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Distiller Jake Norris Delivers the Goods -- A.D. Laws Four Grain Straight Bourbon

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It's Monday, October 13, and I'm sitting in a red Toyota 4Runner with Jake Norris, head distiller at Laws Whiskey House. The Toyota is idling outside the whiskey house, a new distillery in a warehouse district just off South Broadway. He's very excited because, at last, he's able to do what has taken almost three years to accomplish: sell the whiskey that he and his team designed, distilled, barreled and bottled. Norris hit the street five days ago with heavy, squarish bottles of A.D. Laws Four Grain Straight Bourbon, dropping them off at liquor stores, restaurants and bars. Today we're going to do it again--paying visits, and re-visits, to friends who have reached out to him and requested whiskey. The back of Norris's truck is loaded with boxes of bottles, and there's a sense of urgency to the mission; some of his customers, who have had his whiskey for only 24 hours, are already sold out.

See Also: Ask The Bartender: Why Did Jake Norris Leave Stranahan's?

"The OK to deliver whiskey came last Thursday afternoon at about 4:30 p.m.," Norris says. He starts the truck and pulls aways from the distillery, fiddling with the volume knob on the radio. "I threw a few cases in my truck and sat in an hour of traffic. The first bar that I sold whiskey to was Swanky's, at 1938 Blake Street."

What's significant about what's happening is that not only is there a new, high-quality, Denver-based craft whiskey on the market, but that Norris is the solitary force behind getting it into glasses all over the city and beyond. Swanky's was the first bar to receive Stranahan's Colorado Distillery, another Denver-based distillery which Norris founded in 2004. He thought it was fitting that they received the first bottles of Laws. Norris is close friends with Swanky's owner Rodney Franks: "I've known him for damn near 20 years and before he was a bar owner and before I was a distiller," Norris says. "I was a barback and he was a bouncer in a nightclub and we used to go mountain biking every day together. I know his whole family."

Our first stop of the day is Divino Wine & Spirits, located just a few blocks from the distillery. On Friday, Norris stopped by with 12 bottles. Those didn't even last 24 hours. We drop off a dozen more, and hit the road, traveling North on Broadway. Our next stop will be LoHi Steakbar. We're looking for a guy named Joe; he's the booze buyer.

On the drive to LoHi, our windows are down and the autumn leaves are bursts of scarlet and gold against a cloudless blue sky. Norris tells me about his new life as a sales representative for a brand-new micro-distillery.

"This is what I do now," he says. "Obviously, my day starts early -- I make coffee, check emails, check in at the shop, order stuff. Once that's taken care of, I load up the truck and head out. At then end of the day I go home, answer more emails, check Facebook, all of that."

Norris, along with owner and managing partner Al Laws, for whom the distillery is named, opted not to use a distributor to deliver their whiskey. Instead, Norris will be the face of the company -- and the delivery guy. His main source of leads so far has been his own social media outlets; even though the whiskey has been out for five days, Laws doesn't yet have a Facebook page.

"I'm getting so many texts messages, phone calls and emails asking 'Where can I get it?' I don't really have the bandwidth to respond to them all. I figure if they're my friends and they're following me on Facebook, any place that checked in since Friday has our whiskey. I figured that would be an easy way to do it."

I jokingly refer to Norris as Santa Claus -- disseminating cherished gifts across town. He sees it differently.

"It's a lot more like making good on a promise," he says. "I have so many friends in the service industry that were really supportive of me during my time at Stranahan's. It means a lot to me to get with my friends who have been supportive and make sure they understand that I appreciate that, and get whiskey to them as soon as I can."

Keep reading for more about the first days of A.D. Laws Whiskey...

When we pull up in front of LoHi Steakbar, Norris grabs three bottles and his iPad, and we head inside. Joe, the guy we're looking for, isn't in. We walk down the street to Old Major. They're already clean out of the three bottles they received on Friday. We drop off three more and head across the street to Jezebel's, but the buyer hasn't shown up yet.

"On Friday, everything went a lot more smoothly because everyone knew I was coming," Norris says, stuffing the bottles back into their boxes. We jump back in the truck. Next stop: the Squeaky Bean downtown.

