Photo Courtesy of The NYC Office aka @SarahMaxPix
It’s a pretty simple story: a droplet of water vapor condenses and freezes, then nearby droplets evaporate which is kind of strange since it is a wee bit cold out, and that vapor sticks, freezing to our little friend making it “grow” into what we call a snowflake. Maybe it’s slightly more complicated than that. But the end result is a unique object of natural beauty if not a fairly cold and delicate one. The saying goes that no two are the same. It’s pretty hard to test that but it’s a wonderful thought to hold to: the specialness of a single entity in nature.
Chemistry is a funny thing. On paper it’s just a bunch of numbers and letters and funny lines that don’t make a whole lot of sense to many (read: me). Ah, but those results do amaze! And as we well know, whisky is the best chemistry experiment out there, making many of us damn our own sleeping habits during high school chem class. Unique chemistry experiments abound in the world of distilled spirits. One of those mad chemists is the master distiller at Denver’s Stranahan’s. Rob Dietrich oversees the process at the south of downtown distillery that crafts their 100% malted barley whiskey. They make one thing and they make it very well. It’s a scotch style whiskey that would actually be called Scotch if they plunked the distillery right into downtown Scotland at the corner of Mash Tun Ave. and Wort Blvd. in some weird international corporate location move.
Stranahan’s is a funky little place in a nondescript part of town with the imposing Rockies to the far west and I-25 to the nearer west. The building could’ve been a home to a widget maker, baby furniture outlet, injection molding company pumping out faux Legos or a tortilla maker for all we know. But now it’s the home of a well-organized whiskey powerhouse a mile-ish or so above sea level (no tape measure was evident, so we’ll just have take their word for it). It feels like a neighborhood distillery that isn’t in a neighborhood. There’s a very inviting front room that’s happy to sell Stranahan’s gear and even a lounge where they mix up cocktails on the weekends. On this particularly chilly winter afternoon, while waiting for our tour to start, two local, scruffy 30-something gents walked into the neighborhoody-y lobby and bellied up to the counter for a tasting. Yes, it’s that easy. The bearded “bartender” tending the cash register behind the oak-staved counter happily poured and filled the boys in on the whiskey. Simple and casual; two pours. Two happy Stranahanians. The uniqueness of the place was as evident as the numb fingers and red noses on the eagerly awaiting small crowd from the 20° degree late afternoon air.
It was tour time and bubbly guide, Lisa Graziano led our group (that leaned toward the scruffy 30-something side; at the least the males) through a detailed tour of the distillery. It was hard to tell if the crowd was just biding time until the tour’s end and tasting time or were genuinely enthused to learn about Stranahan’s barley which is sourced from nearby beer megalith Coors and the pot/column stills that came from Kentucky. No matter. All were happy taking in the high ceilings, large fermenting vats, racks of barrels, and well kept facility. For those uninitiated, this had to be a bit of a wow whether they were from the area or on vacation.
This was the rocket scientist/chemical engineer missus’ first visit to a distillery and I could see the equations, and cause and effect relationships were exploding gleefully under that wool hat. For every puzzled face in the group, of which there were many, the Engineer had a pertinent, intelligent question that probably made dear Ms. Graziano pleased as punch after more than her share of the basics on many previous trips through the place. It made me really happy to have some brains close by for a change instead of the mush in my noggin. The chemistry facts came hard and fast from our guide such as water boiling at 204° F at this elevation; the lack of fungus in the facility due to the low humidity; and an 8% angel’s share due to a temperature control system that prevents losing twice as much to evaporation. I may have to order the Cliff Notes. I can barely spell bunsen burner correctly. Not even sure if I just did.
