A family trip took me to Denver, Colorado. So, let’s go to Stranahan’s, yeah?
No, actually. A quick pre-flight chat with my friendly neighbourhood bourbon aficionado brought Laws Whiskey House to my attention. It’s a small distillery, established in 2009, and has only recently started releasing their whiskey. Despite that, they’ve already put out an impressively diverse line up – a straight Bourbon, a straight Rye, a few cask strength bottlings of each, a ‘Farmer Select’ range of single cask Bourbon, and two batches of Bottled In Bond Bourbon, composed of their oldest stocks from their very first season of distillation. A scroll through their sparse, palpably anti-corporate website got me even more intrigued. It made claims about their sole use of full size, 53 gallon new American Oak barrels. And who could miss their emboldened, trademarked slogan: “Craft over commodity. Quality over quantity. Whiskey above all”. Period! How categorical! Though, is it a bit overplayed? Would any distillery reasonably take up a slogan like ‘commodity over craft, quantity over quality, and whiskey as a mere consequence’? Maybe some have, but just forgot to mention it in bold on their website? Nevertheless, I’m hooked. It’s these kinds of statements that I like to investigate, because at the moment, there’s good reason for disillusionment and scepticism in the American whiskey landscape. Outside of a few strict federal regulations that define how certain words can be used, absolutely nothing can be taken at face value. ‘Small Batch’, ‘Handmade’, ‘Craft’; such sweet, romantic words, have managed to plop out the business-end of advertising & marketing’s sullied colon meaning exactly nothing.
So here we go. According to the Google map, it looks like I’m headed into the heart of Denver’s Overland industrial area.
Roll up, get out of the car, and notice a distinctly, shall I say, grassy aroma lingering in the cool Colorado spring air. The distillery itself is in an unassuming, cream brick industrial building, ‘Laws Whiskey House’ in restrained, stamped metal lettering above the door. Upon entry, directly to the left is the whiskey church – a little room with four rows of short, kitschy wooden church pews, sporting loosely woven, tweed-ish seat cushions coloured a drab, pea soup hue that was exclusive to the 1960’s. The pews face a chalkboard, with a pristine guide to the whiskey-making process, from grain to glass drawn on it.
With a steaming black Laws branded coffee mug in one hand, and the other casually balled up in his right front jeans pocket, our hoodied tour guide Scott seats us in the pews. There are ten of us in the congregation. We get a comprehensive lesson on whiskey production, with much emphatic tapping & gesturing onto the chalkboard, mussing the chalk drawings, and giving the impression that they’re painstakingly recreated prior to each of their several daily tours. Without naming names, ‘sourcing’ operations get a good scolding. Scott makes a point of stressing that with the exception of malting, everything is done under the roof of the building we’re sitting in. “Maybe that matters to you, maybe it doesn’t. But it matters to us”.
“OK, no questions? Let’s go see it”. We’re led into one of the climate controlled, federally bonded barrel warehouses. Metal racking supports casks stacked five high, four deep, and about twenty long. Numbered barrels of Bourbon, Single Malt, Corn whiskey, and even a couple barrels of Rum, are proudly organized in neat rows. Curiously, there are a fair number of barrels labelled “Gargoyle Enterprises Inc”, the cryptic name that proprietor Alan Laws used for his company in the early days, to disguise the operation from prying eyes. Every cask is a uniform size, 53 gallon new American white oak, save for the lone, obese sherry cask that sits by the entrance. And the bracing aroma of a barrel warehouse. How can that smell not stop one dead in their tracks? All those casks exhaling vapours that, by the very fact that they’re pouring out into the air, will never make it into a bottle, or a glass. An atmospheric cuvée.
Over in the stillhouse, take a spin around, and you’ll notice some conspicuous features: American, Canadian, Colorado State, and POW/MIA flags hang above a sensory & blending room. Unmissable above the fermenters, in large, angular art deco lettering designed by Mr. Laws himself, reads a sagely, if didactic, aphorism: “THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS.”. Pure Zen. There’s a whiff of Ayn Rand to this place, in the best possible way. Howard Roark would silently & motionlessly approve.
