boulder Spirits, cofounder of the Denver Whiskey Club, and participant in Friday’s American Single Malt masterclass at Whiskies of the World. “There’s a sense of adventure in the whiskeys here.”

Following is an introduction to some of the Front Range distilleries participating in Whiskies of the World and why you should give them a sip if you haven’t already.

AXE AND THE OAK DISTILLERY

Axe and the Oak whiskeys show off some of their recent hardware. Photo courtesy of Axe and the Oak Distillery.

Casey Ross and some friends were sitting around a campfire sharing bourbon when discussion turned to whether they could craft a notable whiskey themselves. “It was a hobby that quickly morphed,” recounts Ross, co-owner and distiller at Axe and the Oak, which transformed in a few short years from an experimental pastime among friends to an award-winning distillery.

Axe and the Oak’s flagship whiskey is its Colorado Mountain Bourbon Whiskey, and the distillery’s Colorado Mountain Incline Rye Whiskey inverts the mash bill of its bourbon. Both have earned a number of awards and wide acclaim, which Ross attributes to the hard work, curiosity, and dedication of Axe and the Oak’s team.

We’re a family here,” he says. “Without our whole team working together and pushing each other, we wouldn’t be where we are.”

That spirit, Ross adds, is representative of the Colorado whiskey community as a whole. “People are doing things differently,” Ross notes, “but there’s so much excitement and support for each other. We all love whiskey, and we all love to see what everyone else is doing.”

If there’s a common thread among Colorado whiskeys, Ross says it’s the Western ideals of self-reliance, forging ahead through adversity, and a willingness to try new things. Ross observes that many craft distilleries—including Axe and the Oak—were built by people who have a passion for spirits but who are self-taught when it comes to distilling.

It’s important to absorb all the knowledge you can, but you also have to experiment,” he says. “There should be an adventurousness to whiskey.”

Whiskies of the World pour list: Attendees can sample Axe and the Oak’s Colorado Mountain Bourbon Whiskey, Colorado Mountain Incline Rye Whiskey, and Pikes Peak Hill Shine (Axe and the Oak’s award-winning take on moonshine).

Tasting room: Axe and the Oak’s Whiskey House {1604 South Cascade Avenue, Colorado Springs; 719.660.1624} is open from 4-11pm Monday-Thursday, 4pm-1am Friday, and 2pm-1am Saturdays. AXEANDTHEOAK.COM

BEAR CREEK DISTILLERY

Bear Creek’s bourbon barrels: The promise of good things to come. Photo courtesy of Bear Creek Distillery.

Bear Creek Distillery was founded by a group of whiskey-loving friends who also happened to be classmates at Lakewood’s Bear Creek High School (thus the name). And the Colorado connection is a point of pride, as is Bear Creek’s use of local ingredients.

“We have great water here and excellent grain producers,” says Bear Creek Co-Owner Jay Johnson. “We use local grains and local products as much as we can. We want to be transparent about our spirits, and are committed to being locally driven.”

While Whiskies of the World will highlight Bear Creek’s bourbons, rye, and white whiskey, the distillery also produces award-winning vodkas and rums. As the craft distilling marketplace continues to expand, Johnson says first-hand tastings “are the most effective form of connecting.”

Although Johnson is passionate about small-batch spirits on the whole, he remains especially excited about direction of Colorado-made whiskeys, and says whiskey fans who haven’t yet sampled the spectrum of what the Centennial State has to offer are missing out on “big, bold flavors.”

“There are lots of cool things going on with whiskey in Colorado,” Johnson adds, “and I think there are even better things to come.”

Whiskies of the World pour list: Bear Creek will bring its Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Wheated Bourbon Whiskey, Wheat Whiskey, and White Whiskey. Johnson adds that he is also “shaking the trees” for some of Bear Creek’s award-winning Rye Whiskey.

Tasting room: Bear Creek Distillery’s tasting room {1879 South Acoma Street, Denver; 303.955.4638} is open from 4-10pm Tuesday-Thursday, 2-10pm Friday and Saturday, and 2-8pm Sunday. Tours are also available and can be scheduled via the Bear Creek Distillery website. BEARCREEKDISTILLERY.COM

BOULDER SPIRITS

Boulder Spirits’ Straight Bourbon Whiskey uses less corn and more barley than many bourbons for a singular flavor. Photo courtesy of Boulder Spirits.

