I've yet to find a spirit that I really hate. I've had gins so smooth and floral, I'd willingly drink them neat. I'm a sucker for a good, smoky mezcal. Put tequila in just about anything and I'll pour it straight down my throat. But at the end of the night, after good-naturedly nursing cocktails made from just about anything a bartender can find behind the bar — the weirder the better — I'm still a whiskey woman at heart.
Whiskey is moody, sultry and expressive. Terroir and technique give different whiskeys vastly different characteristics, making one a mouthful of smoke and another a gulp of butterscotch. Neat, whiskey is rough around the edges. Matched with bitters and stirred, it's smooth and refined.
Colorado has a growing crop of whiskey distillers, and the largest is Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey. Under owner Jess Graber, the company set out to create a new style of the spirit called Rocky Mountain Straight Whiskey, giving local sensibility to this inherently regional liquor. Like bourbon, the most renowned States-based whiskey (to be designated as a bourbon, the spirit must be made on U.S. soil), Stranahan's is aged in charred oak barrels. But instead of the 51 percent corn required for bourbon, Stranahan's is made with local barley and local water — and it's lighter and less sweet as a result. Two years ago, Stranahan's moved its operations into the old Heavenly Daze Brewery space to accommodate its rapid growth. While stills and bottling areas filled most of the building, the space in the front that once held Heavenly Daze's restaurant was leased to Eric Warner, who also owns the Barking Goat Tavern in Castle Rock, and partner Chris Rippe.
208 South Kalamath Street
Hours: 11 a.m.-12 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Half-bird board $14
Lobster mac $14
Beef marrow bones $11
Lamb burger $13
Rustica pizza $10.50
Side beer-baked mac and cheese $4.50
While Warner stayed behind the scenes, in 2009 Rippe opened the Rackhouse Pub, a place that draws from both the rough and refined spirit of whiskey.
"Rackhouse" refers to the part of a distillery where spirits are racked in barrels and stored, so barrels feature prominently in the decor. But this is no dusty cellar: Rows of leather-topped booths and polished wood tables fill the dark, cavernous dining room; a massive and ornate bar, surfaced with granite, lines one wall. That bar's spirit focus is whiskey, of course, and in addition to Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey and special releases, it stocks bourbon, Scotch and Irish whiskey, as well as other craft creations, many of which are from local distillers. Those are available by the dram or mixed into one of many specialty cocktails, which also feature other spirits, such as vodka and gin, made by small-batch, craft producers.
Rackhouse isn't just a tasting room for spirits, though. The owners also wanted to create a taphouse that paid homage to Denver's reputation as the Napa Valley of beer, so they installed twenty tap lines that pour a well-rounded selection of Colorado craft beers in addition to one out-of-state brew.
The drinks list is so substantial that after I nabbed a seat at the bar on my first Rackhouse visit, the bartender had to stop back three times before I finally made the decision to start with a crisp cider and then ease my way into the heavier ales and, eventually, whiskeys. My menu choices were easier. In line with the Rackhouse concept, the board features hearty pub fare that the kitchen has attempted to refine with local ingredients; in addition to burgers, pizzas and wings, it also lists such trendy items as bone marrow and lobster mac and cheese. And everything's served on cutting boards or in metal measuring cups, a common gimmick in gastropubs that I was thinking had gone from clever to precious until I saw my own cutting board heading toward me, stacked with crispy, golden chicken and sided with a silver cup of glistening penne coated in cheese, sprinkled with basil and crowned with a single Ritz cracker.
The presentation was the best thing about the chicken. Although the cornmeal crust was delicate, just lightly blotted with grease, the leg and breast underneath were overcooked and dry, dissolving into gummy paste on the tongue. And the gloppy peppers on top and the slimy kale below the bird did more harm then help.
Fortunately, the macaroni and cheese was as awesome as the chicken was awful. Rackhouse pours Rail Yard Ale into the creamy five-cheese roux, which gives the sauce both a subtle maltiness and a hoppy bite, enhancing the sharper cheeses in the blend. Each piece of pasta was thickly coated in the stuff, each forkful augmented by the salty bite of the cracker. After I'd scraped the cup clean, I ordered a second round, this one with lobster and bacon.
Since Thomas Keller first paired lobster with cheesy noodles, the combination has become ubiquitous — and often horrible, since the dish is hard to time. Frequently, the seafood is rubbery when it hits the table, having overcooked in the few minutes it's been mixed in with the pasta. But not at Rackhouse. The kitchen nailed this, creating a gooey, satisfying, fancied-up mess of noodles, cheese, supple chunks of lobster and lardoons of smoky bacon. A dram of whiskey was just the thing to wash it down.
When I returned to the Rackhouse with a group a few weeks ago, we sat in the nearly empty dining room, drinking Sazeracs and samplers of beer delivered by a slow but cheerful waitress and waiting for the beer-baked mac and cheese that I'd insisted we order immediately. But when it arrived, I regretted my praise. While the flavor was fine, the noodles were limp and the sauce was slightly broken and separated, which gave it an oily sheen and an odd, mealy texture.
Trying to make good with my now skeptical companions, I quickly ordered the bone marrow, another dish once offered at only the highest-end restaurants but now infiltrating lists all over the place. I'm okay with that: Bone marrow is like hot meat marmalade, best when troweled thickly on toast and eaten like butter. Rackhouse roasts an excellent marrow bone, complete with a lightly caramelized top that adds richness to the velvety spread. Three pieces came next to a fan of flatbread toasts; my only regret was that the kitchen hadn't added something sweet to the plate. I'll eat marrow until my heart explodes, but I'd like to die with a clean palate.
The heavy dish required a beer, and I nursed it while I waited for my entree to arrive — and then wished I'd just decided to drink my dinner. I'd ordered a lamb burger, smeared with feta cheese and topped with greens, and served — on a cutting board, of course — with a side of housemade potato chips and little bowls of homemade ketchup and grainy mustard. The accoutrements were fine, but the temperature wasn't. Rackhouse's menu says it cooks burgers to somewhere between medium rare and medium — but this one had gone far past that. My burger was gray inside, charred outside, and dry all the way through. (On a return visit, I made a point of asking for a rare burger and got my desired medium rare; the lamb was much better with some juice.)
Luckily, a friend had a few slices of Rustica pizza he was willing to share. Dough pressed flat as a cracker had been swiped with olive oil, dusted with pungent roasted garlic, dotted with earthy mushrooms and coarse, spicy sausage, layered with parmesan, and baked until the cheese browned and bubbled and the crust was crispy. The pizza was neither Neapolitan nor New York-style, but it was a good bar snack. Especially when paired with another Sazerac.
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Since Rackhouse opened two years ago, there have been some changes. Although Stranahan's is still made in the building, Graber recently sold his company to New York-based Proximo Beverage Corporation. And chef Jayson Reynolds has joined the Rackhouse team as an owner.
He's got some work to do. Whiskey may have been the guiding force behind the Rackhouse, but right now the food is more rough than refined. It could use a dash of bitters and a stir to smooth out the edges.