Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey: Review and Tasting Notes

Stranahans Colorado Whiskey

My bottle of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, like every other bottle of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, arrived with a tin cup over the cork on top. But unlike other bottles of Stranahan’s, my tin cup wouldn’t come off. It was stuck, and I wanted it off.

Stranahans Colorado WhiskeyI pulled, I pried, I yanked. I tried (gently) using knives and shivs and needle-nose pliers. And then I tried again (not-so-gently). Nothing worked. That cup was like a musclebound security guard protecting the treasure within the bottle. And I hated him for it. I wanted the good stuff inside.

Luckily, the folks at Stranahan’s were very kind – they sent me a replacement bottle and had me ship back the impenetrable one. They said, “We run into this issue from time to time, seems to be slight differences in the bottle/cap manufacturing.” Fair enough. As long as I finally got to open a bottle of Stranahan’s.

Stranahan’s is made in Colorado – you can visit them on South Kalamath Sreet in Denver. They started distilling back in 2004, and released their first bottles in 2006, eventually becoming one of the most well-known craft whiskies out there. In 2009, they won Whisky Advocate’s Artisan Whiskey of the Year award. Not bad, right? In 2010, they could be found in 38 states, but then made a sudden shift back to focus on supplying their home state of Colorado, plus letting supply (low) catch up to demand (high). They ramped down distribution, and ramped up production, and in late 2014, they went national again. I’m guessing those four years allowed them to build a bit of a whiskey cushion.

Stranahan’s describes their whiskey as such: “Born in the fires of George Stranahan’s old barn, our whiskey has always been hand-crafted exclusively with Colorado grains and Rocky Mountain spring water. Straight, rugged, and strong… double-distilled in small batches from our proprietary blend of four barleys, and then aged in virgin-charred American white-oak barrels.” (I can just picture the virgins charring that white American oak.) The important thing here, at least to me, is the four barleys (“primarily from locally sourced Colorado malted barley”). This is not bourbon – which is predominantly corn with barley and rye or wheat mixed in. And this is clearly not Scotch – which is, well, made in Scotland from malted barley and typically aged in used barrels. But Stranahan’s shares characteristics with each of those two great pillars of the whiskey world. The all-barley mash like a single malt Scotch, the new charred oak like an American bourbon. And it makes for an intriguing marriage.

As for the aging, on the bottle, Stranahan’s simply states a “distilled on” date, which does a bit of a disservice to the whiskey inside since it corresponds just to the youngest portion in the mix. I had heard it was a batch of different ages, but reached out to Stranahan’s to get a bit more detail. Head distiller Rob Dietrich shared that, indeed, “each batch is comprised of 2 year, 3 year, 4  year and 5 year old barrels for greater complexity and quality.” They use a #3 char on those white oak barrels then “cut the finished whiskey to 94 proof using local Eldorado Springs water, sourced from Rocky Mountain snowmelt in Eldorado Springs, Colorado.” Mmmmm, melted snow.

In any case, the combination of the malted barleys and the Colorado water and the American oak makes for a damn fine whiskey, one of the most simply enjoyable whiskies I’ve opened up in a long time. On to the notes…

Stranahans Colorado WhiskeyStranahan’s Colorado Whiskey
94 Proof
Approx. $55-$60 Retail
Tasting Dates: January 4 – 25, 2015
Thirsty South Rating: Excellent*

Take off that tin cup cap, and pour some Stranahan’s in. Take a whiff. It’s kinda subtle, reminds me of… cereal. Ever have Quaker Brown Sugar Oat Squares? That’s what this is, with alcohol (no milk required). There’s a bit of warm wood, cedar even. But mostly sweet toasty grain.

Now have a sip from that tin cup cap. Slow burn. Smooth burn. Balanced burn. Red hot and a touch of honey, not too strong, not too sweet. There’s an austerity to it compared to most bourbon. That’s the barley (I presume). There’s also a fine dustiness – not the kind of woody sawdust that older bourbon gets, but something like the fine powder of sugar and grain at the bottom of a used-up cereal box. A few more sips and something nutty comes out – pine nuts? Almond paste? Pine nuts, I think. Nuts. It’s just intriguing and fleeting and flirting around.

