Is Stranahan's the punk rock of whiskey? Ask the bartender...
Growing up in New Jersey, I was a punk-rock kid. I started with Iggy and the Stooges, the Ramones and the Clash, and moved on to Bad Brains, Fear, the Misfits, early Bad Religion, then into NY hardcore, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, etc.
As the '80s progressed, so did my punk-rock fervor. I read grassroots fanzines like Maximum Rock and Roll and went to hundreds of shows. The bands were on our side: They were representative of how we felt and who we were. Their music was raw, unrefined and had meaning; we made a connection. But as soon as one of our favorite bands made it to the big time -- got mainstream radio play or signed to a record contract -- we would refer to the musicians as "sellouts" or "poseurs." And we'd always talk about them in the past tense, as in "back when they were hard."
I don't want to talk about Stranahan's in the past tense.
Eventually, I exchanged my mohawk and combat boots for a cocktail shaker and spoons. Spirits and cocktails became my passion.
I moved to Colorado in July 2000, and soon after met a bartender/country-music DJ/ whiskey freak named Jake Norris one night at Swanky's. He was trying to convince me not to punch his friend, who was being an ass to my girlfriend. We settled on peace and drank some whiskey together.
A couple of years later, Jake told me he was starting a whiskey brand with a volunteer firefighter named Jess Graber and Aspen entrepreneur George Stranahan, whom Jess had met while fighting a fire at his barn. He wanted to know if I wanted to buy a small barrel from their first run for $250 -- the barrel sales were helping with their startup costs, and I could own a piece of history. Unfortunately, I didn't have the money at the time. But a couple of years later, the first barrels of Stranahan's were bottled.
To me, Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey was the straight (straight whiskey)-up punk rock of spirits. It was completely new (stylistically new to the United States with U.K. roots, much like punk rock), unique, local and made by guys who really gave a fuck. It was raw and beautiful, hand-labeled with notes like "listening to the Dwarves" on the bottle. They didn't have a lot of money, but they had a huge groundswell of support among Colorado bartenders. In true DIY/punk-rock fashion, they held volunteer bottlings at the original distillery on Blake Sreet. At these bottlings, local restaurant-industry people would bottle, label and package Stranahan's. Instead of whistling while we worked, we all drank the runoff from the bottler. Jake would buy food, we'd listen to good music, and a great time would be had by all. As a bonus, everyone left with a bottle of Stranahan's, and they could always say that they'd bottled Batch # X.
It was these kind of events, along with the very important fact that the whiskey was excellent, that earned Stranahan's such support in Denver. We knew the distillers by sight. They drank (and got drunk) in our bars; they were part of us. Denver bartenders adopted Stranahan's like it was our own child and proudly displayed it to everyone who came to our bar, like we were breaking out the wallet photos of our newborn.
The whiskey caught on fast, and soon moved on to several other states. I remember a trip to San Francisco a couple of years ago when all the bartenders asked about was Stranahan's and Denver's Leopold Bros., another huge favorite of mine. (Leopold is the distiller's version of Lee Ving of Fear -- one of only three distilleries in the country where the owner mashes and distills, which is completely DIY. Stay punk rock, my friend.)
Once Stranahan's hit its stride, it moved out of the Blake Street facility and into a much larger building on Kalamath Street, with more stills and fermenters, etc.
We were proud of them: Our own little whiskey was all grown up. We held an "50top" underground dining event at the new Kalamath location, with fifty of Denver's top restaurateurs, food writers, chefs, bartenders, etc.; it was so much fun watching everyone drink from the water cooler full of Stranahan's. Jake gave tours, and even though I had been on them many times, I followed on a few. The event felt like a celebration of how far they had come: Stranahan's was completely embraced by the community, and they were loving us back.
Then that moment came. Earlier this year, Stranahan's was purchased by Proximo Spirits, makers of 1800 Tequila, Hangar One and Three Olives Vodka, to name a few. I was fearful for the product that I had loved and, transported back to my teenaged angst, I wondered if they would become sellouts? Poseurs? Would big business fuck with OUR whiskey? It was like a big record company had come and signed one of my favorite bands. I was afraid they would over-produce the album and turn that punk DIY band into the Human League.
So I did what any punk kid would do: I called the lead singer. After the sale, Jake Norris had been retained as the head distiller. He told me that as long as he was at Stranahan's, the whiskey wouldn't change. And, putting a positive spin on the sale, he said that with Proximo at the helm, they would have more money and resources to make more whiskey. (Demand has exceeded supply for the past year.) I felt comforted by Jake's words. The product in the bottle was still excellent, and I couldn't hold it against Jess and George for selling: Business is business. It was just the punk rock kid in me coming out.
A couple of weeks ago, though, while I was in Oaxaca, Jake left Stranahan's. He has been replaced by his co-worker of five years, Rob Dietrich. Stranahan's plant manager, Pete Macca, has assured me that everything will remain the same: no changes for the process, blending, purchasing whiskey, source materials, etc.
Still, I am worried for Stranahan's. I am a huge fan of the old Misfits (Glenn Danzig, Jerry Only, Doyle Frankenstein, insert drummer here), and three years ago, when I saw them in their latest incarnation, Jerry Only, ironically, was the only original member left. It was sad and strange; they were a shell of their former selves, and they seemed more like a Misfits cover band than the real thing.
I don't want Stranahan's to become that cover band -- and so we'll be watching (and drinking). In the meantime, I caught up with Jake in Phoenix, where he's gone to be with his family and spend some time with barbecue; read my interview with him here tomorrow.
Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program.
You can often find him behind the bar at Euclid Hall and here most weeks, where he'll answer your questions. Post them in the comments section below.
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