Deerhammer Distilling Company mixes the old with the new in a craft spirit movement

There are time-honored traditions that define a good whiskey, from the type of grain used in the mix to the type of barrel in which it's aged. But Lenny Eckstein, owner and head distiller of Deerhammer Distilling Company in Buena Vista, is not afraid to mix tradition with new practices. That's how he created Downtime Whiskey, a single malt whiskey that had a limited release last year, but will available throughout the state this summer.

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Eckstein founded Deerhammer with his wife, Amy, after thirteen years of working in advertising and graphic design. His great grandparents ran a bathtub-gin operation during the Prohibition era, but he got his experience from years of homebrewing and experimenting with distillation. The experiments continue, as he mixes traditional techniques with new ones to create craft spirits.

Eckstein made his new single malt whiskey, Downtime, a little differently from the traditional Scotch, starting with the grain. "What's different between what I'm making and a lot of other places that are doing a malt whiskey is that about 20 to 25 percent of the grain build is comprised of what is called 'specialty malt.' It's a malted barley that is roasted longer," he explains, comparing it to dark roast coffee.

Deerhammer first released the spirit unaged as White Water Whiskey. "In that, the malted barley and the specialty malt expresses itself in sort of a chocolaty, tobacco, spicy character," Eckstein says.

The distillery also aged some of it in thirty-gallon American white oak barrels. Because of the climate conditions -- the distillery is at about 8,000 feet, where the air is dry -- Deerhammer's leaders weren't sure how long it should age. Typically, single malt scotch whiskeys need to age for at least three years, but most are aged for fifteen to eighteen years. "What we're doing different here is just spinning what the idea of what a malt whiskey is and what people are used to," Eckstein says. They are doing so by aging it in smaller barrels and for shorter amounts of time.

After seven months in the barrel, Downtime received a gold medal at the Manitou Springs Craft Lager and Small Batch Festival in August 2012. That's when Eckstein knew it was ready. "It's different, it's new, it's younger. It's got like a rawness to it, but a really nice flavor," he says.

The distillery released one barrel in December, and it sold out quickly. "It's been really well-received." Eckstein says. "The same way craft beer really has blown up because they've gone out and experimented and it's been well-received -- that's what we're doing."

Deerhammer is not the only company pushing the bounds of traditional spirits by releasing young whiskeys, Eckstein says. Other businesses, like Distillery 291 in Colorado Springs, are part of the craft-spirit movement.

But traditional methods aren't completely ignored. Five percent of Downtime's grain build consists of peat-smoked malt imported from Scotland. "They've been peat-smoking their malt for a long time and it's kind of a flavor that is typically associated with a scotch whiskey, so I really wanted to bring facets of old practices in," Eckstein says. The distillery also uses a traditionally shaped copper scotch still on direct fire. "I kind of like jumping back and forth between experimenting with completely new ideas and old ideas," he adds.

The next batch of Downtime will be released in July, and will be available in liquor stores around the state. Deerhammer will also be releasing a single barrel of wheat whiskey, made mostly with barley growing in the San Luis Valley, on Memorial Day weekend, but it will only be available in Chaffee County.

There are now over forty distilleries in Colorado; Deerhammer will be joining many of them at the Dstill American Spirit and Craft Cocktail Showcase April 3 at the McNichols Building. For more information and a list of liquor store where Deerhammer products are available, visit the distillery's website.

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