Ryan Skeels pops the bung on an oak bourbon barrel and peers into the hole with a flashlight. "Oh, yeah, there's a lot still in there," he says. A half a bottle's worth of whiskey sits at the bottom, having leached out of the wood in the days since Laws Whiskey House emptied this barrel.
Skeels, who co-owns Baere Brewing, isn't sure what beer he's going to fill the barrel with, but whatever it is, he knows it will benefit from the notes of toffee, oak, vanilla and spicy rye that the barrel will impart. His first beer aged in Laws barrels, Big Hoppy Brown, was a smooth hit in the tap house after having only aged with the bourbon for three weeks.
Baere Brewing has already tapped two Laws Whiskey barrel-aged beers.
Baere, at 320 Broadway, and Former Future Brewing, just about a mile south, are the only two breweries that have tapped a beer aged in barrels from Laws, a whiskey-only distillery that opened last October just half a block off Broadway.
But they won't be the last. Although Laws only began bottling its Four Grain Straight Bourbon a few months ago, it has already sold about three dozen emptied barrels to a handful of Colorado breweries, mostly in Denver. There is now a waiting list with a least a dozen other names on it.
"I'm getting all the requests that I can handle right now," says Stephen Julander, a distiller at Laws who also handles the sale of his barrels to local breweries. "We try to pick the smaller guys, and we try to keep many of them within a close vicinity to us. All of them are in Colorado."
In doing so, Laws is filling a niche that was created in about 2005 when Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey -- then a small locally-owned operation -- began selling its used barrels to the new crop of breweries that were opening in Colorado; scoring one of these barrels was a nice coup for the beer makers, who would proudly boast of the in-state, small-batch connection.
At the time, Stranahan's was one of the only distilleries in Colorado, and head distiller Jake Norris (who is now with Laws) enjoyed the connection he was able to create with Colorado brewers and their customers who appreciated a locals approach.
After Stranahan's was purchased in 2010 by New Jersey's Proximo Spirits, the parent company continued to sell its barrels, but asked breweries not to use the distillery's name when talking about the beer. Eventually, Proximo signed an exclusive deal with Breckenridge Brewery that allowed the beer maker to market one of its beers using Stranahan's name.
Stephen Julander is a senior distiller at Laws Whiskey House.
That deal was since expired, and Proximo has gone back to selling its barrels and asking breweries to remove its name or keep it a secret.
Laws is taking the opposite approach, says owner Al Laws, a former oil-and-gas-industry executive who began distilling in 2012: "The breweries around here are like us. They're making something, and that's important. We want to spread our barrels around to them. We are not taking our name off of them."
"I appreciate them even mentioning us," Julander adds. "At Baere and at TRVE, they have the barrels sitting out with our name on them. It helps both of us. I appreciate it when people fly our flag as well."
TRVE is aging its Liquid Funeral Imperial Stout in four Laws barrels, which it will empty in the next two months; the brewery will then bottle the beer and sell it under the name Whiskey Funeral. "I'm stoked those dudes are selling their barrels around instead of just working with a single brewery," says TRVE owner Nick Nunns. "It's a smart business move on their part in terms of getting their name out to the beer folks."
Former Future, located just six blocks from Laws, was the first brewery to get a barrel. "We were always cruising over there after work," Julander says, "and we wanted to drink the beer they were making in our barrels."
Since then, Former Future has aged its Russian Imperial Stout in the barrels, creating a rich and very potent barrel-aged version called Putin on the Fritz.
That barrel came from the first batch of whiskey that Laws bottled; the distillery has now bottled two more batches and sold more than thirty barrels to other breweries, including Chain Reaction, Grandma's House and Platte Park, which are all close by. Other breweries that have picked up barrels include Station 26, Great Divide and Wynkoop (which will use it to barrel age an imperial stout), along with Black Bottle in Fort Collins and Butcherknife in Steamboat Springs.
Laws sells each barrel for around $135; it initially buys them for closer to $200.
This barrel at Laws is being saved especially for TRVE Brewing.
Several other Colorado distilleries also sell their barrels directly to breweries -- but not as many breweries as Laws. Most breweries go through barrel brokers, like the locally-owned Rocky Mountain Barrel Company.
Julander says Laws plans to bottle a new batch of whiskey every month, freeing up up ten to fifteen barrels each time, all of which are made with American white oak. Most of these 53-gallon barrels have had the whiskey inside for two to three years. Laws is now filling about forty new barrels each month and has a back stock of 1,100 in its rackhouse.
Most will end up having second, or even third, lives with breweries, something Julander is looking forward to.
"I try to taste each one that is made with one of our barrels," he says. "The Baere brown was lovely even though it didn't sit very long. The roast characteristics of the malt really softened out. And TRVE, they're in for the long haul. If you have the patience, you can really make delicious beer."
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