It’s no secret that I’m a big advocate of the bold bourbons coming out of the Lone Star State. I’m a Texan, after all. But I also leap at the chance to try unique whiskeys from other regions of the country. And you know which state has consistently exceeded my expectations when it comes to the art of whiskey-making?
Colorado. The Switzerland of America. John Denver’s stomping grounds.
Much like the distinctive Texas terroir and its wide range of climates, Colorado features a variety of factors within its boundaries that set its whiskey expressions apart from anywhere else in the U.S. From endless springwater to rich soil to expansive farmland to variable weather – the state has everything necessary to distill some of the most diverse, complex, and flat-out tasty juice in the country. And it all starts with the H2O.
Generally speaking, water is whiskey’s most unsung key ingredient and that’s a place where Colorado thrives. The state is crisscrossed by rivers and springs, and fed by snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains. It’s a feature beer has keyed in on for decades, and distillers are wisely catching on. TINCUP Whiskey, founded in 2014, buys their juice from Midwest Grain Products (MGP) in Indiana, but they cut their whiskey to proof with fresh Rocky Mountain spring water.
“I started distilling back in 1972, with the conviction that Colorado’s water – and its tradition of distilling – had the makings of great whiskey,” says TINCUP founder Jess Graber. “The Platte River, the Arkansas River, the Rio Grande River, and the Colorado River all have their headwaters and begin their journeys in the high peaks here. In my opinion, we have the best water in the world.”
Colorado’s altitude plays an integral role in the overall character of the state’s whiskeys, too. Virtually all of the whiskey distilleries in the state are situated at least over one mile above sea level. Breckenridge Distillery lies at 9,600 feet, while Deerhammer Distilling Company is based at approximately 8,000 feet.
“We find our whiskey to be impacted by the extremely dry climate and radical swings in both temperature and barometric pressure,” says Lenny Eckstein, Founder and Head Distiller of Deerhammer. “That’s unique to our state, in comparison to the more traditional whiskey producing regions in the U.S.”
“Our high altitude in Colorado leads to a unique angel’s share loss,” adds Owen Martin, Head Distiller at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. “That’s the amount of alcohol and water that evaporates out of the barrel. Due to the dry climate at this altitude, we lose more water out of our casks than we would if we were maturing our whiskey at sea level – creating a higher-proof product with a potent and complex flavor profile.”
With all of the Centennial State’s unique elements in the mix, it’s no wonder that the local distilleries are creating some of the most exciting whiskey expressions in the county right now. To help you get started tasting them, we’ve listed our favorite Colorado single malts, bourbons, and ryes below, complete with tasting notes.
Leopold Bros. Bottled in Bond Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery: Leopold Bros., Denver, CO
Average Price: $66.99
Founded by brothers Scott and Todd Leopold in 1999, this distillery is among the handful of craft whiskey pioneers in the country. The bottle is one of the newest in the Leopold Bros. portfolio — aged five years in new American white oak charred barrels, in what the distillery describes as an “unheated dunnage-style bonded warehouse.”
Your nose is welcomed with a strong-yet-enticing tri-blend of oak, rye, and subtle cocoa. On the palate, rich toffee is met with a hint of spicy cinnamon, creating an ethereal experience that crescendos with black pepper mid-sip. The creamy mouthfeel fades into a finish that’s warm and drizzled with dark chocolate notes.
Most people love chocolate; I don’t. Still, this finish made me fall in love with dark chocolate; I’m completely here for it.
Breckinridge Rum Cask Finish Bourbon
Distillery: Breckenridge Distillery, Breckenridge, CO
Average Price: $52.99
The Breckenridge Distillery — situated at 9,600 feet above sea level — has dubbed itself the “World’s Highest Distillery.” The Rum Cask Finish Bourbon was initially a distillery exclusive, but its’ popularity compelled the company to expand its distribution to 22 select states.
According to the distillery, the process for this expression begins after making basic spice rum, barrelled with macerated dried fruit peels, roots, barks, herbs, and spices. After recognizing that some of those components paired well with their high-rye bourbon, they began experimenting with rum cask-finished recipes. After several years of development, we now have the opportunity to enjoy the distillery’s beloved bourbon, finished in rum casks.
This bourbon had me hooked right away, with its fragrant swirl of fruit, caramel, and vanilla. The first sip is like biting into a Honeycrisp apple — delicate, yet bursting with flavor. The velvety mouthfeel is made complete with a hint of ripe banana that shines through in a surprising way. No heat on the finish, but dark chocolate amplifies the finale of this delightful tasting experience.
I let out an audibly loud, “Oooh!” when drinking this. Yeah, it’s just that good. This bourbon is delicious in a spirit-forward cocktail (e.g. Whiskey Tiki Sour), but better enjoyed neat.
291 Small Batch Colorado Bourbon
Distillery: Distillery 291, Colorado Springs, CO
Average Price: $73.99
Owner and founding distiller, Michael Myers, states, “The 291 Colorado Bourbon is our very first recipe, ([the] very first grain put in water and distilled) with one slight change. The original recipe was 80% corn [and] 20% rye malt. It is now 80% corn, 19% rye malt, and 1% malt barley.”
This whiskey is distilled from a bourbon sour mash, triple distilled in copper pot stills (the finishing still is made from photogravure plates from Myers’ past life as a photographer), aged in American white oak deep char barrels, and finished with toasted Aspen staves.
