Monday, May 25, 2009

Colorado whiskey river don't run dry

This story was written over a decade ago when Stranahan's first hit the big-time Colorado Whiskey scene. Since then, many other local distillers have tapped the barrel, with good results.

By Rob Carrigan,

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.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Thanks for the memories

 As we pull up stakes and relocate north, I ran into this old "memory jogger" from nearly a decade ago.

By Rob Carrigan,

Tennessee Williams wrote, “Life is all memory, except for one present moment that goes by so quick you hardly catch it going.”
With Memorial Day right around the corner, it is appropriate we pay tribute. According to, “Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.”
But memories can divide as much as they bring together.
“The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I. ... It is now celebrated in almost every state on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act, P.L. 90-363, in 1971 to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays.)”
• • •
As long as we are mining memory, I must remember to thank Ed Hunter for sending me a copy of “A Concise History of Mine Hoisting, by Paul Mogensen and Ed Hunter. “With your interest in history of the area, etc..., I thought you might get a kick out of this done for the Western Museum of Mining and Industry,” said Ed’s note.
At the museum, a hoist from W.S. Stratton’s Independence Mine is available for viewing at 1025 North Gate Road, north of Colorado Springs. “The hoist has been set up as it would be for a mining operation including the flat cables and reels,” according to the book.
“The cages are similar to the cages that were in use at the Independence mine. Along with the hoist and headframe are other examples of various elements of hoisting plants. The steel headframe originally stood over the Elkton shaft just north of Victor and was the second steel headframe erected in the district.”
• • •
Finally, for another memory jogger related to area history, I received this note from documentary film-maker Rod J. Thompson, who now lives in San Clemente, Calif.
“I lived in Alaska from 1968 to 1980. I met and became friends with Lowell Thomas, Jr. I had a film company in Anchorage and worked with him on several films. Just today a film came on the history channel and watching with my 24 yr. old son, I began telling him how I had filmed with Lowell Jr. on a long trek from Anchorage to Attu, doing a film about Bob Reeve, owner then of "Reeve Aleutian Airways" and how Lowell and I had talked a lot on the trip about the war that took place there, etc...”
Anyway, thank you all.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Red-eyed, blue-bodied, crazy horse of Denver

“Art, like life, should be free, since both are experimental.” ___ George Santayana, 1905

“Without art, the crudeness of realty would make the world unbearable.” ___ George Bernard Shaw, 1921

More than one crazy horse out here in the West

By Rob Carrigan,

Nothing like a big horse statue to shake up the art world and make the natives restless. The recent flap over the 32-foot-tall, blue-bodied, fire-red-eyed mustang at DIA calls to mind other similar arguments.
Earlier this year, local developer Rachel Hultin signed up nearly 8,000 people on a Facebook effort ( to try to get the city to move the big beast.
Others have labeled it “Bluecifer,” “Satan’s Stallion,” and “DIAblo.”
“What exactly was the deal with that horse?” askes Hultin.
Commissioned in 1992, Luis Jimenez began working on the piece that was to represent symbolically, Denver and the West.
“Mr. Jimenez was killed working on the sculpture,” notes a February story in Wall Street Journal by Stephanie Simon. “In 2006, while he was hoisting pieces of the mustang for final assembly in his New Mexico studio, the horse’s massive torso swung out of control and crushed the 65-year-old artist. Mr. Jimenez’s widow and children helped finish the sculpture, and it was installed last February at the airport (2008), at a cost to the city of $650,000.”
I don’t know why, but that sounds vaguely familiar.
I’ve got it. Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I am transported back to 1982 and some crazy rockshaper has just died after working on a piece since 1948, -- it is going to be a 563-foot-tall, 641-wide Indian Chief on a granite stallion.
Let’s see, could it be Korczak Ziolkowski building a statue called coincidentally “Crazy Horse?” And his widow and 10 children were going to finish it?
Ziolkowski, who worked with Gutzon Borglum on Mt. Rushmore, was reportedly approached by Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear in the form of a letter saying "My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too.”
Naturally, old Korczak couldn’t resist.
On two different occasions, Ziolkowski turned down $10 million in federal funding to build the steed-mounted Indian icon. The work has been primarily supported by visitor fees and donations for the more than 61 years now. “My lands are where my dead lie buried,” a quote attributed to Crazy Horse, is the intended interpretation of the statue’s expansive gesture. The face was unveiled in 1998 and work continues now on the extended arm.
Some folks, including many Native Americans, think the big “Crazy Horse” statue is a big, bad idea, of course.
But back to the 32-feet, 9,000 –pound, red-eyed Mustang at DIA... The city of Denver has policy in place that provides a five-year “no move” period for new art and that basically meant the big blue “devil” horse could not be moved until 2013. By that time, the effort to remove the big blue devil had fizzled, a bit.
"The Blue Mustang, with its Horsemen of the Apocalypse feel, merely adds another element of intrigue to the cluster of conspiracies at Denver International. Despite the bad vibes and petitions for its removal, the hellacious horse continues to maintain its watch over the airport," said a recent Atlas Obscura blog by Ella Morton on Slate.