To see Norris navigate through the city is amusing: with one hand he scrolls through messages on his smartphone, and with the other he works the dashboard GPS, and the radio volume knob. In the middle is the steering wheel. He reminds me of a fighter pilot, manning the sophisticated controls of his cockpit. We're listening to country music--classic country, not the Nashville variety. George Jones is crooning one of his classics, 'Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?' We talk about music, which leads to a conversation about his childhood.

Norris moved to Denver from Flagstaff, Arizona in September, 1992. "Denver suits me better," he says. "Flagstaff wasn't a big enough town for me to stay in, and it was too small to live in." His parents moved around a bit (he was born in West Virginia but spent time in South Dakota and Kentucky) and finally settled in Arizona. "What these kids are majoring in now, we called 'chores,'" he says. He didn't have a television till he was eleven years old.

One day, while looking through his parents' bookshelf, he found a manual with instructions on how to convert a farm truck to run on alcohol. He flipped to the chapters on distilling. "It just kind of made sense to me," he explains. "Back then -- and this was well before the internet -- research was literally scanning articles on microfiche at the library. A lot of it was hippie, survivalist-type information. Nothing was really that comprehensive."

His big breakthrough came from another book he discovered at a yard sale. "I came across a Seagram's company manual," he says, "which is what Seagram's used to educate their employees with." After reading the manual, it all came together. "That book really helped put everything in the right place," he says, "and everything just took off from there."

By 14, Norris had built his own still, and was moonshining, but mostly making fuel, he says. His parents didn't even know about it.

Keep reading for more about the first days of A.D. Laws Whiskey...

What about all the alcohol? "It didn't really appeal to me when I was a kid," Norris says. "I didn't get a taste of whiskey until I was probably about 19. I knew how to get drunk from it, but that wasn't on my radar yet. Not until college." Norris moved to Denver and enrolled at the Art Institute of Colorado, with the goal of being a music producer. But a past spent working with his hands was lodged in his memory. "It sticks in you," he confesses. "You don't really get rid of it that easy. You always miss it. One thing led to another, and here I am, distilling."

We pull up in front of the Squeaky Bean. They're closed on Mondays, but owner Johnny Ballen is another one of Norris' close friends. Norris calls -- no answer. We wait a few minutes. "Time's up," Norris says. "I'll have to stop by later this afternoon." We jump back in the truck and head to Euclid Hall Bar & Ktichen. While we're traveling down Spear Boulevard, a call comes in. It's Matt, the manager at Mondo Vino, in West Highland. "I'd love to get some whiskey from you," he says. Mondo Vino is also sold out out of Laws already. Norris tells him that he'll meet him today, and that he has whiskey for him. "Hell yeah," Matt says. "I'll take as many as I can get."

"I don't know how people did this when they had to make phone calls from an office," Norris says, turning off of Spear and onto 14th Street.

At Euclid Hall there's no easy parking out front. Norris eases the 4Runner into the alley beside Euclid Hall and kills the engine. We're parked illegally. "Let's just make this a quick stop," he says. We dash up the front steps, into the dining room. Niamh O'Shaughnessy comes out from behind the bar and greets us warmly. We drop three bottles on the bar, chit chat for a few minutes with her. "There aren't a lot of four-grain bourbons out there, because they're really hard to make," Norris tells her. It's time to go, so we dash back down the steps, back to the truck and make our getaway.

"Just to make something is really cool in a time when nobody makes anything," Norris says, both hands working the controls on the dashboard. "It's pretty cool to walk into a restaurant and put your bottles on the bar and say, 'I made this.' "

We drive up 15th Street, toward Mondo Vino. "That's the kind of place we want to be," he says. "We don't want to compete with Fireball."

"We had a customer wanting two bottles," Matt says when we walk in Mondo Vino's front door with two cases of whiskey. That customer couldn't buy them -- all 12 bottles were gone before the weekend was over. In Mondo Vino's back room, we meet with the staff. They swirl whiskey in wine glasses and take discerning sips while Norris talks about how the whiskey was aged. It's like a wine," he says. Five years is better for one whiskey and too much for another, and not enough for another. So, we're waiting for the whiskey to tell us where it's topped out."

