While Denver is perhaps best known for its legalized marijuana and craft beer scene, the Mile High City is also home to a burgeoning industry of small batch distilleries cooking up home grown, Rocky Mountain whiskies, vodkas and gins. Travel expert and blogger Julia Dimon of Traveljunkiejulia.com shares her picks for the best distillery tours in Denver.
For the tourist who’s keen on learning the process behind the pour, there are distillery tours across the globe that will show you how these alcohols are made. But my focus? Denver. I set out to pound the pavement (and some whiskey shots, of course) in search of the best distillery tours to take when you’re in this scenic Colorado city.
Laws Whiskey House
No Denver whiskey tour is complete without a visit to Laws Whiskey House, an independent grain-to-glass Colorado distillery that takes their mantra of “There are no shortcuts” very seriously, and uses all local, Colorado-sourced ingredients from family-owned farms. I found my way to the industrial building in the Gates Neighborhood of Denver, just off South Broadway. I peeled back the burgundy curtain inside and stepped into their classroom setting, complete with church-like wooden pews and a diagram-filled green chalkboard. This is where some 15 visitors like me had gathered to learn about how Laws makes their whiskey.
Our teacher for the night was Alex, a passionate bourbon connoisseur dressed head to toe in black Laws branded merchandise. He welcomed us and launched into what we could expect on the tour. “We’ll look at the process in 2D, look around the facility in 3D and get to taste the whiskey, which I like to call 4D.”
Gesticulating to the chalkboard diagram, he walked us through the step-by-step process of how honest whiskey is made, which as he said was basically “a combination of water, grain, yeast, barrels and time.” Alex began by describing how rare it is that Laws produces a 4 grain bourbon (a combination of corn, wheat, rye and barley.) 4 grain is challenging to make since Rye is known as a ‘bully grain,’ is extremely difficult to work with, and tends to overpower the delicate wheat grains.
He explained the process of cooking the mash, adding yeast for fermentation, vaporization of the fermented mash, the stripping runs, the distillation process, and the refinement of the alcohol when they make the cuts of heads, hearts and tails. In typical Colorado form, he explained this process by using a camping analogy. “Let’s use our imaginations … we’re going camping, but we didn’t bring enough food. We’re hungry and find a poisonous snake. Certain parts of the snake are a danger to us. We remove the head where the poison is. The middle of the snake is where the meat is and the tail is trash. This is similar to how we cut the alcohol. The heads contain poisonous chemicals such as acetone and methanol and can make a person go blind, so we don’t drink that. The heart is the ethanol, the good alcohol we’re trying to collect so that is sent to the finished spirit tank. The tails are what’s left behind and disposed of.”
He wanted us to note that approximately 85% of the craft spirit industry is merely an aging and bottling facility. If the distilled by info on the whiskey label doesn’t match up with the name, city and state on the front of the label, that means that particular company didn’t actually make it … someone else did. “At Laws, the whole process of grain-to-glass is done under this roof.” Laws makes honest spirits, which means there are no artificial flavorings added and the color is natural, coming solely from the virgin charred barrel.
With the basics under our belt, we left the classroom and toured the facility. Alex pointed out how all the equipment worked and brought the diagram to life. Beyond the actual whiskey tasting at the end of the tour, my favorite part was being able to sample the mash before and after the fermentation process – an interactive moment set amongst their open-air fermentation vats which set it apart from the other distillery tours I’ve experienced.
Walking back through the barrel rack house, we discussed how Colorado whiskey makers have an advantage in getting more flavor and color from their barrels in less time than other well-known whiskey-making regions. This is due mostly to Colorado’s ever-changing weather and barometric pressure swings, which cause the whiskey to move in and out of the wood more frequently. Laws Whiskey barrels soak, on average, three to four years, but that will continue to increase as they grow.
A tour of Laws Whiskey House takes about 90 mins. and ends with a formal whiskey tasting. The cost is $10 per person, but the best part is that you get a chip at the start of your tour, which you can redeem afterwards, for a flight of 3 more half ounce whiskey pours in their tasting room. Or, you can put that $10 chip towards the purchase of merchandise or a bottle of A.D. Laws Whiskey. For more information or to reserve a tour, check out their website.
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey
Located in a large industrial space near the Baker neighborhood of Denver, Stranahan’s is one of the Denver’s best known distilleries. This Colorado whiskey has won several awards for “best small batch distillery whiskey of the year” and you can immediately tell why. Beyond the smooth oak taste and clever packaging, the distillery itself is a beautiful space, thoughtfully designed and welcoming to visitors. Walk in the front door of the yellow building — past John Wayne’s truck parked in front and a food truck serving up delectable eats — to the cozy reception area, where you can check in for your 1.5-hour-long tour.
