Colorado of yesteryear was rich with history laced in precious metals. From the pioneering days of old people have flocked to the state looking to get rich and enjoy a life filled with “golden” opportunities. Fast forward decades and the State is again experiencing a gold rush.
Nestled minutes outside the heart of Denver The Rackhouse Pub played host to the 2012 Colorado Distillers Festival. While The Rackhouse is attached to Stanahan’s Colorado Whiskey it is an independent establishment. “Local Ingredients, Nothing Fried, Independently Owned” is proudly displayed on their website playing true to the character and atmosphere felt upon walking in the front door. The senses are overwhelmed with an “Old West” ambiance and I truly felt like a cowboy coming in from a hard days work to the local saloon.
So what better place to host a festival! As I looked around the outside of the building the smell of young whiskey permeated the air from neighboring Stranahan’s. Warm and inviting, my first glance inside was happily met with over 60 kinds of whisk(e)y ranging from well-known Scotch to local craft creations and 20 kinds of beer on tap…truly heaven on earth! The decor also did not let me down. The “Wild West” feel took me back to a time more free willed and spirited, pun intended! The connection to Colorado’s wild past was palpable creating an environment I was only happy to drink and have a good time.
The stage is now set, let the sampling begin! With registering early the entry fee was a reasonably priced $40. The priced did go up to $45 two weeks before the event and ended with $50 at the door. The cost entitled me to sample at all the booths (no limit was imposed), finger foods, a commemorative sampling glass, and entry into one of the three seminars. For a mere $5 more a ticket could be purchased to one of the other seminars which I believed was a steal. On tap were 16 distilleries and three key-note speakers.
Glass raised and pen in hand, I walked into what quickly became a well packed room. Please keep in mind, this was a distiller’s festival so all the major spirits were represented. To warm up my faculties I sampled a vodka, gin, and brandy keeping the samples extra small as to not overwhelm the palate and ruin my senses for the whiskey yet to come. One of my favorite experiences came from Overland Distillery and the Trinity Absinthe. This being my first venture into the world of absinthe I was taken aback by the flavors which came from this spirit…and no, this was not the hallucination causing cousin found in other parts of the world.
With my senses ready and a thirst for whiskey I approached the different distilleries. While not all 16 participating distilleries had a whiskey entry, most did. Keeping time constraints in mind I would only be able to “fairly sample” 4 or 5 of the distilleries so I concentrated on what I believed to be some of the lesser known companies. In making my choices I also tried to get a variety of expressions. I found one corn whiskey (Black Canyon Distillery), a rye whiskey (Distillery 291), a whiskey made in the Irish tradition (Downslope Distilling), a bourbon (Dancing Pines Distillery), and a hybrid using both Scotch and bourbon traditions (Deerhammer Distilling Company).
As you will see in my tasting notes below I had a great time with these whiskeys. Each had very unique character and offered different avenues of exploration and while any whiskey is good, there was a diamond among the liquid gold. With summer in full swing I was not anticipating the cold and wonderful memories of winter. Roasted chestnuts, sweet coffee, and the smoke of a warm fire entrenched my senses when sampling “Down Time” by Deerhammer Distilling Company located in Buena Vista, Colorado. Tucked away in the corner of the venue like a rare gem waiting to be discovered foot traffic seemed to be passing the booth. Little did people know one of the most complex and intriguing whiskeys at the event was sitting in an unmarked bottle, unmarked because it won’t be available until December 2012 according to Distiller Lenny Eckstein. The Whiskey “Down Time” is an aged expression of a “white lighting” release of the same name (now known as “Whitewater Whiskey“). The younger version carries most of the flavors and aromas but it is astounding how 6 months in a barrel transforms this whiskey into a profound statement of Colorado craftsmanship. If you get the chance to visit Colorado this distillery will be worth a visit!
In between sampling sessions I attended all three seminars. Each of the speakers are current industry leaders in Colorado. The first was Beer Cocktails by Justin Lloyd of Star Bar. Mr. Lloyd was a passionate speaker who very much believes in
supporting the local community. The different drink creations were interestingly delivered with his charismatic views on the way flavors interact. He freely admitted some people will enjoy his home-made concoctions , and others will not, but encouraged the crowd to be open to the new flavors. One of my favorites was a combination of IPA beer and London Dry Gin. Next was Proper Whiskey Tasting by Rob Dietrich, head distiller at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. Mr. Dietrich aptly took the audience through a full whiskey tasting explaining how an individual can enhance their appreciation for the spirit. With a funny anecdote and showing much pride in his product Mr. Dietrich expressed Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey is not one that should ever be mixed with cola! Finally I attended Guided Gin Tasting by Rob Masters of Spring 44 and President of the Colorado Distillers Guild. While I do consider myself cultured about whiskey, Gin is another matter and Mr. Masters presentation was very informative raising my appreciation for the drink. He went over 5 different styles of Gin and introduced me to a specific brand I found outstanding! St. George Spirits, based in California, has created a Gin using rye. The St. George Rye Gin was used to highlight how different grains can be used to make the spirit and while it was not from Colorado, it fit well into the atmosphere of the event.
