Finally, the world of fashion and whiskey have met, and no, we don’t mean models doing shots after a photo shoot. Enter, Distillery 291, a Colorado-based company owned by former fashion photographer Michael Myers. In just four short years, Myers has turned his whiskeys into winners, taking home numerous gold medals and accolades across the board.
“I set out to make a whiskey you would find in a Western film,” says Myers, who garnered inspiration from Thomas H. Handy Sazerac straight rye whiskey and the Buffalo Trace antique collection—”the type that you’d slam on a bar and the type of drink you would serve when a character would say, ‘Give me a whiskey.'”
This drinking fantasy pays homage to his childhood growing up in Tennessee on a gentleman’s farm located between two famous distilleries, Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. The idea to start making whiskey came to Myers after reading an article about Hendrick’s gin and Sailor Jerry rum. There was something in the process that struck a chord and made him think he could start making his own spirits. He decided to go for it after he got encouragement from Mike Bristol, the owner of Bristol Brewing Company in Colorado Springs. Hence, Distillery 291 was born, the name coming from his college dorm room at Savannah College of Art and Design where he studied photography.
“I built my first still out of photogravure plates, and the process of distillation reminds me of the dark room,” he says. “Distillery 291 was fitting.”
But with 27-plus years of fashion photography under his belt, why would he decide to leave New York City, move to the college and military town of Colorado Springs and start making whiskey? The short answer: After the tragedy of 9/11, Myers decided it was time for his family to pack up and go. Still, for four years, he commuted to the city, shooting for clients such as Vanity Fair, Allure, Mademoiselle, Tiffany and Co. and more before finally resolving to hang up his camera.
Good thing too, with a projected 22,000 bottles coming out this year, Myers finds himself plenty busy. Already the distillery makes six products: bourbon, American whiskey, a citrus-clove whiskey liqueur called Decc, a white rye, an unaged corn whiskey called Fresh and Colorado whiskey, a traditional spirit finished with toasted Aspen staves. All go through a pot distillation three times, helping to produce a cleaner, smoother spirit. He also utilizes a mash-in process, with finished IPA beer boiled down until the alcohol burns off. From there, a percentage of the stillage gets put back into the whiskey bill, and voila, award-winning whiskey is born.
Distillery 291 (image: Karen Olson)
“I feel this adds depth and character to our whiskey before distillation,” says Myers. “We are also the only distiller in the world to finish our whiskey on toasted Aspen staves, which we believe gives us an unique edge.”
Another special aspect lies in the tools the whiskey maker uses. His first copper still was made by hand from seven photogravures, flat pieces of copper chemically etched with a photographic image that he used while shooting fashion. You can still see the etchings on the outside of the kettle, save for the one inside the column. The reason for this shift: “I felt that it would give more surface area for the distillate and would make it taste better because it cleans the spirit,” says Myers.
As for photography, while guests can see prints from the photogravures in the tasting room, the only camera Myers uses now is an iPhone.