Cowboys and Whisky

Cowboys and Whisky

A roadtrip down the Rockies part 3

Travel | 02 Dec 2016 | Issue 140 | By Davin de Kergommeaux

  • Share to:
"This is the last cowboy song… another piece of America lost."

Ed Bruce, 1980

In this last part of Davin's road trip down the Rockies, he reaches Colorado where there are now three major distilleries producing whiskey as well as Bourbon.

Tin Cup Whiskey

Woody Creek, Colorado, population 250. The tavern that abuts a string of winterised house trailers is little more than a log cabin, outfitted with tables and a bar. This garishly decorated shack has served the likes of Johnny Depp, a string of less than A-listers, and perhaps, if the gossip is true, a ski bum named Pippa Middleton. Locals amuse themselves, toying with wannabe journalists who show up daily, camera and cigarette holder in hand. No one has told them that more than a decade has passed since a local put the gone to gonzo. It is a pleasant surprise, then, when Jess Graber strolls in wearing a faded shirt, black zipper vest, and a cowboy hat banded with two strands of binder-twine. Better yet, he avoids the tavern's history and sticks to the topic at hand - Tin Cup Whiskey. Graber is the distiller who founded Tin Cup Whiskey after 30 years distilling off the grid for friends and family.

Graber buys most of the whiskey for Tin Cup from MGP in Indiana then adds a dash of Stranahan's malt whisky. "The malt smoothes out the finish," Graber explains. He grew up in Kansas and Missouri, then after college headed to Colorado to become a 'mountain man'. Landing in Nederland, about an hour out of Denver, Graber was soon befriended by another Missouri ex-pat known only as Larry the Missouri River Rat. Larry headed back to Missouri in 1972, leaving his 13 gallon still with Graber. "I made a batch and nobody died," Graber recalls. "I held onto the still and every now and then made a batch to give to friends. It was unique. Everyone would give you a joint but you couldn't get booze."

Even mountain men need to earn a living, and Graber set himself up as a construction contractor. Each Christmas he made a batch of moonshine as gifts for clients and friends. In 1998, Graber helped put out that barn fire at George Stranahan's ranch. The owner of Flying Dog Brewery. When the smoke cleared a deal was settled for an outbuilding on Stranahan's ranch. Then Graber stumbled on a couple of kegs of beer left over from a party. "That's when the cartoon light bulb went off," he recounts. He put them in his still and the result was much more flavourful than his moonshine. Graber set up his first legal distillery next door to Flying Dog.

"Tin Cup started right when we released Stranahan's," says Graber. People challenged Stranahan's for not being real American whiskey, but single malt. So, Graber called MGP, bought some Bourbon from them, and altered it by adding Colorado water and about our per cent Stranahan's single malt. "It tastes like regular Bourbon," he says. "The barley just softens any of the bite."

By 2009, Graber was spending 200 days a year on the road supporting Stranahan's. Then, in 2010 he sold his whisky interests to Proximo Spirits who decided to name the new whisky after the town of Tincup, Colorado. But Tin Cup's embossed hexagonal bottle is Graber's own design, based on an old blue embossed bottle of Dr Sanford's Liver Invigorator he found. "Proximo took my ten years plan and turned it into a one year plan," says Graber, who now spends about six weeks a year on the road promoting Tin Cup.

Stranahan's Distillery

When a barn on George Stranahan's Colorado cattle ranch burned down (as previously described), one of the volunteer firemen who helped 'save the foundation' got to talking. He knew Stranahan made beer and that his Flying Dog brew was doing well. Jess Graber, the volunteer firefighter had his own interest - making whisky. George Stranahan wasn't interested. At first. "We're gonna call the whiskey Stranahan's," enthused the firefighter. And a new business idea was born.

There is nothing typical about the distillery Graber and Stranahan built. Well, maybe the three 800 gallon Vendome copper pot stills they use to distil their fermented mash, but then again those four plate reflux columns on top of each pot are unlike anything you'd ever see in a malt distillery in Scotland. Yes, that's right, Stranahan's Colorado whiskey is made from malted barley - four malted barleys to be precise - making it single malt whiskey in all but name. With no official designation for single malt in the US, the folks at Stranahan's call theirs 'Colorado whiskey'. Because it is matured in #3 charred virgin oak the flavour is reminiscent of Bourbon to the extent that many people say they can taste corn in it. Those are oak caramels, pardner, and vanillas, and gentle tannins leached from the barrels in the two, three, four and five years the whisky spends maturing.

Stranahan's master distiller, Rob Dietrich was raised in Colorado, lived on a ranch, and in his youth herded cattle into the high country in summer. "It's part of Colorado," he says. But today, his steed of choice is not a horse. Instead, he sits astride 40 of them as he wheels into work on his 2010 Ural Gearup, a Russian-built replica of a 1939 BMW motorcycle with sidecar. This outlaw pony captures the tone at Stranahan's, where it's come as you are, do as you do, and help us make the best whisky we can. It's no surprise then that when they heard Dietrich was looking for volunteers to help on the bottling line, 23,000 people put their name on a waiting list. Enjoy a weekly pizza party and go home with a bottle of whisky you filled yourself. Tom Sawyer would have been proud.

Dietrich began at Stranahan's filling bottles too, until former distiller Jake Norris taught him to distil. Back in those days Dietrich was happy making three 53 gallon barrels a week from beer mash sent over from Flying Dog. "We did more guitar pickin' and dog scratchin' then than whiskey makin'."

Today, 20 full time staff keep the distillery running 24 hours a day, six days a week turning 60,000 pounds of barley into whiskey 52 times a year. In 2009, even Denver mayor, John Hickenlooper came round to help. He filled their 1,000th barrel. Four years later when the whisky was ready to bottle, he was governor.

Today, a 20 member hospitality crew welcomes visitors to the distillery. Shortly after the mayor dropped by, Stranahan's bought the defunct, 60,000 square foot Heavenly Daze brewery, including brewing equipment and three fermenters filled with foul, six years old beer. Finally Dietrich could ferment his own mash on site. In homage to Stranahan's brewing origins, the four barleys Dietrich uses are not different varieties, but different roasts. He also propagates his own proprietary yeast on site.

Before long, the distillery expanded again, this time turning the beef jerky factory next door into a climate-controlled warehouse where 8,000 barrels rest at a steady 70° Fahrenheit in 45per cent relative humidity. The whisky is barrelled at 55% ABV because it's so dry in Colorado the angels take more water than alcohol. The hands-on nature of Stranahan's is nowhere more obvious than when they add water to cask strength whisky in the blending tanks. The only reliable source of the Eldorado natural spring water they prize is five gallon jugs intended for drinking fountains. When his arms got tired of lifting jugs of water over his head, Dietrich installed a funnel system. There are nine fermenters now and Stranahan's whisky is available across the US and in Canada, Mexico and Japan. Time for Dietrich to install another funnel for the water?

Breckenridge Distillery

At an altitude of nearly 9,700 feet, Breckenridge Distillery is likely the highest distillery in the world. The water that goes into Breckenridge whisky began as snowmelt running down from the high Rockies, and seeping through endless miles of limestone karst where it picked up a minerality that expresses the terroir of the southern Rocky Mountains. Those mountains make for great whisky, though they bring great challenges. At 9,700 feet, winter snow can close the two lane highways that twist their way through mountain passes. "It's a challenge to get goods on and off this mountain, but you gotta be where the water is," laments master distiller, Jordan Via.

Nicknamed 'Stillmonkey', Via distils his spirit in a 500 gallon Vendome copper pot still until a new 42 foot copper column with 200 gallon doubler arrives from Vendome. Three 10,000 gallon fermenters will replace the current 1,000 gallon one, boosting daily production from 2 to 25 barrels of Bourbon along with two barrels of malt whiskey. Most exciting for Colorado's pristine environment, 75 per cent of the water will be recycled during the process with overall water discharge reduced to almost nil. Since Breckenridge is a holiday destination, the team has imported gourmet chef, Dan O'Brien from Rochester, NY, to run their restaurant. Great food at reasonable prices is the promise, and they are right, the food is impeccable.

A chemist by education, Via studied oenology at the University of California before becoming a wine maker in Napa. He also ran courses for the American Distilling Institute. Bryan Nolte attended one of Via's classes and told him about his plans to build a malt whiskey distillery in the Colorado Rockies. When he asked if Via knew anyone who could give them technical guidance, Via replied, "Me!" packed up his bags, and set course for Breckenridge. By 2006 the two were in business. For the first five years it was just them, distilling four barrels of malt whisky a week, with Via's wife managing sales.

They eventually added Bourbon to the line-up using a mash bill containing 36 per cent rye grain. It was a time of economic downturn in America. Major producers suddenly had bulk whisky for sale at prices lower than the cost of production. Via and Nolte began blending their own Bourbon 50:50 with Bourbon made using the same mash bill but purchased from Indiana's MGP. Their blended product sold like crazy.

Today, there are 50 staff to make and manage the daily truckloads of whisky that leave the distillery to meet demand in 48 states, France, Britain, Hong Kong, and Australia.

Like everything else, the cowboy life is changing, and so our trek down the Rocky Mountains ends not with a fiery horse and a cloud of dust, but in a quirky little tavern in the heart of Colorado, with a mountain man and one-time moonshiner whose whisky is enjoyed in every US state and several foreign countries.

So pardner, time to giddy-on-up. "Hi-ho Silver… away!"

Tasting Notes

Stranahan's Diamond Peak Colorado Whisky 47% ABV

Four years old and exquisite. Clover honey with tantalising pepper then just hints of grippy tannins. Clean malted grain, dark fruits and a hot creamy finish.

Breckenridge Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys 43% ABV

Waxy with hints of cereal. Sweet corn and herbs, an earthiness with dancing rye spices, red fruits, vague hints of peppermint and a gorgeous bitterish vanilla finish.

Tin Cup American Whiskey 42% ABV

Caramel tones with mild hints of dry, big, spicy rye and cherry juice laced with vanilla, beautiful grippy tannins with a creamy caramel finish. Spicy, with a peppery glow. Very moreish.

Stranahan's Colorado Whisky 47% ABV

Caramel, mild honey and grain, then Bourbon-like vanillas and caramels. Rich mouthfeel and complex palate with orange zest, brilliant gingery spices and old leather.

Breckenridge Port Finished Bourbon 45% ABV

Creamy and fruity nose with a nutty palate. Loads of red fruit but no wine Pleasantly herbal with velvet tannins. Wafting Macintosh toffee on exhaling.
Magazine Archive

From the archive

Select an issue

Subscribe Now

Subscriptions for
Whisky Magazine are available
in print, digital or as a
complete package

The Benefits

8 print editions a year

Enjoy the convenience of home delivery

Full access to every digital edition via desktop, iOS or Android device

Latest Issue Subscribe Now

The Whisky Encyclopedia - Coming Soon 2024

Discover the world of whisky with our comprehensive encyclopedia
Featuring companies, distilleries, brands, glossaries, and cocktails

Join The Community

Sign up to the Whisky Magazine
newsletter letter and get access to the latest
in all things whisky

paragraph publishing ltd.   Copyright © 2024 all rights reserved.   Website by Acora One