State 38 Distilling Adds Whiskey to Agave Spirits Lineup

Third-generation Colorado native Sean Smiley founded State 38 Distilling in 2013 with the goal of creating the only all-agave distillery in the United States. And for the past three years, that's been true: State 38 currently offers a lineup of three agave spirits — blanco, reposado and añejo — as well as gin and vodka distilled from organic agave shipped from Mexico. But next month, Smiley will unveil two barrel-aged, grain-based spirits that will chart new territory for the Golden distillery, located just off West Colfax Avenue at 400 Corporate Circle .

The two new products are a bourbon made with 70 percent corn and 30 percent specialty barley malts that has been aging in new American oak barrels for the past six months or so, and a 100 percent peat-smoked malt whiskey, which has also been oak-aged. The two, called Loveday Bourbon Whiskey and McKenzie Scottish Peat Smoked Whisky, will be available to the public beginning May 13, when the distillery will host a launch party. But if you want to reserve a bottle of the first batch of either whiskey, you can do so on the State 38 website; only 250 bottles of each first batch are available through the pre-sale, and Smiley says he's already sold about 100. Purchasing a bottle in advance will also get you an invitation to the VIP party the day before the public release. 
History is important to Smiley; the distillery is named in honor of Colorado entering the Union in 1876 as the 38th state. And the two new spirits are both named for members of his family. D.C. Loveday was Smiley's great-great-great grandfather, who built opera houses in the Great Lakes region at the end of the nineteenth century. The McKenzie name comes from Smiley's great-grandfather, who was a war-crimes prosecutor in Japan after World War II. 

In addition to distilling, Smiley also runs a small engineering business; his knack for design is evident in his handmade still, built from a converted dairy pasteurizer with a column rolled from sheet copper. State 38's original still sits against a wall in the distillery warehouse, made from what Smiley says is about 90 percent Home Depot parts, including pressure-release valves made from inverted paint cans. The hands-on, DIY spirit is evident in everything from those stills to the fermenting vessels made from food-grade "totes" (caged tanks used for storing and moving liquids). Rather than spending money on separate mash tuns and fermenters, he uses the totes for both, using recirculated cooling water diverted from his still to achieve the perfect temperature to mash grains for fermenting. 

This setup means that his mash is fermented on the grain and then the contents of the fermenters are moved directly to the still, so that the spirits are also distilled on the grain (as opposed to separating the grain from the liquid before distilling). It's a labor-intensive process that adds hours to cleanup time, but one that Smiley says brings out the flavors of the grains in the whiskey, whether it's a slight hint of coffee and chocolate in the Loveday or the smoky, nutty notes in the McKenzie.
Smiley will continue to make his agave-based spirits, but says that the cost of agave from Mexico has risen so steeply in the past year that he's diversifying so that he doesn't have to raise prices. The agave he purchases comes in liquid form and is nothing more than the juice pressed from whole, steamed blue-agave hearts — the same liquid that's distilled to make tequila in Mexico. Regulations prevent him from calling his agave spirits tequila, just as they prevent him from labeling the new McKenzie as Scotch (though the smoked malt he uses comes from Scotland — hence the "Scottish" in the name).

The whiskey release party will be held on May 13 from 4 to 7 p.m. in the State 38 tasting room. In addition to booze, there will be specialty breads made by the Grateful Bread Company using some of the same grains that Smiley uses in his whiskey. If you reserve a bottle online ($45 for the Loveday or $55 for the McKenzie), you'll be able to pick up your bottle at the distillery (open Tuesday to Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m.) between May 13 and June 30.
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation