Saloon scenes in classic Western films usually consist of rowdy cowboys bellying up to the bar quickly followed by a firm one-word command to the bar keep: “Whiskey”. No “please” or wine list request. It was the western way. Whiskey and old Westerns went hand-in-hand and became woven into the image of the rough-hewn frontier.
The legacy of whiskey is as old as the country, filled with fanciful marketing efforts and political intrigue. Our first president was a military leader, businessman and one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, who sold whiskey from his Mount Vernon distillery. At auction ten years ago the first bottle of George Washington’s whiskey fetched $100,000. Today his distillery stands rebuilt serving as a working museum and tourist attraction.
Like all spirits, whiskey is subject to market shifts. Forty-five years ago vodka took the market by storm and outsold whiskey. It took 42 years, but in 2014 whiskey finally went back on top and the movement seems to have legs. Spirit industry experts maintain the next decade will see a renaissance of darker liquors such as bourbon whiskey, rye and single-malt scotch. What was once old is now trendy as bars and restaurants see consumers rediscovering the delight of authentic cocktails.
Bartenders at two Denver’s steak houses see it every day. “The older school drinks are back and there is also a call for spicy heavy drinks that feature straight rye whiskey,” said Jeff Eslinger, who has been at The Capital Grille since it opened nearly 14 years ago. Chad Skrbina at The Palm sees the same. “The younger generation,” he says, “is starting to embrace whiskey-based Prohibition drinks-Old Fashioneds, Manhattans and the rye-based Boulevardier.”
George Dickel is the second oldest and second largest producer of Tennessee whisky in the country. Its distillery in Cascade Hollow, about an hour outside of Nashville, was built in 1870, six years before Colorado became a state. The first thing one notices about this whisky is the spelling. Following the Scottish tradition there is no “e” in whisky. That’s just the beginning of what makes this producer of Tennessee sipping whisky unique.
“We are the largest non-computer controlled distillery in the United States,” says Brian Downing, a Dickel brand ambassador. “We don’t default to computers because we want flavor and flavor drives everything. We empower our employees to determine flavor.”
At Dickel there is a level of craftsmanship that is unique among many large producers. “We’ve been making whisky the same way for a long time, about 150 years. It’s handmade the hard way and that doesn’t happen anymore,” Downing says. “There are no added flavors, no artificial coloring, nothing is added, it’s authentic. You can taste the difference. We make Tennessee whisky come alive.”
George Dickel, born 40 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, loved Tennessee winters. He believed cold-month distilling made the whisky taste smoother. Today his whisky is chilled to 40 degrees before being slowly seeped (filtered) through 13-feet of charcoal from aged hard sugar maple trees. Dickel is the only Tennessee distillery to take this extra step, believing this process lightens the texture, producing whisky with a brighter flavor that is, as they said in ads 150 years ago, “Mellow as Moonlight.”
Dickel ships about 200,000 cases a year to all states and many overseas markets. The top seller, George Dickel Superior No. 12, is 90-proof and considered by many to be the gold standard of Tennessee whisky. Downing doesn’t believe the whisky boom will stop. “We are producing more now than ever, and selling it as fast as we make it.”
The buzz in the spirit world is about the growth of craft liquor. Last fall Fortune magazine called it “the next big thing.” It started with craft beer and now Colorado is becoming a craft liquor player. We are the fourth largest in the country with nearly 100 licensed distilleries, compared to just five a decade ago.
Alan Laws is one of the new sheriffs in town when it come to the craft distilling business. He is the namesake founder and owner of Laws Whiskey House, located in an industrial area in South Denver off Broadway. A former researcher for Merrill-Lynch, he moved his family to Denver from Brooklyn, N.Y. ten years ago.
Laws is a self-proclaimed brown spirits addict, the proud owner of a home whiskey library packed with 600 bottles. His longtime goal was to combine the best attributes from his favorite whiskies into his own distilling business. He spent years researching the industry and got a lot of advice from a Kentucky master distiller.
“Distilling whiskey is all about patience. We take no shortcuts. We don’t hurry anything. We do it the right way,” Laws says. He started distilling in 2011 and for three years his whiskey rested in American white oak charred barrels where it aged, mellowed and gained in complexity and color. It was bottled in 2014 and the first delivery of two cases to Argonaut Liquor sold out in an hour.
The three-year wait turned out to be prophetic because the craft distilling movement was intertwined with the whiskey renaissance. “In 2014, the surge of brown spirits was beginning to emerge around the country and we were in a great spot to take advantage of the revival,” Laws said.
Laws also hitched his star to Colorado’s “sourcing locally” movement, purchasing 300 tons a year of mixed grains from Colorado farmers. “Our wheat, rye and barley come from the Cody family at Colorado Malting Co. in Alamosa. It’s grown at 8,000 feet, which gives it a distinctively better taste. We pay more for it but we want the best we can find,” he said. The corn comes from Whiskey Sisters Supply in Burlington.
Laws believes in supporting family farms and knows all the growers. “I’m proud that everything in the bottle, including the El Dorado water, comes from Colorado. Everyone wins,” he says.
Laws’ whiskey costs more to produce and is marketed as a premium brand in the $60 to $100 bottle price range. Of the five varieties, the flagship is the Four Grain Bourbon, 95 proof. “If you buy only on price you are probably not our customer,” Laws said. Currently they ship to1,000 locations in 12 states, New Zealand and Australia.
“We make whiskey in small batches every day by hand because we love it. We believe in craft over commodity. We aren’t trying to just sell more whiskey, but sell the best,” Laws said. “We are tomorrow’s brand.”
1.25 oz George Dickel No. 12
4 oz Lemonade
Add George Dickel No.12 and lemonade in ice-filled glass and stir. Garnish with lemon.
1 sugar cube
3-4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
2 oz A.D. Laws Secale Rye whiskey
Garnish: lemon peel
Give a chilled rocks glass an absinthe rinse and set aside. In a mixing glass, soak the sugar cube with bitters and muddle. Add the whiskey and fill mixing glass with ice cubes. Stir well. Strain into the chilled glass. Twist and squeeze the lemon peel over the glass and garnish if desired.
1 sugar cube
2-3 dashes of Angostura Bitters
2 oz A.D. Laws Four Grain Bourbon whiskey
Garnish: Orange peel
In a mixing glass, soak the sugar cube with bitters and muddle. Add the whiskey and fill mixing glass with ice cubes. Stir well. Strain into a rocks glass with one large ice cube. Twist and squeeze the orange peel over the glass and garnish.
One of Laws favorites that they make at the distillery for private events, Laws Black Manhattan—
2 oz Four Grain Bourbon
1 oz Amaro CioCiaro or other Amaro
2 dashes of Angostura Bitters
Pour over ice in a cocktail mixing glass and stir. Pour into a rocks glass and garnish with a cherry.
Charlie Brown is a former Colorado state representative and Denver city councilman. He recalls that on hunting trips as a young man in rural North Carolina, he would often see whiskey stills and buy from moonshiners selling their wares in Mason jars on back porches.
“Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry. And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye.” Don McLean “American Pie,” 1971
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