Stranahan’s Cask Thief Festival or: Let’s Get Serious About American Single Malt Whiskey

Stranahan’s Master Distiller Rob Dietrich wants the Colorado malt whiskey he and his team distills to be taken as seriously as a single malt Scotch.  Currently, there is no official designation for American Single Malt Whiskey in the TTB, the government bureau who oversees booze in our great country.  Sure, we have bourbon, rye, corn whiskey, grain neutral spirit, etc.,  but no American Single Malt.  Stranahan’s is made from malted barley, Colorado water, and yeast.  There are no additives, flavoring, or coloring added.  It’s all distilled and aged at their Denver distillery.   If that’s not a single malt whiskey, I don’t know what is.  Again, no American Single Malt designation.  Stranahan’s and several other American distilleries making malt whiskey are lobbying for change.

Single malts make up some of the most delicious and treasured whiskies in the world.  Layers of flavors build, forming nuances and complexities absent in other spirits.  That inspired the folks at Stranahan’s to go the malt whiskey route instead of producing a bourbon or rye whiskey.  The standard Stranahan’s expression is bold and full of sweet malt, vanilla and honey, appealing both to malt whisky and American whiskey drinkers who prefer a bolder character.  It’s at least two years old, befitting a “straight whiskey” designation.  But again, no official recognition or definition of American Single Malt Whiskey (I know, I’m starting to sound like a broken record).  Also on shelves is the 4-year-old Diamond Peak, which gives off more dark fruits, darker caramels and more spice than the standard expression.  In addition, every December fans go rabid over the release of Snowflake, a distillery-exclusive offering that explores cask finishing.

In the midst of appealing to the TTB, the folks at Stranahan’s still know how to have fun with their whiskey.  Attending their second annual Cask Thief Festival recently, I saw…rather, tasted, that fun firsthand.  Close to six hundered fans made their way to the festival this past weekend.  The event gave fans a chance to taste rare whiskies straight from the barrel at cask strength. This year featured a selection of six unique casks, as well as a barbecue and live music.  Each featured a departure from their standard house style through different cask finishes, further aging, or in one case, a brand new yeast strain.  I jotted down a few notes while I tasted.

Cask thievery. All samples were taken straight from the barrels with a copper cask thief.

  1. CHERRY MARY – This expression was a 3-year-old Stranahan’s finished in a Montmorency cherry wine barrel for more than year.  The wine is local to Denver, and aged in that cask for four years.  Aromas of vanilla, caramel-dipped cherries, oatmeal and espresso leapt out of the glass.  The entry featured hints of cherry cola, vanilla creme, cloves and some sweet malt.  The long finish left behind sweet red fruit notes.
  2. SHERRY GARCIA – A 2.5-year-old Stranahan’s finished in an Oloroso Sherry cask.  Sherry cask-finishing is nothing new in the whiskey world.  The folks here at Stranahan’s showed restraint with this one.  The secondary sherry cask maturation was evident, but not overdone.  The nose featured hints of dried fruits, plums, banana and caramel, along with a light touch of sherry wine.  Sherry Garcia was quite mild in terms of drinkability.  Taste-wise, we’re talking about raisins, caramelized malts, and vanilla with some sherry and candied orange peel on the back-end.  The finish was nice, with spiced honey, sweet malt and slightly astringent oak.
  3. 4.6 CARAT DIAMOND – Essentially this is a single barrel Diamond Peak.  Hinted at in its name, this whiskey was matured in new American oak casks for 4.6 years.  The nose here was on the yeasty side, suggesting cinnamon bread.  Notes of sweet dark malt and caramel helped contribute to its rich aroma.  The palate was quite delightful.  Hints of grapefruit, brown sugar, figs and a sweet maltiness alongside a touch of oak gave this whiskey a nice balance of flavors.  The finish was full of dark brown sugar, dark fruits and slightly drying oak.
  4. THE HEADSTAND – As Stranahan’s demand grows, the distillery is looking to maximize space to age its barrels.  For this release, the bung was placed on the head instead of the side, meaning this barrel sat vertically instead of horizontally.  This kind of storage means more barrels can fit in the same square footage than ones laying horizontally.  Stranahan’s released this 3.5-year-old whisky aged in a “vertical” barrel to show there’s no change in the way the whiskey ages.  The Headstand was a great example of the Stranahan’s house style.  The nose was malty, with hints of honey, vanilla and candied fruit.  Those notes carried over to the palate, where malt was mingled with orange marmalade, caramel, spice and vanilla.  The finish was longer than the standard Stranahan’s whiskey, featuring honey and some spice.
  5. FRENCH-KISSED – A fantastically rich expression from Stranahan’s.  This one saw Stranahan’s whiskey finished in a cognac cask for 24 months.  The new French oak cask was seasoned for three years and filled with eau de vis for 15-20 years.  On the nose, hints of caramel, vanilla and malt stood up against big fruity, floral notes from the cognac cask.  This whiskey was oily on the palate.  The French oak cognac cask influence showed, as vanilla and cloves seasoned big fruity notes like grapes, apricot, and figs.  There was a bit of malt underneath, along with a bit of raisins, oak and a hint of leather.  The finish featured caramel, grapes, and a touch of spice.  A dessert whiskey if there ever was one.
  6. STRANA-SCOTCH – My favorite of the bunch!  Strana-Scotch traded Stranahan’s traditional yeast with a Scotch yeast.  The whiskey was matured for 3 years in a new American oak barrel with a #3 char.  Black cherries, dried fruits (raisins especially), sweet malt and orange zest filled the nose.  There were dried fruits and toffee on entry, followed by orange zest, white pepper, lemongrass and candied ginger.  The finish was sweet and sour, with candied orange zest, toffee, and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper.  While this expression held the Stranahan’s house style at its core, the use of another yeast gave this whiskey notes normally not found in Stranahan’s.  I’d love to see this get a wide release, even if it’s only a one-off.

