Jake Norris, head distiller and an original partner, left Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey last month. The brand was purchased late last year by Proximo Spirits, distributor of big brands like 1800 Tequila, Kraken Rum and Three Olives Vodka; after the sale, Norris said he planned to stay on...for a while.
Norris was one of the last original employees and the final Colorado connection to a brand that this state's bartenders have loved since its inception. When I caught up with him a few days ago, here's what he had to say about himself and the breakup:
Tell me a bit about your history before Stranahan's: Before Stranahan's, I was one of those annoying people who knew way too much about an esoteric subject. I was more than a casual whiskey nerd; I designed my first still when I was about fifteen. I found a homesteading publication in my dad's library, and it had an article about how to convert an old truck to run on alcohol; it had another article on how to make the alcohol to fuel it. That idea really captured my imagination. I was an idealistic kid; I saw this as a way to save the world. No more pollution, no more oil -- just burn excess grain and fruits. By the time reality set in and I realized that was not the way the world worked, at least I had some quality spirits to drown my sorrows. Just before Stranahan's, I was doing independent whiskey educations for restaurants around Denver and working as the whiskey expert for the Celtic Tavern. I was so synonymous with whiskey around town that people started to call me "Jake Whiskey," as if Whiskey were my last name. That's why my blog is Jakewhiskey.com.
Can you tell me about the genesis of Stranahan's, how you got involved in the first place? Jess Graber (my former partner) had been a hobbyist for many years and a very competent distiller. He had always dreamed of opening a very small distillery and making a whiskey as a kind of working retirement. Jess could never really figure out how to make it work financially. George Stranahan was a neighbor of Jess's in Woody Creek, and the majority owner of the Flying Dog Brewery. It occurred to Jess that he could make the distillery work financially if he could outsource the fermentation -- which would cut start-up costs by about half. Jess could contract George's brewery to ferment wash for his distillery.
Mike Freeman was the purchasing manager for the Flying Dog brewery and a good friend of mine for many years. I had been bugging Mike about ordering me a few bags of grain when he ordered barley for the brewery. Mike was alarmed at the amount of grain I wanted: "How much beer are you trying to make, man?!" I had to explain to him that I was not making beer, but rather whiskey. He was confused, so over PBR tallboys I explained how a brewery could produce a "wash" to make whiskey. Not long after that, Jess came in the brewery and was explaining to Mike about the arrangement he had worked out with George and how the FDB was going to make a custom distiller's wash alongside their beers. Mike stopped him and said, "Hey, I know a guy that's already doing that. You need to meet my friend Jake Whiskey." Mike introduced Jess to me, and the rest is history. We worked out the recipe, and a few months later, we were making whiskey. Jess and I meeting was one of those perfect-storm moments.
What are some of your favorite memories in relation to creating Stranahan's? It's hard to pick one. The whole thing was such a great experience. I fondly remember opening the first barrel. I had borrowed one of those Guinness countdown clocks from Chris at Falling Rock, and I had pasted a "Countdown to Barrel #1" sign on the front. When the countdown timer hit zero, I was surrounded by friends standing over the barrel with a hammer and spike in hand. I had waited my whole life for that drink.
I think the best moments were smaller than that. I remember working really late one night in the original distillery on Blake Street. I was exhausted, and the room was hot as hell, and I was feeling a little discouraged. As I sat there watching the still, the realization of what I was doing kind of sank in. I realized that I was a whiskey distiller. I was part of an ancient brotherhood reaching back through time. I could take all the same ingredients -- grain, yeast and water -- and make a loaf of bread, but through this magic, I was making whiskey. I felt like an alchemist in the truest sense of the word. I was transforming a common staple like grain into something magical, something so precious and rare that it would be metered out by the drop. All of a sudden, the hours and the heat didn't bother me so much, and I realized I was where I needed to be.
What was the biggest key in building the brand? I think Stranahan's was successful for a few reasons. First of all, it was damn good whiskey! Another factor was our relationships in Colorado. I had tended bar for ten years in Denver. When my friends in the service industry got wind that I was making whiskey, there was a spot cleared on the shelf, waiting for Stranahan's. It was a great feeling to have that kind of support. I think another factor was that it was an original style of whiskey. We were not copying Kentucky or Scotland; we were making whiskey for Colorado. We chose to make a whiskey showcasing the Rocky Mountain terroir, and that had never been done before. We created the first original whiskey in America since Prohibition. It was real. It was honest. Whiskey lovers were ready for something new, but none of that would have mattered a damn bit if the whiskey was not so good.
What are you most proud of in relation to Stranahan's? That's a hard one... I guess it's the loyalty that we got from our community. The support we received from chefs and bartenders and everyday people. Coloradans exhibited the same fanaticism about Stranahan's that they reserve for the Broncos or the Rockies. I was proud to be a part of the home team. It says something when a hard-working blue-collar guy chooses to walk into the distillery and plunk down sixty hard-earned bucks for a bottle of my whiskey. Gold medals and awards are great, but when a man busts his hump for his paycheck and is willing to pay three times as much for my whiskey, that means something to me.
How did you feel when Stranahan's was sold? Wow. I was crushed. People know how much Stranahan's meant to me, and I always get asked, "Why did YOU sell?" But It's much more complicated than that. I didn't sell; it was sold. I was a partner in Stranahan's, just not a big partner. I got a check out of the deal, but when it came time to vote, I only had so much say. The financial investors put a lot of money into that business, and as much as I wanted to believe that it was because they were altruistic whiskey nerds like me, in reality they were businessmen, and they were obliged to watch out for their investment. Jess was the primary investor, and he busted his ass his whole life to make what he had. I don't blame Jess for his choice to sell. He has a family to look out for, and he deserves some hard-earned success.
I didn't come into Stranahan's with money. I brought hard work and passion and skill. I built that whiskey with my sweat and blood, and I got everything out of Stranahan's that I put into it. My experience at Stranahan's was one-of-a-kind. My dad is an artist, and he busted his ass his whole life to support his family working in meat-packing plants and machining factories. I got to make a living doing what I love. I got to do exactly what I wanted to do, with zero compromise. Most men will never get to experience that. I feel lucky, and I'm sure when I look back, I will remember my time at Stranahan's as some of the best years of my life.
People recognized my passion about Stranahan's and associated me with the brand so heavily that I could not go out for a drink without a barrage of questions about the whiskey. It got so bad I had to tell Amber at the Irish Rover not to tell people I made Stranahan's just so I could finish a glass of whiskey before the ice melted -- ha,ha,ha.
Why did you leave? I am not one to hang around and watch someone bridle a wild pony.
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What are your plans for the future? Well, at the moment, I'm building an earthen bread oven with my dad in my parents' back yard. I figure I'll bake a loaf of bread with dad, help my mom can those peaches I brought from Palisade. Oh, business plans? Let's just say that Stranahan's is not my last rodeo. I have some projects actively in the works, and I think I have a curveball or two left in me.
You can follow my progress at Jakewhiskey.com Tomorrow: Local bartenders and distillers offer their reaction to the Stranahan's sale -- and the departure of Norris. Read the first installment, in which Sean Kenyon compares the early days of Stranahan's to punk rock, here.
Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can often find him behind the bar at Euclid Hall and here most weeks, where he'll answer your questions. Post them in the comments section below.