"These," he says, pointing to two 52-gallon oak barrels at his feet, "are the first two legal barrels of whiskey ever made in the state of Colorado." They're also the first barrels of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, which made its debut on March 26. But Stranahan's isn't sipping whiskey yet. Those two barrels, along with others filled in subsequent weeks, are now stacked in the distillery's humidity-controlled storage room. They'll age for two years -- the spirits inside marrying with the wonders of charred American oak -- before the contents are bottled and sold in April 2006.
Until Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey is ready for public consumption, Graber will be working to position this state as the Rocky Mountain equivalent of Kentucky and Tennessee, those Appalachian alcohol powerhouses. "This is Colorado whiskey," he says. "It's not a bourbon, and it's not a single-malt Scotch. We're creating a new whiskey."
Each barrel is proof of Graber's dogged determination, as well as some doggone-good luck. Graber began dabbling in distillation at a friend's home on the Western Slope a dozen years ago, but his idea of starting a distillery really caught fire in 1999. That's when Graber, a homebuilder and volunteer firefighter, was putting out a barn blaze near his home in Woody Creek -- and the burning barn happened to belong to George Stranahan, founder of Flying Dog Brewery. Stranahan and Graber discovered they shared a mutual affection for fermentation, and Stranahan offered Graber a spot to carry out his distillation experiments.
A few weeks later, Graber ran some Flying Dog beer through his distillation gear. The results wowed him, and he pitched Stranahan on having the brewery supply the wash that he needed for his dream distillery. Stranahan liked the concept and introduced Graber to Eric Warner, Flying Dog's president. Warner bit, and soon Flying Dog signed on to become Graber's supplier through a unique licensing arrangement worked out with state and federal alcohol regulators.
Graber named his fledgling company after Stranahan, "because 'Graber' sounds like buttermilk," he says. Stranahan also agreed to invest in the enterprise and serve as an ambassador for his namesake product once it's ready. In the meantime, Graber set up shop in a warehouse in the Ballpark neighborhood, next door to Flying Dog Brewery. The brewery pumps a custom wash right to the distillery, where Graber and head distiller Jake Norris, his one-man staff, run the wash through a $41,000 Vendome Copper Works pot still.
The recipe for the all-malt wash was inspired by Road Dog, Flying Dog's Scottish-style ale, which is brewed with a blend of pale and roasted malts. Graber worked with Flying Dog head brewer Ryan Fox and Elis Owens, Flying Dog's lab guru, to create an all-malt wash that also uses a portion of roasted grains.
That roasted flavor comes through in the test batch Graber's now sampling. The whiskey was aged in a small, two-gallon oak barrel that works faster than the full-sized barrels. "Here's to dreamers," says Norris, lifting a small tasting glass. This drink is worth toasting. Surprisingly smooth and mature for its very tender age, its highlight is a slightly roasted, almost smoky note; that heady flavor melds well with young notes of oak, caramel and alcohol to create a bourbon/single-malt Scotch hybrid that reflects its origins.
"I'm very, very pleased with it," Graber says, pointing out that his whiskey hasn't had time to pick up the deep notes of vanilla, caramel and oak that come from real-time aging. "It's a very clean spirit," he adds, crediting that to the filtered wash from Flying Dog. It's free of the grain husks, fusel oil and other mashing by-products that distillers typically start with.
"Getting these guys to make our wash for us is like getting Martha Stewart to make you cookie dough for your instant cookies," says Norris. A local DJ who led the now-defunct "Country Gone Wrong" show at Streets of London Pub, he's also a whiskey expert who met Graber through a Flying Dog connection.
Graber's tie to the brewery has many advantages. Beyond providing Norris and the wash, he says, "it saved me over half a million dollars." Such partnerships could be key to more people entering the growing micro-distilling field. That movement is led by Bill Owens, a microbrewing pioneer who shifted his energies to mini-batch spirits. Owens recently launched the American Distillers Institute, which includes 63 micro-distillers across the country and held its first trade show in January in California; he also publishes the newsletter American Distiller (www.distilling.com). Owens says he's helping entrepreneurs get through the "glass box" built around access to information on the distilling industry, and as a result, the micro-spirits trade could enter a renaissance period that beer, cheese and other products have already enjoyed.
According to Owens, Graber's brewery/distillery arrangement is the first of its kind among the nation's micro-distillers. "He's getting the cleanest wash I've ever heard of," Owens says. And Graber's access to a brewery means he can create "a whole new generation of whiskeys," Owens adds. "He's in a really interesting position to blaze a new trail."
A handful of the nation's craft brewers have already beaten their own path to the distilling business. Anchor Brewing in San Francisco has produced its own micro-batch spirits for several years. Delaware's Dogfish Head Brewery began making spirits about three years ago. According to founder Sam Calagione, the company branched into distilling so it could offer its customers extra drinking options and further showcase its creative moxie. (Dogfish Head stakes its claim on assertive, over-the-edge craft beers loaded with flavor.)
Dogfish Head now employs a full-time distiller whose products include a honeyed rum, a spice-and-orange-peel rum, and a gin tweaked with fresh hops, pineapple mint and juniper. The company produces thirty cases of 750-milliliter bottles a week, and sells most of the liquor through its brewpub. "It's a great side business for us," Calagione says. But at the same time, he warns other brewers not to get their hops up: "I don't see this exploding to the same extent that craft beer has exploded."
Owens is more optimistic, pointing to parallels between microbrewing and micro-distilling. He says he believes the nation can handle around 400 small pot-still operations and notes that some eateries now feature stills and make in-house eau de vies and other spirits, using their distilling attractions the way brewpubs do their beer gear.
Stranahan's is one of only four micro-distillers making whiskey. " Micro?" Norris clarifies. "We're atomic!" He distills about 1,500 gallons of wash every ten days, distills the distillate a second time, then dilutes it down to below 125 proof. The result fills about three oak barrels; the bottles filled from those barrels will retail for under $40 each.
"It's been a long time to get to this spot," Graber says, staring at his inventory. But then he smiles. "That's a $5,000 barrel of whiskey sitting there. That makes me anxious for the next two years to fly by as quickly as possible. I know this will be a good whiskey."
And it will be good for Colorado's alcoholic beverage trade, too, adding to the state's rich reputation for things fermented. "I look at this as an art form," Graber concludes. "It's romantic; it's age-old; it's about time-honored traditions. And people tend to be very enthusiastic when they sample your artwork."