When it comes to whiskey, the Centennial State isn't often what comes to mind. But perhaps it should be. Many of the brown spirits coming out of Colorado prove smooth and flavorful, and they showcase the area's natural ingredients and arid climate attributes. There has also been a recent upswing in producing single malt whiskey, which its distillers have been pushing to both promote and regulate.
"American single malts are able to achieve a variety of flavor profiles by using new or used oak casks, various roasts of malted barley, different types of stills, and so on," says Owen Martin, the head distiller at Stranahan’s in Denver. "American single malt distillers use local ingredients creatively to highlight their whiskey’s provenance, which can range from smoking their barley with regional wood or aging in barrels of a local wine style and all the way to simply allowing their area’s climate to mature their whiskey in a distinct way."
Stranahan's has been making what it has dubbed "Rocky Mountain single malt whiskey" since its founding in 2002. The goal, says Martin, was to produce high-quality whiskey using Colorado-sourced ingredients such as grain and water—something the distillery is still dedicated to doing today.
"Our high altitude in Colorado leads to a unique angel’s share loss, and we lose more water out of our casks than we would if we were maturing our whiskey at sea level, which creates a higher-proof product with a potent and complex flavor profile," says Martin. "We then cut our single malt down to 94 proof using only Rocky Mountain spring water, balancing these robust flavors developed during maturation such that the base Colorado ingredients are still highlighted."
Perhaps there’s something to the old “it’s in the water” maxim: While drinkers may not be able to pick out the nuances of pure Rocky Mountain snow melt, brands like Stranahan's have been making a product people crave.
Champions of Creativity
Distillers in the area also make whiskeys recognized by plenty of experts, as shown by the numerous accolades these spirits bring home. Golden Moon in Golden is one of them, and founder Stephen Gould has been making small batches of his single malt since 2015.
"My definition of [American single malt] is a whiskey made from malted barley or one type of grain that's mashed, fermented, distilled and cast conditioned at the same site, located in the United States and aged in any oak container," says Gould, who’s on the board of the Colorado Distillers Guild and a member of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission. "We should be allowed creativity in the whiskey as long as it's truly from grain-to-glass, all from one distillery."
Golden Moon has three single malt whiskeys, all using barley from Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho, which get malted at Golden Malting, a neighboring business and the third-largest malting company in the country. The process Gould goes through to get his whiskeys is closer to an Irish or Scottish style of mash—in contrast, he says, to a lot of American whiskey makers that use methods more akin to brewing beer. The desire to create and sell these brown spirits was why Gould grew his distillery by 30% last year, opening up the space and adding stills.
In the foothills, Boulder Spirits, which used to be called Vapor, has pushed to make a solid American single malt using barley. The company has three varieties showcasing American oak, peated malt and port cask finishing. The bottles coming out of this Boulder distillery have more of a Scottish twist to them, as the owner, Alastair Brogan, brought in a still straight from his mother country of Scotland. However, the Rocky Mountain climate featuring massive temperature swings, low humidity and fresh water all add to what makes this spirit a true Colorado tipple.
A Variety of Styles
The state doesn’t excel at just single malts. Other distillers have created blends that also showcase the barley, wheat and other grains of the area, as well as the water and unique aging process. Like Stranahan's, Tincup makes only one spirit, a two-part blend of American single malt and high-rye bourbon. While the second part gets processed in Indiana, the other side is purely Colorado, mirroring the story of the tin cup, which was used by miners to drink their own whiskey many years ago.
Laws Whiskey House uses heirloom rye from the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado for its straight rye whiskey. The mash bill is almost all rye too, with just 5% heirloom barley. Laws' limited-release Henry Road straight malt whiskey falls into the theme of Colorado single malts and uses 100% heirloom malted barley.
Leopold Bros. also makes use of local flavor thanks to using its own malting floor to process Colorado-sourced grains for a lineup of dozens of bottles that include an American small-batch whiskey, bourbon, Maryland rye and soon, rumor has it, a Colorado single malt.
According to Martin from Stranahan’s, that latter style is only growing. "We wouldn’t be making American single malts for almost 20 years if we felt it was just a passing fad," says Martin. "We see American single malts as unmatched in creativity and range of flavor, and we’re committed to continue building awareness and excitement in the category, as it earns the traction to be seen as an equal to bourbon and scotch."