Max Rutherford, our Denver-born tour guide, led the group of 20 (some out-of-towners, some locals) to a room where the magic happens. As we stood in front of the imposing metal stills, he walked us through the laborious process of brewing: mashing barley in a roller mill, straining it, boiling it to kill off the bacteria, fermenting, washing, storing, distilling. You can’t help but be impressed as you stroll among the giant vats, listening to the sound of bubbling water over flowing into red buckets. “When I was younger,” said Max, “craft beer was such a movement, now the trend is going towards distilleries. It’s a huge scene here now, and making whiskey a natural extension to making beer.”
Our tour continued past antique wall décor, vintage American flags and 1940s pin-up poster girls to a set of the copper stills, where the ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ are separated (leaving the desired transparent white lightening of alcoholic goodness.) Max passed around a mason jar of white liquid and we reached out to take a whiff of the rubbing alcohol-like substance.
At this point of the tour I noticed that people were getting eager to actually sample the whiskey, so we head over to the rack house, found a seat on wooden benches and watched as our guide cracked open The Yellow Label, a ‘hot’ whisky due to its high percentage of alcohol. This is where they store the 100-proof liquid in new, charred American white oak whiskey barrels. This charring creates the color and flavor of the whiskey, and the barrels are then aged, right there in their Rack House.
“I’m going to walk you through a tasting …This is not spring break 1987! So don’t take this as a shot,” joked Max. He explained that the first step of the tasting experience is to smell the whiskey. We were to keep our mouths slightly open and breathe in through both the nose and mouth at once. “Smell the caramel and vanilla,” he marbled into the glass. “The second step is to cleanse the palette, and take a tiny sip … as if to say to your mouth — buck up buttercup, there’s 94-proof whiskey in bound.”
Next is the “Chattanooga Chew,’ where you gently rock your jaw and move the whiskey around your mouth. But Max warned not to swish it because, at this high proof, the whiskey will burn. He added a bit of water to the potion to open up the flavor, revealing subtle notes of cinnamon, black coffee and pepper.
Feeling a little flushed, I made my way from the Rack House to where they bottle each one by hand. Each label is hand-signed by the distiller, who writes a quirky note. Some of the funnier ones were “safe drively” and “now is a great time to call your ex.” For those interested in experiencing this process for themselves, Stranahan’s invites guests to roll up their sleeves and help in the bottling process. Volunteers can sign up to be part of the bottling crew on their website. The four-hour shift results in a free beer and a bottle of whiskey for your time. Bad news is there’s a waitlist of some 24,000 people, but luckily, it’s based on a lottery system … so you may get lucky. Next, our tour group moved to the “Honey Please” room to try the Diamond Peak, a smooth, sweet whiskey aged in four-year-old barrels.
Led by a knowledgeable guide, skilled with the art of good storytelling, this tour is incredibly informative and fun. Out of the three tours I took, this one was by far my #1. They offer tours and tastings Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Tours cost $10 and reservations are required. For more information, check out the Stranahan’s website.
Mile High Spirits
Mile High Spirits in downtown Denver is perhaps best known as a late night bar with DJs drawing in a weekend crowd for a solid dance party. It would be easy to peg it as just another bar with a drunken dance scene, but look beyond the bouncer to find a major player in Denver’s distillery scene.
I wandered into the place early one evening for a behind-the-scenes look at their work. The Mile High Spirits owner greeted me with a warm handshake, welcomed me to the bar and led me on a private tour through their admin office to witness their distillery operation. Stepping inside, walking among steaming stills and bubbling vats, it looked like a mad scientist’s laboratory of giant beakers and bubbling potions. I instantly gained respect for the level of skill and creativity that goes into every cocktail. Mile High Spirits has been open for 2.5 years at this particular downtown location, but have been in the business for the past five years. I learned that Denver’s distillery scene is following in the footsteps of the craft brewing tradition. There is a real community forming here, with some 80 distilleries already in Colorado.
While they offer several products, their biggest seller is the “Fireside” Bourbon. Time for a taste, so I found my way to the bar to sample some of the bar’s most popular forms of liquid courage. But why drink from a traditional glass when one can sample a shot from a “Shot Ski?” If you haven’t experienced this alcoholic alpine tradition, it’s an actual ski with 4 shot glasses glued to it and four people can drink at the same time. They have a wide selection of infused spirits like Papaya Tequila, Cucumber Jalapeño Gin and Mixed Berry Moonshine, so I picked my poison and puckered up.
Mile High Spirits will be introducing public tours in the upcoming weeks, but their tasting room and bar is open daily. They have many music festivals and events in their outdoor space, so be sure to check out their website for hours and upcoming events.
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