Two pairs of 500 litre, open, stainless steel fermentation vats bubble away. Ale yeast is identified as the culprit responsible for the clouds of fruity esters billowing into the room. Scott points our attention to two graduated cylinders. One contains a tan coloured pre-fermentation rye mash. He passes it around and tells us to “dip a finger in” and give it a taste. We oblige. Sweet and syrupy, it’s a breakfast pudding. Then he passes around a cylinder of dark brown, post-fermentation rye mash. It’s bitter, acrid, acidic, and has all the calling cards of a mixed fermentation. Lactobacillus has done some work on this second porridge. Interesting. Awfully complex. It’s at this stage of the process that their mash is pumped into a copper combination pot / column still, and gets a slow double distillation.
At Laws Whiskey House, the tails cut is always done via sensory evaluation. As their still chugs through a stripping run, Scott dunks a finger into the floating hydrometer vessel above the spirit receiver, rubs his hands together, and rather Jesus-like, opens his palms to the group, letting the aroma waft out toward us. Thoughtfully, and in polite turns, we smell his hands. There are ooohs, and there are aaahs.
At the end of the technical walk-through, we backtrack into the well appointed, beautifully lit brick and hardwood tasting room. Waiting for each of us is a glass of Laws’s flagship whiskey, a four grain Bourbon, made from corn, rye, wheat and malted barley. Our batch is a vatting of casks between 2 and 3 years old. Surprisingly, it doesn’t come off as a youngster, and is multi layered and full of character. Big on dark chocolate, cinnamon, and toffee. Their Secale Rye came next, a liquid mirror of their rye mash fermentation; yeasty, and a smack of smoking cinnamon stick. On a riff, Scott tells us to keep a measured distance from the spirit while we’re nosing. “If you’re sitting around a fire, you don’t just stick your hands directly in, right? It’s about learning how to get close to the fire”. “Hah” he chuckles to himself, “I just thought that up”.
After the tour, I mention that I’m visiting from Alberta, and I discover that Alan Laws is also an Albertan, from the small town of Bon Accord, just north of where I live. Scott takes me on a quick jag back through the distillery, and out the building’s rear door. There, a group of bottlers have just finished for the day (Laws whiskies are all hand-bottled, on site), and Alan is out back, trucker hat and t-shirt, chatting with the glowing group of guys, who take their turns shaking his hand. Someone passes me a graduated cylinder containing, what I’m told, is a sample of Laws’s yet unreleased 3 year old corn whiskey. I take a sip. It kicks ass. I relinquish it with a pause. Alan signs my bottle of Bourbon.
It’s true that money doesn’t buy happiness, but it will buy freedom. That freedom is manifest in Laws Whiskey House. First and most conspicuously, they’ve refused to produce any ‘bankroll’ clear spirits. They’ve been fortunate enough to be able to focus solely on the art of producing and maturing whiskey. And even in that regard, their methods are neither the quickest, nor the most economical. However, it should be obvious to anyone who has spent some thoughtful time with a few different whiskies, that even the most sophisticated gimmick can’t cheat the fact that whiskey needs good casks, and good time to mature. And time admits no analogues. Three months of aging in a 5 gallon barrel does not equal three years of aging in a 53 gallon barrel. Three months of aging in a 5 gallon barrel equals three months of aging in a 5 gallon barrel. That’s it, and that’s all. So Laws’s exclusive use of full sized casks strikes a sustained chord, close to my heart. We live in an age of American whiskey where even the largest, most corporate distilleries are trying to pass themselves off as down home, rootin’ tootin’ small batch producers with a human face, while others don’t even own a still, and even more are all too ready to throw up cutesy, quotidian symbols of a history that their liquid is completely alien from. Well, the people at Laws Whiskey House know that not every operation cares to be sincere, but they do.
And God bless them for that. Amen.