A very sincere thank you to Rob Dietrich and Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, and Vicki Loo and Exposure PR for the opportunity to visit Denver and the Stranahan’s 2016 Cask Thief event.
At the very end of July, I was lucky enough to be invited, along with several other spirit-y journalist types, to Denver, CO for a weekend with Stranahan’s Distillery and their fine single malt whiskey. It was a chance for the distillery to introduce their head distiller Rob Dietrich to us, show us a little of their home state, and have us attend their first ever Cask Thief event. Of course, it was also a chance for them to give us a chance to write a bunch of stuff about them.
Having never been to Denver, I was excited to make the trip. Well, perhaps that’s not quite accurate, I’ve been to the Denver airport on two prior occasions, but, as anyone would attest, the Denver airport doesn’t count because it is not really in Denver, it’s actually in the middle of nowhere. Our group was put up the Crawford Hotel, which is within downtown Denver’s venerable, absolutely beautiful Union Station. In 2014, after extensive restoration and redevelopment, this grand Beaux-Arts style station was reopened and seems to be a focal point of all the construction and development of the downtown/LODO area. It’s really quite a place. Along with the rail services and the great hotel, there are several restaurants, a book store, a bar, a coffee shop, and an ice cream parlor. It certainly made for a comfortable, lively home base for the weekend.
The first evening of the weekend found us dining on many cooked animals amongst many, many…many stuffed and mounted animals at the Buckhorn Exchange. This restaurant was a trip. There’s certainly a lot of history there, it holds Colorado’s first liquor license and throughout its 123 year history been visited by quite a few Presidents, entertainers, and even the occasional astronaut. The Buckhorn was one of the first on-premise accounts for Stranahan’s, so it was a fitting place to meet Rob Dietrich and learn more about the distillery and whiskey. I recommend the Elk.
The next morning, with Rob as our guide, the group literally headed for the hills. Since we didn’t have a whole lot of time to experience the Rockies, we made a quick trip to the storied concert venue Red Rocks to gaze upon
all the people who desperately need to be seen doing crossfit the beautiful scenery, and marvel at the effort it takes us lowlanders to walk up a lot of steps at 6400′ above sea level. After that, We lunched in the quaint gold rush town of Idaho Springs at MTN Prime before wading through traffic back to Denver to rest up for the evening’s big event.
Our group arrived at Stranahan’s early for a tour and first crack at the special barrels the distillery had rolled out for the night’s party. This first Cask Thief event was a fairly simple, fairly awesome idea, though not one I’ve heard of many other distilleries doing. Basically, Stranahan’s rolled out six out-of-the-ordinary casks, called in a rep from their barrelmakers, Independent Stave Co., to talk about cooperage, set up a tin-type photo studio, roasted a pig over some barrel staves, fired up a bluegrass band, and dipped some copper thieves into some bungholes to let a couple hundred revelers sample some Stranahan’s whiskey they would otherwise never get a chance to try.
In the preceding 24 hours, we all had several opportunities to thoroughly “examine” the standard Stranahan’s Single Malt which is currently made up of two, three, four, and five year old whiskies, and the Diamond Peak, which is a four year old whiskey. Both of these expressions are matured in new American oak barrels, and both are quite good; rich and vibrant with a complexity and balance that deftly offsets the youth. Stranahan’s house style is somewhat barrel-forward in that dark sugars, vanilla, and oak tend to drive the flavor profile. Though it’s a single malt, it’s a far cry from single malt Scotch. Thanks to a fermentation process that takes some queues from craft brewing, and that sweet, oaked flavor profile, their whiskey definitely has its own character. So with Stranahan’s two core whiskeys firmly established as a reference point, we plunged into the six esoteric casks set out for the event.
(Man, I hope you like tasting notes…)
Cask #1, The Forgotten Cask. A clever marketing trick used by big brands these days; trot out something overpriced claiming it to be a barrel of some kind that’s been tucked away and overlooked for years and now, magically, has been found and bottled. It’s hard to believe in this day and age of automation and digital record keeping that any business asset would be forgotten about, but what the hell. In this Stranahan’s cask’s case, it truly was labeled differently (and by the look of it, haphazardly), and that probably helped it to be ignored and bypassed, if not exactly forgotten. This was a five year old American white oak cask.
