Jake Norris's departure from Stranahan's has distillers and bartenders talking
Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails at Stranahan's.
Jake Norris was there from the start of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, so when he left last month -- eight months after the Colorado-based company was sold to Proximo Spirits -- it got a lot of people in the liquor community talking. Norris himself talked last week, as did Rob Dietrich, who's taken over as head distiller.
Colorado's bartenders and other distillers, many of whom helped bottle the whiskey, like the LUPEC ladies above, are still talking about what these changes mean. Here's just a taste of the conversation:
Rob Masters, distiller, Rob's Mountain Gin, Boulder: "Although I have not spoken to Jake since he left, I can say it had to have been hard on him to hand his baby over. He was there from day one and put his blood, sweat and tears into that brand. Developing a brand is not a nine-to-five job; it's your life. As a Colorado distiller, I have huge respect for what Stranahan's has done for our industry. They were truly the first and grew to be the biggest, and although we put our lives into our brands, it comes down to business: We are in business to make money, and selling was the next step for them."
Bryan Dayton, proprietor, Oak at 14th: "Stranahan's knew by selling this would happen. Generally, all small producers look for an 'exit strategy.' This is the way America works on all levels. Integrity always gets compromised when expansions happen without true forethought on how you want your product to remain the same over time and growth. It's a true shame about Jake, a true passion and personality behind one of the forefathers of Colorado micro distillation. I hope he lands where he deserves. Lastly, I hope Stranahan's remains a great product and its ingredients and production stay here in Colorado."
Randy Layman, bar manager, Steuben's Food Service: "I think Jake is an amazing talent and someone Colorado is lucky to have, whether he is with Stranahan's or not. I hope Proximo can keep the 'Colorado' in Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey without sacrificing the integrity Jake worked for many years to build. If the whiskey suffers from change in ownership, it will be very obvious. Stranahan's is something very unique; changing that would be bad business. On the other hand, I am very excited to see what Jake has up his sleeves! He is a true talent and a great guy. Proximo lost on this one."
Jimmy Zanon, bar manager, Lola: "I don't hold any Ill feelings, just how the biz works. Hopefully, Stranahan's will continue to be a great product and I wish Jake all the best."
Todd Leopold, owner and master distiller, Leopold Bros.:"Jake Norris made Colorado a better place to live, which is no small feat. We're proud to call him a peer, and can't wait to taste what he does next."
Brian Melton, lead bartender, ChoLon Asian Bistro" "You know, I went to Stranahan's for both touring and bottling, met great people, learned great things and have enjoyed the juice in the bottle on more than a few occasions. But I wasn't surprised when it was sold, and I'm not surprised by learning that Jake left. The unfortunate thing in this day and age is that I'm only surprised when a successful small company DOESN'T sell to the highest bidder. Would I do it any differently? As much as I'd like to think that I would...if I'm being honest with myself, I'd imagine I might look at all that money and think of what other opportunities I might have in life with it and do the exact same thing. It's just human nature. I don't imagine I'll stop having Stranahan's behind the bar as long as people keep ordering it and it stays a consistent product. If either of those things changes, I'd imagine I'd stop supporting the brand. The bottom line -- as with everything in this ol' world -- is money, and as long as my guests keep spending theirs on the product, I'll keep it around."
This is the final -- for now -- installment in Sean Kenyon's series covering the departure of Jake Norris from Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey. Read Kenyon's interview with new Stranahan's head distiller Rob Dietrich here, his interview with new general manager Pete Macca here, his interview with Jake Norris here, and his riff comparing the early days at Stranahan's to punk rock here.
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.