A cube of ice brings out some port-like notes on the nose, plummy red wine. More clove-spiced fruit, apples and oranges on the tongue. It gets denser and deeper. But less…  Colorado. Less… out west and away from Kentucky.

All I can say is, damn, this is lovely stuff. Once I got that tin cup cap off, the whiskey practically flew out of the bottle. Faster and flightier than any bottle I’ve opened in recent memory. The 94 proof is right on, no need for water, no need for ice. Don’t mix this into cocktails. Really. Just enjoy. I wish it were a touch less than the $55 or so I see around town. But, then again, it’s worth it.


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck
Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by Stranahan’s.

291 Distillery: Colorado Whiskey

Upstarts are starting up everywhere. In fact, it’s practically impossible to stay on top of all the new distilleries popping up across the states. When it comes to whiskey, there are two common routes for upstarts to bring product to market. The first is sourcing whiskey from elsewhere and finishing it, blending it, or simply bottling it. The second is focusing first on white whiskey or young whiskies that do not age long, often employing techniques like the usage of small barrels or the insertion of wood staves to help impart the characteristics more typical of an older spirit.

A friend of mine happened to share a few bottles from Colorado’s new Distillery 291, based out of Colorado Springs and just over a year old. This distillery is focusing on the second approach detailed above – distilling their own whiskey, but keeping the aging to a minimum for now. Distillery 291 is run by Michael Myers, a successful photographer who was born and raised in Atlanta, made his home in New York, then moved to Colorado. Myers actually had Distillery 291’s copper still fabricated using copper photogravure plates that he had used previously for fine art photography. Very cool.

While Myers’ distillery is still young, he is working with the knowledge that expansion is coming soon. Myers shared, “at the moment I go from grain, to barrel, to bottle in 339 square feet. In the spring I will be moving into a 6000 square foot brewery and the plan is to start putting up barrels for more traditional maturation as I will have the storage room.”

The two whiskeys from Distillery 291 that I tried were both quite interesting, but both clearly young spirits. 291 Colorado Whiskey is distilled from a rye malt mash, then finished with aspen staves. It has a really nice nose that brings to mind cedar and nutmeg, with candied orange peel, and a touch of mint. I’m guessing the aspen is responsible for those cedar-like notes. At less than two years old (as labeled), the whiskey comes across as a bit harsh on the palate, with a sharply assertive finish. Water softens things up – it is 102 proof – but I think the nose suffers as you add water to the bottle strength whiskey.

Likewise, the 291 American Whiskey comes across, as expected, as very young. It is distilled from a bourbon mash, then mellowed with aspen charcoal. The result is a nose that speaks strongly of green corn and petrol, with a bit of marzipan. It’s long and hot, with sharp green wood and a hint of mellow caramel in the background.

I’ve got to say that these are not my preferred style of whiskey – I’m not too fond of young ones. That said, I see a lot of potential here, and the nose alone on the 291 Colorado Whiskey is enough to draw serious attention. I give the American Whiskey a rating of Fair, and the Colorado Whiskey earns a Good Stuff.* The 291 Colorado Whiskey certainly shows great promise, but, for my tastes, needs more time in a barrel to better integrate and develop a more harmonious profile. The use of aspen wood looks to be a unique and compelling calling card for Distillery 291 with more time.

I should point out that a much more experienced whiskey palate than mine has given some great props to Distillery 291. Jim Murray recently rated several of their products, and gave very strong marks to 291’s Colorado Rye Whiskey White Dog (which I haven’t tried), indicating that there’s good potential in what’s coming out of that copper still – “matured for less than one week… The way a white dog should be: pulling at the leash and baring its teeth. Excellent spices.” Murray also awarded 291’s Colorado Whiskey with 94 points (this is the same whiskey that I tasted, though Murray tasted from a different barrel) saying, “It’s a superb, enigmatic rye whiskey which ticks every box: They are obviously fast learners.” I’m eager to see where Distillery 291 goes from here.

291 Colorado Whiskey, Aspen Stave Finished, 101.7 proof, barrel #5, 20/36, aged less than 2 years, not yet available outside Colorado, approx. $75 retail

291 American Whiskey, Aspen Charcoal Mellowed, 86 proof, aged less than 2 years, not yet available outside Colorado, approx. $49 retail


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:

Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck