About halfway through a tour of the Stranahan's distillery in Denver, Colorado, our exuberant guide pointed out a barrel with a clear crimson-tinted head, like something that rolled out of a backwoods disco. It's filled a quarter of the way with new-make whiskey and it's designed to illustrate evaporation. Sitting atop an upright barrel beside it, there are two stainless steel food-grade gas nozzles.
"That's a fun story," our guide of the apparatuses, and she proceeds to tell us about how the staff once used them to fill barrels. Back in the day, she said, someone even modified a motorcycle to run on the spirit's heads. Today, she says, they use the heads for a different purpose.
"We put it in squirt bottles. It's what we use to clean," she says with a hearty laugh.
While that plucky spirit, a prerequisite for entrepreneurs, certainly isn't necessary any longer, it helps maintain a fun factor around the house. Proximo, the company that owns Cuervo and produces and imports 1800 Tequila, Three Olives Vodka and other brands, bought Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey in December 2010. Since then, things have gotten a tad less free-wheeling—more number-crunching, more levels of public relations to penetrate for access. But no matter. production of Rocky Mountain whiskey is in full force.
Relative to the rest of the craft distilling industry, Stranahan's history is long and rich. Founded in 2004, it's known as Colorado's first legal distillery since Prohibition. It was a joint enterprise between George Strananhan, an owner of Flying Dog Brewery, and Jess Graber, a construction company owner and a whiskey hobbyist who'd long been making moonshine. To start his craft distillery, Graber outsourced the fermentation to Flying Dog, thereby drastically slashing start-up costs.
He recruited Jake Norris, a whiskey expert at a local Irish bar and whiskey educator. A skilled distiller, he devised much of Stranahan's original branding, from the jagged scribbles on the label that make it look like an authentic product of the Old West, to the small stickers marked with the batch number and a few words commemorating the moment the bottle was sealed, from the music playing at the time to a shout-out to an employee's newly born child.
"I wanted to write something that reminds the person picking up the bottle that the whiskey was made by a real person," said Norris, who has gone on to work at Laws Whiskey House, one of Denver's newer craft operations. "I wanted to write something personal that reflected my moment in time, a snapshot of what I was experiencing ."
In 2009, Stranahan's moved from about a half-mile north of downtown Denver to a larger facility 1.5 miles south. They had gone from the early days of producing six barrels a week to up to 60, the current production rate.
"When we moved, Oscar Blues Brewery was supplying our wash. They were hauling it in tanker trucks to the distillery," explained Rob Dietrich, who became head distiller in 2011. "We bought the new place because it was an old abandoned brewery. All the equipment was here. We could make our own wash in-house and control every step of the process."
About that process: the whiskey is distilled from a mash of 100% malted barley. They use five types, most of which is grown and malted regionally. The final product is a blend 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-year old whiskies.
Around 3,000 people come through the distillery each month. Grey and industrial as seen on your approach from Interstate 25, the building is not much to fuss about. But once you walk in, the fuss starts. Rock and roll blares and young burly fellows scuttle about, hauling sacks of yeast and moving palates of boxes. The operation is set up around the periphery of the sprawling room. Just on the left when you enter are the mash tuns. Light floods in from the high windows above. Further along there are nine fermenting tanks, then, winding around the room, it's over to the three 800-gallon stripping stills and the two 160-gallon spirit stills. And for ageing?
"The building has 40,000 feet of storage - concrete rooms - and nobody knew what to do with it. We called it the 'catacombs' because it had all these little spaces. Obviously it became great for barrel storage," said Dietrich. "We can keep it humidified and heated."
The most attention-grabbing part of the tour is arguably the bottling room. You might call theirs a citizen bottling room; there is a waiting list 20,000 people long to come in for a 4 hour shift and be part of the process. It's worth observing if you visit on one of the two days a month when they're bottling.
Of course, the visit wraps up in the tasting room, which has an old-school saloon-like vibe. There are tractor seats on the stools. Upright barrels form the base of the bar, others serve as tables. It's as comfy a place as any to settle in and sample the spirit. Finally.