The nose: A little hot with more alcohol present than in the others. Fruitier and tangy-er as well. There was orange, and chocolate, and orange-flavored chocolate. Vanilla extract, sharp young oak and ginger.
The Palate: Like the nose, a little hot and spirit-y. Continued sharp citrus and dark chocolate, scraped vanilla bean, cinnamon, and edgy oak.
The Finish: Peppery and tannic with ginger and oak.
Thoughts: Interesting in that this one varied the most from the strictly American Oak matured whiskeys. The lighter spice notes and brighter citrus helped the spirit come through a bit more, though it came through in a rather sharp, young manner.
Cask #2, The K-Street OG. The “k” standing for Klamath St., which of course is where the distillery is. The OG standing for “original gangster,” which, while I get their meaning, is a funny thing to call a barrel. A gang of barrels would more or less just be a bunch of barrels sitting around, mostly harmless and non-threatening unless improperly racked. This one was one the first barrels filled in 2009 at the new location. An American white oak cask clocking in around 130 proof.
The Nose: Lush, deep sugars; butterscotch, thick honey, cinnamon honey, and warm caramel apples. There was French vanilla ice cream and a little candied orange peel as well. The oak was round and smooth accompanied by vanilla bean, cinnamon stick, and a little unsweetened cocoa powder.
The Palate: Like the nose, lots of rich sweetness; honey, brown sugars with jellied orange slices, vanilla syrup, and some fudge brownie. Strong, pleasantly grippy oak along with cinnamon and a little clove.
The Finish: Mostly notes from the wood, cinnamon, clove, tannic oak and white pepper.
Thoughts: Man, oh, man. This was probably my favorite of the bunch. All those complex sugars without being syrupy or cloying. The oak was prominent but well-integrated and balanced. Not only was this one exciting because it was a treat to try right then and there, it also gave an impressive glimpse into what Stranahan’s future might hold.
Cask #3, The Three Year Old. Another new American White Oak barrel, they weren’t sure on the ABV, but based on the others, they guessed it to be in the area of 115 proof.
The Nose: There was a youthful heat to this one. Caramel, honey, juicy slightly pithy orange…and a bit of orange marmalade as well. Vanilla extract and baker’s chocolate. The oak notes were sharp and a little dusty with cinnamon and nutmeg.
The Palate: Again with youthful heat. More caramel, along with some vanilla syrup, and juicy tangerine. Sharp, bold tannins, light clove, cinnamon and dried orange peel.
The Finish: Lots of vanilla bean, cinnamon, and oak.
Thoughts: Straightforward, but youngish. This one had an appealing, up-front boldness to its flavor profile, but the sharper edges kept me from liking it more than I did. Still, it showed off the Stranahan’s character nicely.
Cask #4, The Busted Barrel. Another three year old, but this time the barrel was a bit of a leaky one, resulting in a more concentrated version of the previous three year old.
The Nose: A lot like the other three year old, but a little thicker seeming. The sugars were deeper, butterscotch and dark honey, the fruit riper, and the wood and spice stronger, but a little less edgy.
The Palate: Similar to what I said about the nose, A more lush, bigger mouthfeel, thicker, richer sugars, more vanilla, both bean and syrup. Bigger oak tannins, but less sharp.
The Finish: Dark honey, vanilla bean, cinnamon and oak.
Thoughts: It was fascinating to try the non-busted barrel three year old next to this one. Very similar flavor profiles with that concentrated lower volume of the busted barrel one gaining a pleasant weightiness and losing some of the sharp youth of the first one.
Cask #5, The Oloroso. This is what I was hoping to see. A big ol’ sherry butt.I like big butts, I would not prevaricate. I’m sure you other whiskey aficionados would not repudiate that.* This ex-Oloroso butt was actually a 40 year old cask and there was no telling if it was American oak or European oak. Stranahan’s took some of their three year old whiskey and finished it for two more years in this stained, weathered, oaken monster.