Eavesdropping, I learn more about the whiskey's origins: Laws is a four-grain bourbon, made from rye, corn, wheat and barley. All the grains are grown by family farms near Alamosa, except the corn, which is from Wisconsin. "All the grain we get has to be triple cleaned," Norris says, "so we won't accept anything that's anything other than the freshest and cleanest. It's expensive, and requires some special equipment."

Keep reading for more about the first days of A.D. Laws Whiskey...

We finish up the tasting and stop for lunch across the street at Chipotle. After jumping back in the truck, Norris says "I feel bad for stopping to eat. I need to make some homemade granola bars so I don't have to stop for lunch,"he says. "I make pretty good granola."

"They went through it real fast," Norris says, easing the truck back onto the street. "That's good to hear. It's encouraging."

Back at the Squeaky Bean, Johnny Ballen answers the door and invites us in. The restaurant is dark and Ballen is walking around with a paint brush and a can of paint, doing touch-ups. I imaging that Norris's future days as a sales rep for Laws won't always be like this: meeting old friends with hugs and shots. When all the friends have their whiskey, and all the current promises fulfilled, any new contacts outside Norris' current universe will be colder ones.

But he has planned for that.

"We did a bunch of demographic research just on the areas of Colorado, to see what jives with where we want to be," he explains. "We did big, crazy spreadsheet work, where you figure out where everything is located, and then sort it and figure out where it is on the map." Right now, he's just putting out fires. "Pretty soon" he says, "I'll have a much more systematic approach where I'll go to a pre-designed section, and just cover that section, then go to the next section."

A lot of the groundwork has already been established. It includes not only Norris's pre-sales research, but the seven-and-a-half years he spent at Stranahan's. When Stranahan's was purchased in December, 2010, he stayed on to assist the new owners through a six-month transition period.

Then he met Al Laws.

Initially, Laws hired Norris in a consulting capacity to help open his distillery. But as they talked about whiskey, they realized they were both in the industry of the same reason -- to make the best whiskey possible.

"Al's passion is unparalleled," Norris explains. "He's so focused and committed and such a dangerously smart guy. He's such a strong business mind. He can run the business, the finances, all that. I was just worried about making the whiskey, and making it taste good." Norris assembled a talented distilling team, bringing together Stephen Julander, Jason Mann and Alex Alexander. After training them, Norris saw that his most important role would ultimately be in sales.

"I don't feel like anybody can tell our story as well as I can," he says. "I can't expect a sales person with a book of 1,200 products to be able to really understand the nuances of what we're doing. And I felt that it was really important that if we're going to build our relationships with the people who drink the whiskey, it's important that we get the right information out there."

Keep reading for more about the first days of A.D. Laws Whiskey...

As we drive up 17th Avenue, toward Steuben's Food Service, I ask who he thinks will be the biggest seller of Laws. "Whoever gets behind it," he says. He tells me that one of this best accounts so far is 3 Kings Tavern -- not exactly a Mecca of fine tastes.

At Steuben's the buyer is not in, but another important person is: Todd Leopold, head distiller at Leopold Brothers Distillery. Leopold gets up from his table and dashes across the dining room to embrace Norris. The two talk excitedly: Norris has his new whiskey; Leopold's new distillery is about to open.

Leopold follows us out into the street, where Norris scribbles on the side of one of his bottles in gold ink. Leopold, looking at the truck full of boxes, is reminded of his early distilling days in Michigan. "We used to do this," he says, smiling. "Right out of our hatchback."

Stopping into Ace, Bar Manager Randy Layman tells us he's down to two ounces of Law's. People are loving it, he says. He buys three more bottles immediately.

When we get back in the 4Runner, Norris expresses his respect for Leopold. "Our styles are totally different," he says. "But we both do it the right way. I don't mind going head-to-head against him. If someone bought his bottle instead of mine, then I lost on a fair playing field."

Norris gets us back on 17th, where traffic is starting to get heavy. It's about 3:30, and he likes to stop selling before happy hour. He calls Argyll , but the buyer isn't in. We drive past it. "I've already tasted their staff on it," he says. "They're really stoked on it. Now I just have to get them some product. This is where all that pre-sales work pays off."