Stranahan’s Master Distiller Rob Dietrich discussing the distilling process during a private tour of the distillery.

Alongside some kick ass barbecue and fantastic music, Stranahan’s Cask Thief Festival gave attendees a sneak peak at some of the experimentation going on at the distillery.  I’m a fan of experimentation in the whiskey world, and for the most part these expressions worked.  The level of finesse and skill showcased here should be applauded.  As the distillery grows, I do hope to see more of these releases reaching the hands of fans across the country.

Moreover, I completely back Stranahan’s and other American distilleries pushing for an official designation for an American Single Malt whiskey.  Rumor has it the major pushback is coming from across the pond in Scotland.  If that is the case, I would call it a petty move.  Scotch whisky is still king of single malts, and the handful of American distilleries making single malt whisky are a drop in the bucket and pose no threat to sales.  There are Scotch, Irish and Japanese single malt whiskies, so why don’t we have an American single malt?

A big thanks to Stranahan’s for my invitation to their Cask Thief Festival.  The entire trip was paid for by Stranahan’s, but that did not influence the contents of this article.  As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Several hogs were roasted using Stranahan’s barrel staves.

Some mood music.

Luxco Announces Bardstown Distillery

An architect rendering for Luxco's new distillery.

An architect rendering for Luxco’s new distillery.

This week Luxco confirmed plans to build a distillery in Bardstown, KY.  The distillery is yet to be named, and is expected to be operational by the end of 2017.

With the current whiskey boom seeing no slowing down in the near future, being able to distill its own whiskey is crucial to Luxco’s continued growth.  It may be harder and harder to source whiskey in the future.

Construction is set to begin this summer by Buzick Construction, who have built other distilleries over the years.  Luxco’s new distillery will employ more than 30 people, and the company is hoping it will be a new stop along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Read the full press release below:

(St. Louis) April 4, 2016 – Luxco announced today the company has finalized plans to build a distillery, located in Nelson County, Kentucky. Luxco has chosen to build the distillery on a 70-acre site off state highway KY-245 in the heart of Bardstown and Bourbon Capital of the World. The company announced preliminary plans for the distillery in late 2015, and the distillery is expected to be fully operational by late 2017.

Construction on the project will begin in the summer of 2016. Buzick Construction has been awarded the contract for the project. When finished, the distillery will be approximately 18,000 square feet, have six barrel warehouses and will employ an estimated 34 people. In addition, the distillery will feature a tasting room and event space and will offer visitors a new stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

“We are looking forward to building the distillery on this scenic property and in such a central location in Bardstown,” says David Bratcher, President and COO of Luxco. “We intend the distillery to be a welcoming stop for those visiting the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and we are excited to bring our bourbon experience and brands to Nelson County.”

The distillery will be built alongside an existing house on the property, which is registered as a National Historic Place and will remain. Architect renderings of the new distillery, created by Joseph & Joseph Architects out of Louisville, are available upon request.

With the rapid growth of Luxco’s bourbon brands, such as Rebel Yell, Blood Oath and Ezra Brooks, the company decided to build this new distillery in order to meet its increasing whiskey demand.

“At Luxco, we are always looking to be innovative,” says Bratcher. “Building this distillery will allow us to control our own production as well as offer us the ability to experiment with new and innovative mash bills, barrel types and aging techniques.”

Luxco has received support for the distillery from various entities within Kentucky.

“We are pleased with the support we have received from the Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet, the Nelson County Economic Development Agency and City and County government officials,” said Donn Lux, Chairman of Luxco.

The Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority (KEDFA) preliminarily approved the company for $1.3 million in tax incentives for the project. The Joint City-County Planning Commission also approved rezoning of the land for this project. Luxco also owns 50 percent interest in the Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky – which produces Yellowstone Kentucky Straight Bourbon.

“We are excited to have Luxco become a part of our community,” says Dean Watts, Nelson County Judge Executive. “Their history and success in the liquor industry will greatly enhance our County.”

A Taste of Bowmore Whiskies

Photo courtesy of Bowmore Distillery.

Photo courtesy of Bowmore Distillery.

Nestled on the eastern coast of Loch Indaal on Islay, Bowmore sits proudly as one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland.  It was founded in 1779, making it almost as old as the U.S.  The distillery is currently owned by Beam Suntory.  Each batch is overseen by Master Blender Rachel Barrie.

Bowmore produces a peaty whiskey, but it’s not as full and heavy as Laphroaig or Ardbeg whiskies.  The distillery still manages a small amount of traditional floor maltings, but the majority of malted barley comes from the mainland.

Traditional floor maltings at Bowmore.

Picture supplied by SNS Group/Peter Devlin

Their standard range includes Bowmore Small Batch along with 12-year, 15-year, 18-year and 25-year-old expressions.  Let’s take a look at their expressions.

Bowmore Small Batch

Photo courtesy of Bowmore Distillery.

Photo courtesy of Bowmore Distillery.

Bottled at 40% and available for a suggested price of $39.99, Bowmore Small Batch is the only non-age stated (NAS) whisky in their core lineup.  It’s composed of whiskies aged in first and second fill ex-bourbon casks.  The nose is a tad on the younger side, and gives soft vanilla and fruit notes under a blanket of easy going peat.  The peat comes across like a bandage.  Taste-wise, I get a saccharine sweetness carrying spice, vanilla, and peat.  A crisp citrus note shows up in the mid-palate and follows through into the medium length finish.

After a couple of tastings, I can’t get into this expression.  It tastes okay, but isn’t spectacular or memorable.

My problem isn’t the lack of age statement on the label – that never really bothers me.  After all, the Scotch industry is headed that way regardless, so it’s best to get on board now.

In the case of this expression of Bowmore, I think it’s a combination of NAS and low proof.  A 46% abv version of this might give this whisky a much needed shot in the arm.


Bowmore 12-Year-Old

Photo courtesy of Bowmore Distillery.

Photo courtesy of Bowmore Distillery.

The nose on this 12-year-old expression of Bowmore is a bit punchier than it’s younger NAS sibling.  The peat is showcased more here, providing a slightly ashy smoke and iodine combination.  There’s a nice honey note providing the sweetness, along with lemon zest.  I best describe the entry as a “sweet bandage”.  That may be the strangest tasting note I’ve ever written. There’s clover honey and smoky ash accompanied by vanilla.  Mid-palate, lemon curd provides a tartness and creaminess to the tasting experience.  The sweet/ashy/citrus finish hangs around for a few minutes.  This is one of the few times the official distillery tasting notes are on par with my own tasting notes.

Bowmore 12-year-old is a much more refined and “complete” expression when compared to the Small Batch whisky.  Sure it’s peaty, but this whisky retains a light and crisp quality I don’t normally associate with Islay whiskies.  While it’s a nice dram, Bowmore 12 year isn’t one to dissect for an hour.  Pour a glass, sip, and enjoy.  A bottle should cost around $50.


Bowmore 15-Year-Old “The Darkest”

Photo courtesy of Bowmore Distillery

Photo courtesy of Bowmore Distillery

This darker colored 15-year-old expression from Bowmore is aged in a combination of ex-bourbon casks and ex-sherry casks, giving it the nickname of “The Darkest.”  Also of note is the slight raise in proof – 43% abv.

Those sherry casks provide a nice fruitiness and richness on the nose.   Dried fruits, vanilla, citrus and peat are the prominent aromas.  Toffee provides the rich sweet note.  On the palate, a quick hit of spice opens into a blast of orange zest and tropical fruit.  The peat note is not as prevalent as it is in the younger Bowmore expressions.  Again, the toffee note from the nose adds some sweet creaminess.  An ashy smoke note turns up at the back palate going into the long finish.

Bowmore 15-year is my favorite of the bunch.  I have a soft spot for sherried Islay whiskies.  The sherry casks provide another layer of complexity that I think this whisky benefits from.  It’s not as light in style as the Small Batch or 12-year-old, but that’s okay.  This expression carries a $65 price tag, making it $15 more expensive than the 12-year-old.   Totally worth it, as far as I’m concerned.  Recommended!


(Note: Review samples were provided by Bowmore.)