Monday, May 25, 2009
Colorado whiskey river don't run dry
Almost every year, as we approach Christmas, someone gives me a bottle of whiskey. Many times, it is a bottle of Irish. On occasion, I end up with a fifth of bourbon or some Tennessee sour mash -- and once or twice, I've even received a good jug of high-dollar Scotch. Not much of “fine whiskey” connoisseur, I think there is still some of the Scotch in cabinet. And that was years ago. But this year, I know what I want for Christmas – you can put it on the list right now.
The time has come for Colorado Whiskey – Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey to be precise.
The story goes that when volunteer firefighter Jess Graber got to talking with legendary Aspen figure George Stranahan after putting out his barn fire, the idea of Colorado whiskey was hatched.
Stranahan has reputation of knowing how to drink. Afterall, he and his Woody Creek neighbor Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, illustrator Ralph Steadman, and Richard McIntyre, have all been known to tip a few in the Woody Creek Tavern which Stranahan owned, off and on, for years, starting in 1980.
From that starting point, he founded a brew pub in Aspen with McIntyre that was named after his cattle ranch, the Flying Dog. The ranch lore put its name as originating from a 1983 trip to Pakistan, in which Stranahan saw a painting on the wall in a Rawaipindi hotel. “The Pakistani artist evidently had based the work on a misinterpretation of the English word for hunting dog, or ‘bird dog.’” According to a Sept. 22, 2007, article in the Rocky Mountain News by Roger Fillion.
“To Stranahan, the creature looked like a flying dog.”
High rents in Aspen eventually forced Stranahan and McIntyre out of the brewpub business in that town but they began bottling beer in Denver, sharing the bottling plant with a new partner, John Hickenlooper, (now the mayor of Denver) and Wynkoop Brewing company. Stranahan bought Hickenlooper’s interst in Broadway Brewing about the turn of the new century. Flying Dog now sells beer in 46 states.
“At Hunter Thompson’s urging, Stranahan hired famed British artist and illustrator Ralph Steadman to create the labels,” according to the Fillion article in the News.
“Steadman began work with the Road Dog label in 1995. On it, he scrawled the words ‘Good Beer, No Sh--,’” wrote Fillion.
“Colorado’s top liquor cop banned it and ordered a halt to production, calling it ‘obscene or profane.’ A six-year court fight ensued.”
Until winning their case in 2000, the brewery was forced to use “Good Beer, No Censorship” on their Road Dog label.
Heir to the Champion Spark Plug fortune, Stranahan has left his mark in other ways in Colorado, Among them, as a physicist, he is largely responsible for the Aspen Center for Physics, which opened in 1962 and has hosted Nobel laureates and has produced exceptional contributions to the world of science. He is the former publisher of the Mountain Gazette in the 1970s, and helped resurrect it recently. The magazine has printed groundbreaking work by such notables as Edward Abbey and Wendall Berry. Besides all that, his prize Limousine Bull, W.L.C.C. Turbo, was the Grand Champion and 1990 Denver National Western Stock Show.
The whiskey distillery began in 2004 and released its first barrel-aged whiskey in 2006. It produced about six barrels per week the first few years and combines bourbon and scotch techniques and until recently still worked together with Flying Dog. For a little more than a year now, they have been buying their wash from Oskar Blues as Flying Dog moved their brewing operation to Maryland.
“The barley goes through a roller mill (half husk cracked, for the sake of detail). We have contracted (the breweries)to craft a special four-barley fermented wash that gives the recipe its distinctly sweet flavor. We pipe the wash to the distillery (when the distillery was located next to Flying Dog's brewery) holding tanks with a filtering program special to Stranahan’s. From the holding tanks, the wash goes into a custom-made combination pot/still, made by Vendome Copper Co. of Louisville, Kentucky. We distill it twice, of course, taking the best parts of the doubling run. And that is what fills our 52.8 gallon charred, American white oak whiskey barrels. We age our whiskey a minimum of two years before it reaches perfection for your drinking pleasure,” says promotional information from the distillery.
The distillery has been so successful that earlier this month, the company announced that it would move to a larger 60,000-square-foot facility on Kalamath Street in Denver.
Rick Lyke, of the respected blog Lyke 2 Drink, notes that making whiskey in Colorado is a singular process.
“Stranahan's has a unique racking room that is humidified to protect the barrels from the dry conditions of the high plains desert. (Head Distiller Jake) Norris said that without this step, the angel's share of whiskey lost to evaporation would be 10 percent annually versus the 4 percent most distillers experience in other climates. The constant heat and temperature in the rack room also influences the aging cycle of the whiskey. Norris estimates that two years under these conditions are equal to about four years at other distilleries,” wrote Lyke.
“The two-year-old Stranahan's that we tried, did indeed drink like an older whiskey, with a sweet edge.”
Majority owner Jess Graber, George Stranahan’s firefighting buddy, says the distillery has a patent pending on its whiskey making process.
“In addition to what the company does in the racking room, the mile high altitude and large swings in barometric pressure forces the whiskey in and out of the wood. He said many microdistillers have opted to make vodka, rum and brandy because it creates a quicker cash flow and easier to produce than whiskey. "We decided that Colorado needed a whiskey," Graber told Rick Lyke.
I don’t know about you, but personally, I like the idea of Colorado having its own whiskey. It doesn’t hurt that it is next to a fine brewery and partly-owned by a Colorado legend like George Stranahan. Now you know what to send me for Christmas.