Sunday, May 3, 2009

The essence of the animal

“She was known simply as Vivi,” writes Robin Beaver in a tribute to Wyoming wildlife artist, Vivi Crandall.
“A skillful horse woman and hunter who turned to wildlife art and found enormous success. She was gracious in her cowgirl hats, western skirts and boots. Vivi Crandall's home was secluded on Casper Mountain, but her paintings were hot throughout the West, selling for up to $100,000. When she died of cancer April 30, (2000,) at age 56, Vivi left a void in the lives of the people who knew her personally as well as those who captured her personality solely through her art.”
The Casper Star Tribune agreed. “A famous international wildlife artist, Crandall’s paintings literally sprang to life. Some people even thought her paintings were photographs. You can feel the fur, see the motion and see the breath of an animal on a cold day through her paintings, all Vivi trademarks.”
I wrote this story after the owner of the paper I was working for at the time, Mike Lindsey, came running in one afternoon saying, “You have to meet this woman.”
I am certainly glad I did.
A few months after the story appeared, I ran into Vivi in the bar of the Wolf Hotel in Saratoga. Gracious as always, she was very complimentary of the piece and offered to buy me a beer. I declined, as I already was just finishing a Pabst Blue Ribbon and headed out the door. A few days later a full case of PBRs arrived at Saratoga Sun for me, compliments of Vivi Crandall.

The sunlight streams through the corner windows of the hotel room and dances in the artist’s blond hair and off her bare left shoulder. The bits of straw matted in the buffalo’s shaggy mane also reflect the light and one has to look twice to decide what is real and what is canvas.
But Vivi Crandall knows. Art is art, and the trick to capture the essence of the animal.
“I won’t do anything I don’t want to do,” Crandall said as she put the finishing touches on her hauntingly realistic image of a buffalo in her hotel room at the Saratoga Inn last Tuesday.
“I want to bring out the essence of the animal instead of just the appearance. It gives you much more of a feel for it.”
Detail is the key.
“She picks up where other artists quit,” said Val Scheller of the Cedar Chest Galleries. “Detail has become her trademark.”
Crandall started the buffalo painting only a week and half prior to Tuesday’s interview. She expected to finish it in three or four hours, “and then I’m going to party,” she said. The painting was to have been hung in Cody at Buffalo Bill Art Show by Thursday.
Crandall says she paints a minimum of 12 hours a day. Sometimes she can still be found at the easel at 2 a.m.
“I just get too involved to break concentration,” she confessed.
She decided to set up her studio away from studio at the Saratoga Inn because “My husband went sheep hunting and I didn’t feel like being all by myself.” She and her husband own a guide and outfitting business and live on a ranch north of Rawlins.
“It has really been fun being down here, having other people around to wait on me while I’m painting.”
She says the many visitors who watch here working in her hotel studio do not bother her in the least. “I get so intense, I don’t know anyone is there.”
Crandall begins each of her paintings with ideas and then research, she said. She works with wildlife photographer Jim Hamilton and studies his photos along with other resources such as hides and draws very heavily from her outfitting and ranching experiences.
“My next one is going to be a beaver.”
She only works with acrylics even though she admits, “I always wanted to be sculptress.”
“If you do too many things, you create confusion for your audience. You bastardize your work.”
Crandall has really only been painting for three years but has enjoyed national and even international success. “I am very grateful that I was able to develop a style of my own. Some say it is too photographic but people like it. That’s the audience I’m painting for.”
Although she has only been painting for three years, she has been involved in art for some time including a stretch as Art Director for the Washington Post.
“I went to good art schools so I had a feel for it, but the painting was really self-taught. I started when my kids went to college. We had the guide business and it just was the natural progression to begin to paint animals.”
She and her husband moved to their ranch in Wyoming about 12 years ago. “It is one move I have never regretted.”
Crandall has already completed 36 paintings this year and she says she usually only takes one day to rest and clear her mind between paintings.
She doesn’t keep any of her paintings either. “We don’t own any art.” But she says she usually gets to know the people who buy her paintings somewhere down the line. She also publishes her own prints.
When asked what she thought the buffalo painting she was working on would bring, “I would think about $9,000,” she said.
But then it is a Vivi Crandall original. One of a kind.
Artistic success has found her and as she puts it, “it pays the bills.”
“I have been incredibly lucky but I work very hard,” she says and she returns to her work. The little daub on the tip of her brush becomes a glint in the Buffalo’s eye. The huge bison stares back at her approvingly.