While my primary mission was to sample some new whiskey and report about them, I thoroughly enjoyed everything the venue and event had to offer. The people of Colorado are a warm and inviting bunch who love their spirits as much as the state they reside in. As everything came to a close the “Wild West” feel struck one last time as I left with the sun slowly making its way down behind the Colorado mountains reminding me of western heroes riding off into the sunset.
Please note- the venue was not conducive to judging color or purity of the whiskey and those remarks will be omitted from these notes.
Nose- sweet almond dances across the nose with hints of wood and roasted chestnuts tailing the ballet. Like a jealous lover the sweet turns to bitter, but in a lovingly good way. Smoke and pipe tobacco make a rush at the senses dripping away to the welcoming smell of espresso coffee.
Taste-sweet coffee laced with traces of vanilla play around on the tongue while smoke and toasted nuts help to reveal a delicate, silky mouth feel. Towards the end an unexpected wisp of cardamom, and possibly ginger, with an emerging dark chocolate bridging the finish.
Finish- the dark chocolate lingers holding hands with the greeting bitterness of a relaxed coffee. Pleasantly long and slightly warming it continues with toasted nuts, spices, and sweet pipe tobacco poking their heads just above the surface. As the finish clings to life a very faint but undeniable licorice opens its eyes and leaves me satisfied yet wanting more. This was my overall favorite whiskey at the event and is well on its way to becoming an outstanding entry into the whiskey world!
Nose-undeniably a corn whiskey. Fields of maze spring to mind as very evident corn aromas pierce through. As I take more time it opens and slowly becomes one of the better corn whiskeys I have sampled. Buttered popcorn and slightly honeyed paraffin wax are prevalent.
Taste-as with the nose corn is very present but it is now complimented by light caramel and a slight hint of vanilla. Undefined spices trickle their way in and out of the corn, and while this whiskey shows signs of a very much appreciated aging, the process has not been long enough for spices to become more prevalent. There is a small amount of oil on the mouth feel, but not as much as I was expecting.
Finish-just like days at the state fair one of the first flavors on the finish is a gentle caramel and butter popcorn. As it sits it gets sweeter and spices are again making an appearance. While this has a somewhat short finish I am still left happy and have elevated this whiskey to one of the better corn whiskeys on the market.
Nose- with a mashbill of 61% rye and 39% corn, this is one of the more interesting rye whiskeys I have encountered. Rye whiskey tends to be more forceful, but the corn definitely calms things making the nose more relaxed. Not overly complex, buttered toast is very evident with notes of sweet licorice and to a lesser degree pepper.
Taste-with a deceivingly light and uncomplex nose the flavors are much more rich in the mouth. Spices are the first to greet me with pepper, light salt, and sweetly mild buttered corn. It sweetens faster than others ryes with cinnamon and maraschino cherries mixed in a light cookie. A flavor eludes me for a brief time but I am finally able to detect a slight hint of wood. There are light oils on the mouth feel and a touch of silkiness.
Finish- the wood comes through a little more on the finish. The sweet turns a touch bitter and the maraschino cherries have transformed more to a medicinal cherry flavor taking away from the finish. This whiskey had a mild start and did not finish on a good note, but the taste is good and with a little more refinement could really be a great rye whiskey.
Nose- very much a classic bourbon nose with corn, rye, and barley being definable. Lightly buttered popcorn with a definite sweet aroma almost making it kettle corn in character. With classic bourbon characters I am happy to find a presence of wood and vanilla on the nose.
Taste- keeping true to the bourbon character buttered popcorn is again taking main stage but the sweet flavors have defined themselves more in the mouth. Vanilla is welcome with traces of caramel. The wood flavors also assert themselves more with almonds becoming a presence and hints of coconut. This has a very delicate mouth feel and light silk tracing the tongue.
Finish- the finish is not as strong as the taste but is consistent with the classic bourbon expectations. The finish is extremely smooth and does hold a surprising bit of fruit in the form of melon. This whiskey speaks more to me as a mixer and would do extremely well in that capacity. As a sipping whiskey it will definitely hold its own, but is a little too light to be a standard and needs just a bit more character.
Nose- the nose starts with pleasant notes of fruit taking the form of red apples and melon. With a sweet and gentile character cinnamon and a touch of honey make their way to the surface. A slight alcohol smell becomes present but it does not take away from the aroma and it is quickly followed by various undefined spices.
Taste- a very smooth and light mouth feel are my first impression of this drink and I can not help but think “relaxed.” The malt comes through with this one and various breads float over the tongue. The spices are again present but only cinnamon differentiates itself and the sweet character continues to persist. The fruit has calmed and vanilla with a dash of honey, a sliver of wood and other subtle grain flavors can be detected but are more fleeting than consistent.
Finish-the sweet which was present in the nose and mouth still abounds but has changed a bit and is now a little more medicinal. The change of the sweet flavors also had an effect on the cinnamon and it has become more of a “cinnamon chewing gum” flavor than the spice itself. A bit of wood comes through and ends the finish which is somewhat short. I was very happy with the nose and taste but a little let down on the finish. The two former are much strong than the latter but overall it is very good and I believe the creators have hit their mark in making whiskey in the Irish tradition.