Boulder Spirits Whiskey Fellow Ryan Negley attributes Colorado’s ascent in the whiskey world in part to the state’s pioneering role in the craft beer craze. “We’ve become more adventurous drinkers in terms of our willingness to try new flavor combinations, step outside our comfort zones,” he says.

Boulder Spirits’ spirits are produced in Boulder County’s first legal distillery, which opened in 2007, and while the company’s product line offers gin, vodka, coffee liqueur, and even a pumpkin cordial, it’s best known for its acclaimed whiskeys. Negley considers himself an “evangelist for Colorado single-malt whiskey makers,” and Boulder Spirits’ grain-to-glass whiskeys include a spectrum of single-malt styles.

“Colorado whiskey tends to be a little more textural, a little more granular,” Negley describes. “We really celebrate the grains that go into it.”

Consider Boulder Spirits’ Straight Bourbon Whiskey. By definition, bourbon must contain at least 51 percent corn, and most distilleries use a fermented grain mash that is upward of 65 percent corn-based. But Boulder Spirits’ bourbon employs less corn—though still enough to be considered bourbon—while upping the ratio of malted barley (40-plus percent).

“If there’s a shared trait among Colorado whiskeys, I think it’s about the ethos,” Negley says. “There’s a willingness to experiment and to support others who are trying new things.”

Whiskies of the World pour list: Boulder Spirits will offer guests a chance to sip its New American single-malt whiskey, Peated Malt single-malt whiskey, Port Cask single-malt whiskey, and Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Tasting room: Boulder Spirits’ tasting room {5311 Western Avenue, Boulder; 303.997.6134} is open from 4-9pm Tuesday-Thursday, 4-10pm Friday, 3-10pm Saturday, and 3-7pm Sunday. The distillery provides free public tours and ticketed private tours. Public tours are at 4pm Tuesday-Friday and at 3pm and 5pm on Saturday and Sunday. BOULDER-SPIRITS.COM

BRANCH & BARREL WHISKEY

Branch & Barrel’s lineup features its signature White Oak Whiskey as well as honey-barrel and plumwood-aged whiskeys. Photo courtesy of Branch & Barrel Whiskey.

Branch & Barrel was born of a hobby that evolved into a business. Ryan Morgan and Tom Sielaff were friends and fellow whiskey aficionados who decided to try making their own. They enlisted the help of friend, farmer, and all-around handyman Scott Freund to transform an old water heater into a makeshift still and began experimenting with recipes.

They eventually produced a white spirit that proved a hit with family and friends who encouraged the trio to refine their production and turn Branch & Barrel into a business (the name derives from the tree-branch cuttings initially used to flavor the liquor). Branch & Barrel went commercial in 2015 with its well-received White Oak Whiskey, a traditional, American-style whiskey with a high corn concentration—it could technically be considered a bourbon—balanced by barley.

“Once people taste it, they love it,” attests Angie Jones, territory manager for Branch & Barrel. “It has malty notes and richness, but it’s very smooth.”

Branch & Barrel uses all Colorado-sourced ingredients, which Jones says are instrumental in its whiskeys’ distinctive flavors, and the company plans to expand its distillery space to host events and increase production.

“A lot of good things are coming from this small, dedicated team that loves whiskey,” Jones adds.

Whiskies of the World pour list: Branch & Barrel will pour its flagship White Oak Whiskey as well as its Honey Barrel Aged Whiskey and Plumwood Aged Whiskey. Attendees may also get a sample of Branch & Barrel’s new 3-Way Whiskey, which boasts hints of maple, cinnamon, and vanilla.

Tasting room: Branch & Barrel whiskeys are crafted at Broken Arrow Distillery {15353 East Hinsdale Circle, Centennial; 720.663.0468}. Tasting room hours are currently from 4-7pm on Wednesday or by appointment, although the tasting room will soon undergo expansion and be closed during construction. Customers should check Branch & Barrel’s website for updates. Tours and private tastings may be scheduled via Branch & Barrel’s website. BRANCHANDBARRELWHISKEY.COM

DEERHAMMER DISTILLERY

Deerhammer’s American Single Malt Whiskey has earned widespread accolades. Photo courtesy of Deerhammer.