An appealing honey aroma is fused with the scent of oak with a bit of smoke (thanks to the staves). Subtle spice and smoke balance out the primarily sweet flavor profile, which is heavy on vanilla and maple. Slight heat at the back of the tongue at the finish, but without a harsh bite — surprising, considering this comes in at 100 proof.
This would make a great gift for your bourbon-loving relative (or yourself). Unlock even more flavor by adding a couple of drops of water, but no ice.
Stranahan’s Mountain Angel
Distillery: Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey Distillery, Denver, CO
Average Price: $129.99
Mountain Angel is Stranahan’s oldest, rarest release to date and their first 10-year-old American single malt. Like all of Stranahan’s single malts, Mountain Angel is comprised of 100% Rocky Mountain barley and Colorado spring water, made in small batches before aging for 10 years in new American oak barrels with a #3 char. According to the Stranahan’s Head Distiller, Owen Martin, “After a decade of maturation in Denver’s high, dry climate, Mountain Angel saw a unique angel’s share loss (several barrels experienced a loss of up to 80%) that is par with Scotches over twice its age, resulting in a liquid with a stunning concentration of flavor.”
The scent transports you to your childhood when you’d eat caramelized apples by the truckload. Rich molasses and dark chocolate swings open the gate for a peppery nibble midway through the tasting experience. Long and sweet finish with notes of caramel and oak.
I was fortunate enough to try this extremely limited release (less than 500 bottles hit the market). It’s worth every dime and important to savor each drop. So if you get your hands on a bottle, enjoy it slowly, neat, and only with the friends you *really* like.
Deerhammer American Single Malt
Distillery: Deerhammer Distilling Company, Buena Vista, CO
Average Price: $49.99
Founder and Head Distiller of Deerhammer, Lenny Eckstein, says, “Deerhammer’s American Single Malt recipe was adapted from an imperial porter that I had brewed in the past. Of the various malt barley grain bills that were trialed along the way to our current recipe (now in its ninth year of production), this particular recipe relies heavily on a significant portion of dark roasted and kilned malts to bring forward a flavor profile that is unique to Deerhammer.”
Imagine cacao and caramel that’s been set aflame. That’s the toasty, tantalizing aroma you’ll pick up from this whiskey. The sip itself marries together bittersweet coffee and dark chocolate for a flavor takeover that’s alluring and just a notch below running the risk of being too sweet. The dram is made complete with a pop of spice amid a wave of hazelnut and more chocolate at the finish.
This stunning sipper is the best introduction to the world of US-based single malts.
Laws Four Grain Straight Bourbon Bonded
Distillery: Laws Whiskey House, Denver, CO
Average Price: $67.99
Laws Whiskey House is the grain-to-glass distillery behind Colorado’s first bottled in bond bourbon in the state’s history. In line with the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, this bourbon is a minimum of four years old, a product of a single season and a single distiller, and has been aged wholly in a federally bonded rickhouse.
Come for the honey and orange peel aroma, stay for the complex and divine palate. Bold black tea and dark chocolate work their magic on the tastebuds, while a hint of cinnamon completes the job, adding a potent punch of spice. The lingering, spicy finish doesn’t disappoint before you go in for round two.
You can easily drink this either on the rocks or as the base of a classic Old Fashioned.
Woody Creek Colorado Straight 100% Rye Whiskey
Distillery: Woody Creek Distillers, Basalt, CO
Average Price: $49.99
Woody Creek’s Rye Whiskey is made with 100% Colorado rye sourced from local farms. They use custom 40-foot CARL stills to create a spirit that’s as distinctive as it is delicious. The rye whiskey is aged for a minimum of four years in new American oak barrels.
Black pepper steals the show with the aroma only allowing a subtle scent of vanilla to peek through. That’s okay, because the palate follows through with the vanilla and added crisp apple notes next to oaky spice. The sip comes to an abrupt end with a dry, spicy-sweet finish.
Not a bad price for one of the tastiest ryes I’ve ever experienced. I tried this whiskey in a Rye Manhattan and it was exceptional. You should do the same.
TINCUP Straight Rye
Distillery: MGP, Lawrenceburg, IN; Bottled at TINCUP Whiskey in Denver, CO
Average Price: $32
Before you jump all over my case: Yes, this rye is distilled and aged for three years in Indiana. However, it is cut to proof with pure Rocky Mountain water and bottled in Denver, Colorado. TINCUP Whiskey Founder, Jess Graber, states, “The town of Tin Cup, Colorado was established in 1879, and takes its name from the nearby gulch where local prospector Jim Taylor first found gold — carrying it back to town in a tin cup. In a similar fashion, the local miners there would drink their whiskey from tin cups, sharing stories at the end of a long day.”
Thus, the name TINCUP and the cap on the bottle are both nods to Colorado’s history.
Vanilla and baking spices tickle your senses from nose to palate. While most ryes have a bold spicy flavoring, this rye has a lightness that’s refreshing and leads to an exciting apex. The peppery sweet finish is like a quick kiss goodbye, leaving you with eager anticipation for more.
I’m not one to drink rye neat, but this one is a suitable sipper. Besides, who can resist drinking out of the literal tin cup cap when you’re out camping?! It’s apropos to the setting and my new (second) favorite whiskey producing state.