On a recent afternoon my daughter and I decided to head over to a small, local Colorado distillery for a tour. Stranahans Colorado Whiskey had donated to several charitable events I’d attended so I wanted to learn more about them. The whiskey is made from local Colorado products in small batches at a warehouse just outside of downtown Denver.
The head distiller, Jake Noris and his small team of distillers are busy 24×7 checking on their product to ensure it meets their strict specifications. The whiskey is made from Colorado barley and is high in alcohol for whiskey, 94 proof to be exact! While I’m not a whiskey fan I have learned to appreciate its nuances after sampling several batches of High West Whiskey in Park City, Utah and now several batches of Stranahans.
Stranahans only has a few employees and when it comes time to bottle a batch of whiskey they depend on a long list of volunteers to work the “assembly line”…a bunch of banquet tables set up in their warehouse. There is a bottling party once a month…and I had the opportunity to join the fun this week. Twenty volunteers per shift for two shifts work approximately 4 hours and then are treated to very good pizza (or was it I was just hungry from hand labeling hundreds of bottles?), a taste of the whiskey just bottled, and some local beer. Oh, and I almost forgot…each volunteer gets a bottle of the batch. Nice treatment for a fun volunteer job. My group bottled 2600 bottles and by the end of the day 5104 bottles would be filled and boxed.
I chose the morning shift which started at 8:30 a.m. Surprisingly everyone was there ahead of time and ready to get working. The first task was to mark each label with the batch number and latest date the whiskey was distilled. Batch 67 and 12/30/08…I think I’ll have those numbers forever etched in my head. Each label has the signature of one of the distillers and some notes from the distiller…usually what music they were listening to while working. Quite a diverse mix of music!
After all of the labels were marked with the batch number and the date distilled we moved to the assembly line. The bottles were on pallets in the same boxes that would be used to ship the whiskey so there isn’t extra waste. One volunteer grabbed a box and put the bottles on one of the tables to the side of the filling machine. An employee ran the gravity flow bottle fillers.
Two volunteers corked the bottles and pushed them down to the labelers. We were instructed that the labels needed to be like “Miss America’s” banner, not like a tie (vertical) or like a belt (horizontal) but diagonal on the bottle. No air bubbles or folds allowed on the labels.
Next the tin shot glass emblazoned with Stranahans name and a piece of plastic was placed over the cork. When I had taken the tour a few weeks earlier I couldn’t figure out what the tin cup (shot glass) was for and several of the guests told me they are used when camping or hiking…hmmm didn’t think about that.
The tin shot glasses needed to be lined up so the Stranahans name was just above the barrel on the label or the bottle would be rejected. Once the name was lined up the bottles were handed over to the heating crew. These people used heat guns to warm the plastic so it would shrink and seal the shot glass to the bottle and seal the bottle. The heating crew sat the whole time…and while most people switched on and off with other people to experience the whole process these people wouldn’t budge! Not sure why, it didn’t seem like a very exciting job to me.
Now the bottles were ready for the hang tags that explain how Shanahans Colorado Whiskey is made. Finally the bottles were inspected a last time by an employee (all along the way all of the volunteers were inspecting the bottles and any rejections were sent back to be fixed) and the employees put the filled bottles back into the original boxes, palletized and shrink wrapped.
There are many distilleries popping up all over the country, most making regional products with local ingredients. Park City has an excellent distillery, High West Distillery that makes excellent rye whiskey and vodka. Colorado has several including Leopold Brothers Distillery and Downslope Distilling .
Jake Noris, head distiller discussing the process to make the barley whiskey.
Distilling machines…aka the still
New American White Oak barrels from Missouri
Once the barrels are made the insides are charred or burned to what is called a medium char. This pulls the sugars of the wood closer to the inner surface and provides additional complexity. This is the same process used for wine barrels. Shanahans uses the barrels once then sells them to Colorado breweries where thee barrels are used for oak cask conditioned beer.
The whiskey is aged a maximum of 5 years. Stranahans has an interesting whiskey named Snow Flake Whiskey which is hand chosen from individual casks then aged for a few months in wine barrels. I haven’ t had this but the demand is so high for this product that it is only sold at the distillery and sells out within a few hours…there are lines of people waiting outside for the distillery to open!