Stranahan’s New American Whiskey

Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey

Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey has found itself in a pretty bright spotlight.  The poster child for the next wave of “New American Whiskey”, this relatively small Colorado Distillery has more attention and buzz paid to it than almost any other craft distiller in America.

Like most great spirit companies, Stranahan’s has a great back story.

The story of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey goes something like this. Firefighter Jess Graber responded to a fire in a barn belonging to George Stranahan, a long-time liquor connoisseur.

After the fire settled, the two discovered a shared passion for the Colorado outdoors and fine whiskey – and Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey was born. They developed a recipe for the smoothest, most flavorful whiskey in the world using the purity of their mountain surroundings to make one of the best whiskeys around.

Stranahan's Master Distiller Jake Norris
Stranahan’s Master Distiller Jake Norris

It’s a nice story, the kind that legendary spirits come from. The reality was, of course, much harder and less glamourous.  Distiller Jake Norris had been distilling since he was very young.  First obsessed with creating alternative fuel, Jake got the spirits distilling bug and made almost anything and everything that he could with a still.  With Stranahan’s, his vision was to produce a whiskey that preserved as much of the core character of the base grain without the symphony of flavors that tend to accompany it.  That grain was a 100% malted barley, sourced from around Colorado in a very deliberate attempt to create a specific terrior for the whiskey.

While Jake and Jess didn’t set out to create a new category of whiskey, they did, and with that they embraced distilling techniques typically not associated with whiskey. A large segment of the whiskey market depends on the flavors created from distilling the grains along with the fermented ‘beer’ that serves as the source of the whiskey.  At Stranahan’s, Jake took a decidedly different approach; whereas many whiskeys are fermented in open fermentation tanks, Stranahan’s uses a very specific sanitary fermentation system so that the only yeast participating in the fermentation process is the ones added to the mix (as they boil the wash to ensure no yeast that was present on the grain makes it into the fermenter).

Stranahan's Sanitary Fermentation System
Stranahan’s Sanitary Fermentation System

This fermented distillers beer / mash is filtered after fermentation so that none of the source grains are put in the still.  Jake Norris compares this to the difference between Grappa (where grape stems and skins are present in the still) and Cognac (where they are filtered out).  Also, unlike many other whiskeys, Stranahan’s does not add in any elements from previous batches (like a sourdough starter). After fermentation and filtering, the mash is twice distilled.

Stranahan's Pot / Column Still
Stranahan’s Pot / Column Still

The first distillation goes through a custom still designed for Stranahan’s Whiskey by Vendome Copper and Brass Works from Louisville, Kentucky.  The mash is distilled at a fairly low 80 proof (or 40% alcohol). The white whiskey that comes from this process is fairly soft with the slightest edge on the back palate. Like many craft distillers, Stranahan’s has made the decision to not release this unaged spirit as “White Dog“.  Jake Norris compared white dog to unbaked cookie dough: “It’s just not done yet”.

Stranahan's Second Still
Stranahan’s Second Still

From there, it’s distilled a second time in a much smaller still to 140 proof (or 70% alcohol).  With distillation happening literally around the clock, Stranahan’s produces ten to twelve barrels a week, and these barrels will age anywhere between a minimum of two years to a maximum of five years before they are bottled.

Husky Gas Pump For Whiskey
Husky Gas Pump for Whiskey

One of the biggest challenges that initially faced Stranahan’s was figuring out the process of getting their whiskey into barrel.  Since Stranahan’s was one of the first distilleries in Colorado, the Colorado Distiller’s Guild and a community  of like-minded craft distillers didn’t really exist. Jake Norris worked with Husky Energy to custom design a gas pump made from food grade steel to use for the whiskey.  After using this system for a while, Husky turned to Stranahan’s to learn the impact of high proof alcohol with their pump and ultimately used this design for their commercial ethanol pumps.

Stranahan's Rackhouse
Stranahan’s Rackhouse

Once Stranahan’s finally gets their whiskey into barrel (which is a first time use American oak barrel) it’s stored in a climate controlled rackhouse. Because the summers are fairly warm and winters are very cold, Stranahan’s decided to create an environment to age their whiskey that was a consistent temperature throughout the year.  This enables them to wait less time for their spirit to mature, as the cold winters greatly reduce the aging process. Through aging, these barrels will lose up to 17% of their spirit due to evaporation (also called the “Angel’s Share).

Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey

All Stranahan’s Whiskey is bottled by hand (often by volunteer bottlers) and each bottle’s label is hand signed by the distiller and often has a note from either the distiller or brewer (which is often what music they were listening to while bottling).  The actual Stranahan’s Whiskey is a mingling of several ages of whiskey, with the youngest being two years and the oldest five years.  Stranahan’s has a batch system that represents each unique mingling of whiskey.  While we were at Stranahan’s we had the opportunity to taste two batches of the whiskey and there were distinct differences between them. “It’s kind of like Grandma’s apple pie”, explains Jake Norris. “It’ll always taste like her pie, but each one is a little different from the last”. This artisan approach to whiskey is part of what makes Stranahan’s distinct, with the final spirit a reflection of  different seasons of grain, different barrels, and a mingling recipe which embraces change.

Stranahan's Whiskey
Stranahan’s Whiskey

Although Stranahan’s only produces one style of whiskey, they do an extremely limited “Snowflake Series” that can only be purchased at the distillery on specific days. This series takes the standard Stranahan’s and finishes it in different barrels to give it additional flavors and character.

The importance of Stranahan’s can’t be overstated. As one of the early craft whiskey distillers in America, Stranahan’s has blazed a trail that many craft distillers now follow.  Small Craft American Whiskey is poised to be a major movement in America and large spirit companies have taken notice. In December 2010,  Stranahan’s was acquired by Proximo Spirits (the makers of such major brands as 1800 Tequila, Three Olives, Hangar 1 Vodka, and Kraken Rum).  Again Stranahan’s is in the spotlight as other craft distillers see how a once tiny Denver distiller radically changes after being acquired.

Whatever happens under Proximo Spirits, Stranahan’s represents something very exciting: a group of people with a vision to create something unique that is a reflection of the area they are in, with an unwavering commitment to their vision.