No one here really had a background in distilling or in the bar industry,” admits Lenny Eckstein, who cofounded Deerhammer with his wife, Amy, in 2010. “We became students because we loved the profile of the classic, American single-malt. We wanted to create a big, full-flavored whiskey.”

Mission accomplished. Deerhammer’s signature American Single Malt Whiskey has earned rave reviews and numerous awards, and the Buena Vista-based distillery now additionally produces a four-grain bourbon and smoked-corn whiskey, which can be sampled at Whiskies of the World, and a Dutch Style Gin that employs the same malted-barley spirit base used in its single-malt whiskey.

We love connecting with people,” Eckstein says of events like Whiskies of the World and Deerhammer’s frequent in-bar tastings. “People often ask if the market for craft whiskeys has peaked. I always think about it as, How many whiskey drinkers aren’t there yet? … There are so many who haven’t discovered it yet or haven’t found that one that fits their taste. Being able to connect and have conversations is huge.”

Though Eckstein believes in honoring traditional whiskey distilling methods, he attributes Deerhammer’s success and the general Colorado whiskey boom in part to curiosity and an inclination toward experimentation. Deerhammer is also not afraid to tweak the whiskey establishment (see its infamous “No One Cares That You’re From Kentucky” stickers).

We’re just big supporters of the Colorado whiskey industry,” Eckstein says. “There are some amazing things being done here.”

Whiskies of the World pour list: Deerhammer will showcase its flagship American Single Malt Whiskey as well as its four-grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Rough & Tumble smoked-corn whiskey.

Tasting room: Deerhammer’s tasting room {321 East Main Street, Buena Vista; 719.395.9464} is open from 4-10pm Wednesday-Saturday and from noon-6pm Sunday. Tours are currently offered on Saturdays at 3pm and 5pm; reservations are not required. DEERHAMMER.COM

DISTILLERY 291

Two of Distillery 291’s award-winning whiskeys, which are on the Whiskies of the World pour list. Photo courtesy of Distillery 291.

For Distillery 291 Owner and Distiller Michael Myers, whiskey was always around. He grew up in Georgia, and his family had a farm in Tennessee near the Jack Daniel’s distillery; he took his first sip of whiskey in high school and was hooked.

Myers continued to refine his palate while a photography student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and later as a professional photographer whose work took him to New York (home of photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s famed 291 gallery, which lends Distillery 291 its numerical name). Then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which forced Myers and his family from their apartment, which was just blocks from the World Trade Center.

They relocated to Colorado Springs where they had family connections, and Myers continued to work, quickly tiring of the flying commutes. It was on one of these flights that Myers came across an article about Steven Grasse, who created Hendrick’s Gin and Sailor Jerry Rum. “I thought, ‘I love whiskey. I could make and brand a whiskey,’” he says.

Myers learned everything he could about whiskey distilling, got his distilling license, and began experimenting in a 300-square-foot space. Coincidentally, 291’s first whiskey batch was distilled on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Distillery 291 has since garnered a wealth of awards for its whiskeys and moved to a larger distillery with a tasting room, and Myers believes Colorado whiskeys will continue to innovate. “The industry is in an incredible place right now,” he says. “So much is going to happen in the next 20 years with the knowledge these young craft distillers have today and as they grow.”

Whiskies of the World pour list: Attendees can sample 291’s Single Barrel Colorado Rye Whiskey, Single Barrel Colorado Bourbon Whiskey, the pre-prohibition-style Small Batch American Whiskey, the unaged Fresh Colorado Whiskey, and the White Dog Colorado Rye Whiskey.

Tasting room: The Distillery 291 tasting room {1647 South Tejon Street, Colorado Springs; 719.323.8010} is open from 5-11pm Wednesday-Friday, noon-11pm Saturday, and noon-5pm Sunday. The space is also available for private events. Tours can be scheduled online, and group tours and private tastings are also available. DISTILLERY291.COM

OLD ELK DISTILLERY

Old Elk is among the distilleries proving great bourbons don’t have to come from Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Old Elk Distillery.

One of the things that makes Old Elk Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskey great, according to Old Elk Master Distiller Greg Metze, is also one of the factors that makes Colorado’s craft spirits market a national standout: “Colorado lends itself to the production of world-class spirits by being different than everyone else.”

When it comes to distilling, Metze explains that the Centennial State’s individuality encompasses altitude, climate, water quality, and a prevailing atmosphere of innovation. Consider Old Elk’s award-winning, flagship bourbon, which contains the minimum 51 percent corn mash necessary to be considered bourbon but is an amount considerably lower than most bourbons; while dialing back the corn, Metze amped up the malted barley mash to 34 percent, a substantially higher volume than most bourbons (the mash bill is rounded out by 15 percent rye). The result is a robust bourbon with a spicy bite and a smooth, sweet finish.

“Colorado whiskey has the aura of quality and outdoor adventure,” Metze says. “Although Kentucky has done a great job of proclaiming bourbon to be theirs, the craft distilling arena is challenging that mindset.”

To that end, Metze adds that tasting events like Whiskies of the World provide an opportunity to create new whiskey devotees and steer current enthusiasts to new flavors or brands. “It’s an educational platform for us to work with our current fans and future fans to demonstrate our dedication to them and let them decide their own opinions on the product, he says.

Metze notes that he also enjoys seeing what his fellow distillers are up to. “There is a huge sense of community and camaraderie among all the breweries and distilleries with a mindset of ‘a rising tide raises all ships,'” he says. “We are competitors, but we are a family and there is room for everyone.”

Whiskies of the World pour list: Old Elk will invite guests to sample its award-winning Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Old Elk Distillery also makes Nooku Bourbon Cream, which blends its high-malt bourbon recipe with fresh cream.

Tasting room: The Reserve by Old Elk Distillery {253 Linden Street, Fort Collins; 970.287.0640} is open from 11am-11pm Thursday-Saturday and from 11am-9pm Sunday-Wednesday. OLDELK.COM

STRANAHAN’S COLORADO WHISKEY

The iconic Stranahan’s Rocky Mountain Single Malt Whiskey. Photo courtesy of Stranahan’s.

There was no such thing as Colorado craft whiskey when the brand that would become Stranahan’s was conceived in 1998, but the distillery’s first official batch—distilled in 2004 and bottled in 2006—developed a strong local following. As positive word-of-mouth spread, Stranahan’s increased its production and distribution reach, and others drew inspiration from the unique profile of its whiskey and its burgeoning success.

“I think our pioneering role in Colorado craft whiskey, as well as the American single-malt category, put us in a special position to carve out a niche in the whiskey market that really spoke to consumers,” says Stranahan’s Head Distiller Owen Martin. “We were able to combine attributes from both the scotch and bourbon worlds, and strike a particular balance that could appeal to both consumer bases.”

Stranahan’s is a craft whiskey leader on multiple fronts, but its influence perhaps resonates most deeply in the world of American single-malt whiskeys. Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey is the best-selling single-malt whiskey in the United States, and it was at the forefront of a surge in American single-malts.

“Beyond the quality of our product itself, our innovations in the single-malt category, both in our limited releases like Snowflake as well as more broadly, really serve to push the entire American single-malt category forward in a way I don’t feel any other single-malt distilleries can match,” Martin says.

While other Colorado-based, small-batch whiskey makers have pursued different paths in terms of styles and distilling methods, Martin says he considers Colorado whiskeys in general “more balanced and refined than their Kentucky counterparts.” “Colorado whiskeys,” he adds, “highlight the purity of their base ingredients.”

Whiskies of the World pour list: Stranahan’s will offer samples of its flagship Rocky Mountain Single Malt Whiskey as well as its Diamond Peak and Sherry Cask single-malts.

Tasting room: The Stranahan’s Distillery cocktail lounge {200 South Kalamath Street, Denver; 303.296.7440} is open from noon-9pm Thursday-Monday; the lounge may also be reserved for private events. The distillery offers tours Thursday-Monday and guided whiskey tastings at 7 pm on Mondays and Thursdays; reservations may be made online. STRANAHANS.COM

TALNUA DISTILLERY

Talnua offers a distinctly American take on a distinctly Irish style of whiskey distilling. Photo courtesy of Talnua Distillery.

