Stranahan’s is a bona fide craft whiskey distillery that has met with commercial success. It also offers a unique story in that this distillery produces a barley malt-based whiskey instead of the usual corn-based bourbon. Aging the distilled malt whiskey in heavily charred new American oak barrels gives this whiskey a very distinct flavor and aroma profile quite unlike either a Scotch with which it shares the malt, or bourbon, with which it shares the oak barrel aging process. This is not your father’s bourbon or your uncle’s Scotch.
Stranahan’s started up in 2004 through the combined interests of George Stranahan and Jess Graber. George Stranahan had already made a name for himself when he started the Flying Dog Brewery and for a time the distillery used barley flour mash from the brewery. The new distillery became the first distillery in modern times to open in Colorado and also became one of the better-known craft whiskey distillers. That success may have more than a small role in driving the rampant craft distillery movement around the United States. That success also lead to it being one of the only craft distilleries to actually get bought out by a major spirits company when Proximo Spirits bought it in 2010. This purchase brought one change that seems paradoxical to me. Instead of being marketed to the world, the new owners actually retrenched to the Colorado market. Stranahan’s had already spread to most of the U.S. and a handful of foreign countries. For Iowans, if you want this whiskey you will have to have someone fetch it for you in Colorado. I am told that there are plans to expand distribution once again.
The tour is really fun and well worth the trip if you find yourself in Denver. The distillery itself is in the warehouse district of south Denver, just about 15 blocks south of the main downtown Denver district.
Get a reservation online and show up shortly before the tour. You can wait in the very large bar where there is both local beer, a variety of other whiskeys and a number of different batches of Stranahan’s whiskey waiting for the curious to try. There is a clear emphasis on batches and that is an important point that the representative repeated during the tasting portion of the tour. Each bottle has the batch written right on the label.
Unlike many distilleries where public tours are seen as a nuisance and appear to be a mostly unwanted afterthought, Stranahan’s actively courts its fans and would-be fans with an intentionally informative and honest tour. The tour begins just outside the mash tun and fermenter where there is a well-appointed tasting/lecture room. The tour continues through the plant which is arrayed along the back wall of the building. The process is all very linear and it is easy to see how the whiskey is made. Eventually you make your way to the wash and spirit stills. These are fairly large (for a craft distillery) combo units with a pot and column. I do not know if they use the columns.
After getting to the end of the distillery process you find yourself in a fairly tight rack room. One thing that I learned is that just like some of the larger distilleries, Stranahan’s is changing its racking over from traditional horizontal racks to palletized vertical racks. I am sure that some traditionalists scoff at the change, but I can’t really see how it could hurt the maturation process. The air to wood ratio is the same in either case. Palletizing barrels does allow the distillery to move the barrels around in the racking warehouse so that barrels don’t suffer from being in the wrong place its entire life. However, the rack room is actually climate controlled in an effort to speed up the aging process. Otherwise, the long, cold and dry Colorado winters might unduly stunt the process. The host was charming and exhibited a proprietary interest when explaining the history of the whiskey and the individuals involved.
The warehouse portion of the building is the biggest hint that this is not anything of the scale of a major Kentucky distillery. The ceiling isn’t four or five stories high. It is just as high as any normal warehouse. It is also tight enough that I really doubt that they lose any barrels in there.
After the nickle tour is complete, you are ushered back into the tasting room. Here the host pours shots for everyone. Bottles are available for pickup right there, which is a rare thing if you visit most distilleries. You pick up your bottle and perhaps some swag and you are free to go or to visit the adjoining bar. One thing you may want to do is to inquire as to what different batches are available for tasting that are also for sale. I didn’t try enough to confirm this, but it is my understanding that the batches are noticeably different from each other.
The whiskey itself is different for an American whiskey, being made of 100% “rocky mountain barley.” I don’t know what makes barley “rocky mountain” barley, but the barley lends a very specific flavor profile. However, do not expect this whiskey to be either a Scotch or a bourbon. Unlike Scotch whiskies, of which the vast majority are made with neutral grain spirits and aged in well-used American whiskey or sherry barrels, Stranahan’s is not filtered and is dumped into new, heavily charred American oak barrels. This creates a very unique flavor profile that is not shared by many, if any, other whiskeys. I do need to put Stranahan’s against some other American Single Malts (Balcones, McCarthy’s, Pine Barrens, Wasmund’s, Cedar Ridge, JJ Neukomm) to get a better fix on this new American Whiskey trend.
I will be writing about batch 112. The heavy char comes through in an unexpected way when I poured the glass. It is not especially smoky. Instead, there is a sharper taste like old wet wood. This potentially off-putting taste disappeared once I tipped the glass back and took a real drink. The flavors that greeted me were unique among American whiskeys. I can’t say I’ve tasted anything quite like it. It is totally different than a bourbon. Not even close. There are aged rums that I’d rank as closer in taste to a bourbon than Stranahan’s. There are none of the usual spice, cinnamon or vanilla flavors I’d expect with a classic American whiskey. Instead, there are what I’d rank as more sweet, fruity, and bright citrus flavors. Some reviewers describe this as banana, but that makes me think of German beer and this isn’t the same aroma at all. It is fairly obvious that there is a higher alcohol content as well, with a burn as the first swallow made its way down. The lack of filtering caused my bottle to develop very slight smoky haze in the whiskey itself. This disappeared as soon as I started to move the bottle around a bit.
Do I like it? Well, this isn’t going to replace my favorite Bourbon, but I have to say that it is a fetching whiskey. It has what I’d call a “wake me up” sweet flavor profile even though this particular batch was a bit alien to my taste. I missed the classic spice of a bourbon. At the same time there wasn’t any of the flavor or aroma of a heavily peated malt whiskey. It instead struck me more like an unpeated Scotch, which is actually my preferred Scotch if I’m going to drink a Scotch whisky, except that it lacked some of the smoothness of a whisky that has been aged for eight or more years.
The whiskey bottle I bought comes with a large stainless steel jigger that was not attached to the cork stopper. It did take some work to get the jigger loose, though. Some quality time upside down with the metal jigger in a bowl of hot water, plus some hard knocks on the jigger worked it free. I don’t know if the 750 ml bottle has a jigger that is separate from the cork stopper or not.
What Stranahan’s offers the whiskey world is a unique taste. A lot of craft whiskey distilleries seem to be bent on reproducing whiskeys that Kentucky and Scotland have been making very well for a long, long time. What the world needs is innovation and new flavors and on this score, Stranahan’s delivers.