Stranahan’s only makes one animal and it comes in a bottle admittedly oversized in height so it has to be placed on the top shelf. Two Thursdays a month the distillery bottles using a public “crew” picked by lottery. The list is usually 18,000 to 24,000 names long, all hoping for the two 4 hour shifts, free lunch and a bottle of Stranahan’s. Each golden yellow label with its Rocky Mountain cowboy font in black is handwritten with date, batch and even comment from the distiller’s which seems to be a free pass to comment on just about anything in a few words – the product Labeling version Twitter, as it were.
The tour did indeed end with a dram of whiskey. This day’s Batch 145 from May 2012 was full of vanilla and butterscotch, with citrusy and zesty notes; a very tasty and smooth whiskey at 47% ABV. The spirited group was far more spirited after that. One can only hope there’s a cask strength, single-barrel, or smokey Stranahan’s in the future to really see what else can be brought out from the whiskey.
Tour Guide Lisa closed the door of the barrel adorned tasting room once the crowd exited and proceeded to kibitz while pouring the Engineer and your reporter two more drams, both unique. On the walk through the distillery, it was hard not to ask about their New Make spirit and if it was available for sale in the future or a taste. The new make in Scotland in various distilleries is a sweet, delicious experience that masks its 60-70% high octane ABV, and it was easy to be curious about this Colorado single malt pre-barrel spirit. Happily and surprisingly, we were offered a wee taste of the new make while the rest of the group was busy buying up t-shirts and bottles. This new make did not disappoint bringing back memories of the clear liquid right out of the spirit safes in Scotland. Though it was room temperature, it filled the mouth with a very warm and lovely, sugary richness. Maybe the cold air outside made anything feel warmer than it really was but this was like being covered by a down blanket from the inside out.
Remember our little frozen water droplet? Though built by nature and a fair amount of randomness, we always come back to the snowflake’s unique form. A computer program with inherent infinite randomness could build snowflakes with a kind of uniqueness over and over and over again, with no two “snowflakes” ever being duplicated. But it wouldn’t be the same as Mother Nature’s design and her pushing the buttons, banging out the 1’s and 0’s into a model of natural elegance. Stranahan’s has it’s own version.
From the kitchen table of Rob Dietrich comes something very special annually, sometimes semi-annually. Named appropriately “Snowflake“, it’s the head distiller’s chance to make a disaster of his kitchen with all kinds of experimental casks, flasks, glasses and probably a beaker or two, and offer a very different expression in a very limited offering. 2014’s Snowflake called Mount Bierstadt is 3 to 4 year old Stranahan’s Colorado whiskey aged fully in American white oak then finished in a plethora of barrels. Ready? A Sherry Oloroso cask from Spain, several French oak Cognac casks from France, and another that had Cherry wine from Balistreri Winery in Denver. That’s a mouth and barrel full to chew on. One wonders what is going on in Mr. Dietrich’s brain to go hog wild with that cask shopping list. But uniqueness begets uniqueness. And Snowflake is no exception.
Mount Bierstadt is a complicated dram with sweetness, chocolate, vanilla, licorice and wood. Saying it’s an explosion of rich flavors doesn’t do it justice. Sold only at the distillery one day of the year with only a few hundred bottles or so available, it quickly sells out with fanboys and fangirls waiting in line overnight in the below freezing air. Ms. Graziano poured our samples generously and sadly no amount of bribing allowed her to sell the remains of the bottle. Ethics and rules be damned! One would think a teenager or two would have more value as a bartering chip. Luckily Snowflake is available until all gone in a few local Denver restaurants, and Round 2 was savored an hour later at The Buckhorn Exchange surrounded by many antique firearms and a zoo’s worth of “taxidermied” trophies. Welcome to The West.
Though this Snowflake falls but once or twice a year, its hand-crafted uniqueness is very apparent. It comes from a place rooted in creativity and ingenuity and not afraid to experiment with tastes like a good chef does. It comes from wanting to create something different building upon a little droplet of Stranahan’s Colorado whiskey.
Special thanks to Jason Horn of Hanna Lee Communications for the unique opportunity to taste and to visit Stranahan’s.