While it’s incorrect to call Talnua Distillery’s signature whiskey an Irish whiskey, the Quarter Cask Whiskey is crafted with a traditional Irish method in the first (and as yet only) single-pot still distillery in the United States. The term “single pot” refers to a style of whiskey distilled in copper pots in a single distillery using both malted and unmalted barley; the process emerged in Ireland in the late 1700s and early 1800s as a way around British taxes on malted barley, though its popularity eventually waned.

The seed for Talnua Distillery was planted during the 2011 honeymoon of founders Meagan and Patrick Miller. “We were exploring the heartland of whiskey, and we became fascinated with the approach and the unique flavor,” Meagan recalls. “For a long time, even in Ireland, the single-pot still style was nearly extinct. … It became our favorite style, and we really wanted to introduce it to a wider audience here.”

Arvada’s Talnua Distillery will celebrate its first anniversary the week of Whiskies of the World, and Meagan says such tasting events are pivotal to Talnua’s continued growth. “It’s an educational opportunity and a chance to make a face-to-face connection,” she explains. “We have a product that benefits from a chance to taste it and learn a little about the process.”

More people know about us in Ireland right now,” she adds somewhat jokingly. If Americans have been a little slow to jump back on the single-pot still bandwagon, the Irish have not. In fact, Talnua was recently featured on the Potstilled Radio, a popular podcast devoted to Irish whiskeys.

Whiskies of the World pour list: Talnua will pour its flagship Quarter Cask Whiskey, as well as its Heritage Selection Whiskey, a blend of pot-still and grain whiskeys. The distillery also produces two well-received gins, and Meagan hints that new products are in the works.

Tasting room and tours: Talnua Distillery’s tasting room {5405 West 56th Avenue, Arvada; 303.431.4949} is open from 4-10pm Thursday, 2-10pm Friday, noon-10pm Saturday, and noon-7pm Sunday. Fully guided tours are available and may be scheduled online. Talnua may also be booked for private parties and corporate events. TALNUA.COM

TOWER 56 DISTILLING

Like many small-batch distilleries, Tower 56’s spirits extend beyond whiskey. Photo courtesy of Tower 56.

A longtime craft spirits fan, Tower 56 Co-Owner and Head Distiller Matt Estrin didn’t consider his own adventures into distilling until a trip to Napa Valley with his wife, Tower 56 Co-Owner Trista Estrin, about five years ago.

I became intrigued by the processes and the science behind it,” he recalls of the wine-making tours. “I started talking to some home-brewer friends who shared their knowledge, and I started messing around at home.”

Matt’s passion was further ignited by an inheritance from his late grandfather, which he says “was enough to allow us to dream about starting a business.” Tower 56’s name is a tribute to Matt’s family ties; it references the lifeguard tower visible from the Newport Beach property his great-grandfather bought in the 1940s and which was the site of family gatherings that spanned generations.

With a burning desire to learn as much as possible, Matt enrolled at Louisville, Kentucky’s Moonshine University, which offers intensive and comprehensive studies in distilling. The fruits of his labors soon led to Tower 56 and its award-winning, wheat-centric bourbon as well as gin, vodka, and other spirits.

While the Estrins’ hard work and devotion to their craft are significant factors in Tower 56’s success, Matt also gives a shout out to Greeley’s likewise award-winning tap water. “Kentucky distilleries talk about limestone water, and there’s truth to its effects,” he says. “But we have some of the nation’s best water here, and it truly impacts the flavors.”

Whiskies of the World pour list: Attendees can sip Tower 56 Bourbon, and the distillery will also provide samples of some of its non-whiskey offerings including its namesake gin and vodka, as well as its Tower 56 Coffee Spirit (a coffee liqueur made in partnership with Greeley-based Blue Mug Coffee Roasters) and Tower 56 Almondretto.

Tasting room and tours: The Tower 56 tasting room {825 9th Street, Greeley; 970.451.5765} is open from 4-10pm Monday-Thursday, 4pm-midnight Friday, 1pm-midnight Saturday, and 1pm-8pm Sunday. The facility also offers space for private events. TOWER56.COM

Other Colorado distilleries scheduled to appear at Whiskies of the World include:

Whiskies of the World general admission tickets are $100 per person and include tastings, light bites, and a souvenir glass. VIP tickets are $150 and include early admission, access to additional select whiskeys, and masterclass registration. Tickets can be purchased online. A comprehensive pour list can be found here.