The Nose: Man, big, lush…very inviting nose. Dark honey, bit of molasses, plump raisins and fig compote. A bit of juicy orange and dark berries as well. Vanilla bean and dark chocolate. Sturdy, but tempered oak notes with baking spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, and a little clove.
The Palate: A little sharper and youthful on the palate but still very good. More dark red fruits, probably in some kind of warm cobbler. More vanilla and fudge-y, slightly nutty chocolate. Stronger grippy oak, cinnamon, clove, and black peppercorns.
The Finish: Lingering with dark sugars, baking spices, and oak.
Thoughts: Really, really good, a veritable treat to sample straight from the barrel. This is the kind of thing I had hoped they’d be rolling out, and the result lived up to all expectation. That 40 year old butt must still have had some life in it…or at least a lot of sherry, because it made its influence known throughout. The worst part about tasting this one was finding out that Stranahan’s has only experimented with a few sherry casks, so it’s not likely that anything like this will see the inside of a liquor store soon. With that in mind, Stranahan’s, in about 7-10 years, I’d happily to buy a sherried expression from you, possibly case thereof…hint, hint.
Cask #6, The Rum Barrel. The last one of the evening. Some of their three year old (I think) finished for a year in an ex-rum barrel. I tend to not be the biggest fan of rum finishes, and I tend to not be the best tasting note taker after six or seven whiskeys. Yo ho ho…
The Nose: A little young and thinnish. Lighter sugars, honey, caramel. Vanilla syrup and juicy tangerine. Cinnamon candies and young tannic oak.
The Palate: Like the nose, thinnish and a little hot. Vanilla syrup, confectioners sugar and orange slice candies. A little bittersweet chocolate lead to more cinnamon and grippy, edgy oak.
The Finish: Shortish with burnt sugars and oak.
Thoughts: To me, the ex-rum cask didn’t do this many flavors…er, favors. Again, having tasted a couple other three year olds gave a good basis for comparison. The rum sugars just seemed to dull this down a bit without taming some of the youth. It was pleasant and quite easy drinking, just not on the same level as most of the others.
Snowflake Batch #17, “Long’s Peak.” I wrapped up my evening with a pour from Stranahan’s bar, a glass of their yearly very limited Snowflake release. Each year, Dietrich blends together a special early Winter release that is made up of older whiskies, many of which are finished in relatively unusual casks. The whiskeys used in Batch #17, which was from 2015, came from two five year old new American Oak casks, a Chancellor wine cask from Colorado vintner Spero Winery, an Oloroso cask from Spain, and lastly, an American Oak cask that first saw Stranahan’s spirit, then was sent to Breckenridge Brewery to age their ESB Doublewood beer, then was sent back to Stranahan’s to be filled with three year old whiskey that matured there for two more years.
The Nose: Lighter than the OG cask and Oloroso cask mentioned above, but no less complex. Dark fruits, thick honey, dried cherries, and a little butterscotch. Fruitcake baking spices, wet oak, thin coffee and damp hay.
The Palate: More dark sugars, baked fruits, vanilla, and chocolate fudge. Grippy polished oak and green-ish spice, peppercorns, coriander, baker’s cocoa,and barrel char.
The Finish: Nice tannic, peppery bitterness with brown sugar, vanilla, and unsweetened chocolate.
Thoughts: My impressions of this one were perhaps a little distorted, but overall I found it very, very good and an impressive departure from the more easily found Stranahan’s. The wine and beer casks’ influence seemed appropriately slight, adding just an earthy shading to the five year old and sherry-matured barrels.
Along with the entire weekend being a lot of fun, this was a fantastic, informative event. It’s not often one gets to sample whiskey straight from the barrel. It’s even less often that one gets to sample straight from the barrel several whiskeys that wouldn’t ever get the chance to see the light of day on their own. In the “craft” distilling world, Stranahan’s has a long record of success, and arguably could be considered one of the early leaders in this recent movement. Getting the chance to check out their spirit matured in a wider variety of settings gave me new respect for this distillery. I’ve always thought they produced good whiskey, and having now tasted some older, differently matured whiskeys, I definitely look forward to what Stranahan’s will do in the coming years.
*Apologies to Sir Mix-A-Lot.