Further down 17th, we take a right on Humboldt, and park. We're at the BSide. Norris used to manage the bar here back in the day when it was Pasquini's. Inside, owner Justin Lloyd greets us, saying, "So, this is the bottle we've been waiting for." We find out that today is Lloyd's birthday. Norris asks the bartender for glasses, and pours a few tastes for them. A trio of guests at the bar nearby ask what we're up to. Norris talks to them about the whiskey for a minute, then pours them each a shot. One of them asks who the distributor is. "I'm the distributor," Norris says. "I'm distributing it right now." Norris tells me that a liquor store called Toast blew through 12 bottles in 7 hours.

Pulling away from the BSide, we go north on Humboldt and take a left on Colfax. We head back to Jezebel and sell three bottles. That's the formula: liquor stores can get twelve at a time, bars and restaurants can get three. Everyone takes as much as they can. "It just feels good that everyone's so excited," Norris says.

While we're nearby, we walk over to LoHi Steakbar. Autumn leaves on the sidewalk crackle underneath our shoes. The buyer, we find out, still isn't in -- it's his one day off. "Whatcha got there?" asks a manager, approaching us. "The most wonderful whiskey of all time," Norris replies. He fills a small glass and hands it to her. She takes a sip, and pauses to savor it. "It's flavorful, but still very smooth," she says. We leave her with three bottles and head to our last stop: Atticus.

"My bluetooth is acting glitchy today," he says, as he tries to get his phone to synch with his onboard satellite radio. We're on our way to Downing and Evans. I ask Norris about what his strategy will be, as far as getting the word out about Law's. "It will be an organic unfolding," he says. "People will hear the buzz and track us down, find us on Facebook." Norris' approach will be less push, more pull. He believes that if he waits for the buzz to circulate, buyers will warm up and seek him out. "Selling to people who want it is easier than the uphill fight," he says.

Keep reading for more about the first days of A.D. Laws Whiskey...

Since Atticus is our last stop of the day, it's cocktail time. Norris is eager to get me to try a new cocktail recipe he's created. It's called the Denver Gentleman, and while he's still working on the proportions, it's Laws whiskey, Campari and bitters, over ice, topped with soda. Atticus bartender Matt Mallary makes me one, and makes Norris a Manhattan. As we sit enjoying our drinks, with three bottles on the bar, I ask him to tell me the concept behind the bottle's rectangular shape. When I was at the distillery in May, the bottle's shape was very different.

It started with an injury. After joining Laws, Norris underwent arm surgery, and took twelve weeks off. A tendon in his arm had been damaged due to repeatedly adding his signature to tens of thousands of Stranahan's whiskey labels. "I was at home and really taking advantage of the time to focus on marketing," he says. He watched brand videos: blue jeans, cars, wines, washers, dryers, until he became keenly aware of what he didn't want Laws to be about -- bullshit. Instead, he wanted to tell the truth, to make an honest product.

"If there's one thing I love about Al," Norris says, "it's that he's allergic to bullshit. He just doesn't do bullshit. What he wanted to do was truth -- to just strip away all the bullshit that doesn't need to be there, focus on truth, and be truthful."

"He realized is that the story isn't about us," Norris continues. "It's about the whiskey. And that makes it a lot more difficult, actually, but it takes us both out of the mix, which is fine. That's where we want to be. We want to be talking about the whiskey, not about how cool we are."

As we sit at the bar and sip our cocktails, the dining room starts to fill with guests. Norris tells me how his research led him to learn about William Morris, a 19th century poet and textile designer who became dismayed by the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution. Morris became a leader in the movement to restore the art of craftsmanship, as opposed to lifeless mass production.

Norris saw that the idea of craftsmanship was central to the making of Laws, and thought to himself, "What if that craft ideology existed today?' Since that craft movement heavily influenced architecture, the rigid, rectangular shape of the bottle suggests a building.

"That," Norris says, "and also the fact that my grandfather kept a decanter of whiskey on his desk. You take the label off this, it's a decanter." He holds it up to the fading evening light so I can see the label better. "That's why it's so big and heavy. It was built to be a decanter."

We finish our drinks and our day slowly ends, but back at the distillery, magic is happening. The yeast in the fermentation tanks at Laws Whiskey House is voraciously devouring sugar and turning it into alcohol -- which will eventually be the next batch of whiskey. Those bubbling tanks are like Norris' mind -- constantly percolating with activity, but always consistent in the purpose: to make the best whiskey possible.

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