Distillery 291 founder Michael Myers set out to create whiskey and other spirits distinct to Colorado when he launched his business in 2011, but he's succeeded in attracting attention well outside our state's borders. The Colorado Springs distillery has earned international recognition for bourbon and rye whiskey that feature a unique Colorado imprint.
Departing from the strict confines of traditional whiskey-making, Myers finishes two of the company's whiskeys — 291 Colorado Whiskey (a rye-based spirit) and Colorado Bourbon Whiskey — on toasted aspen staves as well as oak. His stills, and most of his other equipment, were manufactured in Colorado Springs to his specifications. "From what I understand, I'm the only whiskey maker who finishes on anything other than oak," he says.
Although Myers has only been distilling for a short time, his 291 Colorado Whiskey picked up an award for "best American rye whiskey - no age statement" from the London-based 2016 World Whiskies Award; the Colorado Bourbon Whiskey earned double-gold from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition earlier this spring.
Myers began distilling just a few years ago in Colorado Springs, where he and his family had moved from New York City in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He was a successful fashion photographer in Manhattan and lived in an apartment within view of the World Trade Center plaza. "I was at Duane and Greenwich [streets] when the first plane flew over my head," he recalls. He and his family initially stayed in Manhattan after the attack, but the view from their apartment of the years-long cleanup effort proved too difficult, so they chose Colorado as their new home.
Although he was already a whiskey aficionado, Myers had no experience making it himself when he decided to open his own business. "I'd never brewed or distilled until I got my license," he notes. But his attention to detail as a photographer and an avid home cook helped prepare him for the job. "With photography and my love of cooking, the dark room and kitchen were my home brewing," he explains.
Myers mentions brewing because a fermented "wash" — essentially a beer made from various grains — must first be made, then distilled. He learned how to do both and was soon garnering praise for his white whiskey, which is an unaged version that spends no time on wood. In 2014, he produced only sixty ten-gallon barrels of spirits; this year he plans to increase that amount tenfold.
When Myers first set out to open a distillery, he realized that the $50,000 price tag for a new still was more than he wanted to pay, so he found inspiration and raw materials from his photography days. His cache of photography equipment included seven copper photogravure plates used to make high-quality photographic prints; he worked with a local fabricator to have the plates made into a small column still, where you can still see images etched into the copper, including the Chrysler Building on the interior of the column.
In order to increase production, Myers recently had a second still manufactured by Cogitic Corporation, a Colorado Springs company that also builds parts for nuclear submarines. The new equipment will allow him to move from sixty finished gallons a month to 120 gallons a day when at full capacity. To help with the increased production, last summer Myers hired distiller Eric Jett, who worked at Stranahan's Colorado Distillery.
"I set out to make a Western-style whiskey — rugged, beautiful, strong and bold," Myers explains. His first batch was distilled on September 11, 2011 — "I wanted to commemorate a new, positive anniversary," he says — in a cramped basement space, but he soon moved into Bristol Brewing's original building when Bristol moved to a larger facility in 2013. His distillery is named 291 after the name of pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz's Manhattan studio, which, coincidentally, was also Myers's college dorm-room number.
291 is currently sold in some 175 bars and liquor stores around the state. You can sample the whiskey at the tasting room at 1647 South Tejon Street in Colorado Springs or at a number of bars around Denver. See the Distillery 291 website for a complete list.
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