Colorado has more than 60 craft distilleries in operation. While it is premature to speak of a specific “Colorado style” of whiskey, the state’s distillers are characterized by robust and flavorful whiskeys, which generally show a high degree of extraction from cask wood. Below is a brief synopsis of some of Colorado’s more exciting whiskeys.
The state presents a challenging environment for maturing whiskey. It’s characterized by dramatic swings in diurnal and seasonal temperatures, significant variations in barometric pressure, and a generally dry climate with low humidity.
Colorado craft distillers also have a well-deserved reputation for innovation. A challenging and complex maturation environment and a history of innovative production techniques have produced some of the most interesting American whiskeys available today. Not surprisingly, Colorado whiskeys have been perennial medalists at the leading international spirit competitions.
Stranahan’s Whiskey Distillery is the oldest of Colorado’s craft distillers and the state’s first legal distillery since Prohibition. It was one of the first to begin producing American single malt whiskey. Its current range has six single malt whiskeys, starting with Stranahan’s Original, 47% ABV, 750 ml, the first Rocky Mountain single malt. The whiskey is a blend of barrels aged between four and seven years. It’s rich and creamy and offers intense notes of caramel, baked orchard fruit, and cinnamon spice, with hints of cured tobacco leaves and old leather.
The standout expression, however, is Stranahan’s Sherry Cask, Single Malt Whiskey, 45% ABV, 750 ml. The whiskey is a four-year-old single malt finished in a combination of Oloroso and PX Sherry casks. The resulting whiskey is intensely flavored, featuring the typical Sherry notes of raisins, dried figs, dates, salted nuts, caramel, and a hint of pepper. It’s an outstanding whiskey comparable to any top-ranked, Sherry-matured single malt Scotch. At an average retail price of around $60, it’s also an exceptional value.
Breckenridge is another Colorado distiller who has been a perennial winner in spirit competitions. It was founded in 2008 and is best known for its high rye, blended bourbon whiskey. It’s also the world’s highest distillery at 9,600 feet.
Try the Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey, 43% ABV, 750 ml. It’s one of the most highly awarded craft bourbons on the market. It offers intense flavors of caramel, milk chocolate, candied orange zest, baked apple, and vanilla and white pepper notes.
Also, try the Breckenridge Port Cask Finish Whiskey, 45% ABV, 750 ml, and the Breckenridge PX Sherry Cask Finish, 45% ABV. 750 ml. Both whiskeys feature the dried and jammy fruit flavors associated with Port and Sherry cask finishing.
The 10th Mountain Whiskey and Spirits Company is a philanthropic distillery crafting small-batch bourbon and rye whiskey, among other spirits. It’s named for the legendary 10th Mountain Division that was deployed in Italy’s Appenine Mountains during WW II and is the most deployed military unit when a humanitarian, natural disaster or conflict arises in the world.
Try their 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Co, 10th Mountain Bourbon, 46% ABV, 750 ml. It’s based on a mash bill of 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% malted barley and offers a classic American bourbon profile of sweet vanilla, toasted nuts, caramel/brown sugar, and well-seasoned oak.
Vapor Distillery/Boulder Spirits is another Colorado distillery that was an early proponent of American single malt whiskey. Its current range features eight single malt whiskeys and three bourbon whiskeys.
Try the Boulder Spirits, American Single Malt Whiskey Bottled in Bond (BOB), 50% ABV, 750 ml. This whiskey is aged for four years and was among the first BOB American single malt whiskeys. It’s a rich, creamy, intensely flavored whiskey with dark molasses, cooked cereal, dried dark fruit, cocoa, and some red fruit notes of raspberry and cherry.
Also consider Boulder Spirits, Straight Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength, 67.6% ABV, 750 ml. This 6-year-old, bold, powerful whiskey features intense notes of candied nuts, dark chocolate, fresh vanilla, and hints of red fruits. Its mash bill is unusual, consisting of 51% corn, 44% malted barley, and 5% rye.
Old Elk is a Fort Collins-based craft distiller. It’s noted for its practice of bringing its whiskeys to bottling proof very slowly over a period of weeks. According to the company, when water is added to a spirit rapidly, “it creates a heat liberating reaction” that “ends up boiling off many of the lighter, finer flavors.” Hence, the distiller’s practice of gradually bringing its whiskey down to bottling strength, a process it terms “slow cut.”
The company’s core range consists of High Malt Bourbon, Straight Wheat Whiskey, Wheated Bourbon, and Straight Rye Whiskey. It also bottles specialty and cask-finished whiskeys and its award-winning Master’s Blend Series.
Old Elk, Straight Whiskey, Double Wheat, 53.55% ABV, 750 ml. This whiskey is a blend of 95% wheat whiskey with a wheated bourbon. The resulting whiskey has a mash bill equivalent to 71.5% wheat, 25% corn, and 3.5% barley and is a blend of whiskeys aged six to eight years. It’s exceptionally smooth, with a creamy, vanilla-tinged crème brulé quality, and features notes of butterscotch/brown sugar, candied nuts, well-seasoned oak, and a hint of spicy ginger pepper.
Also worth trying is the Old Elk, Four Grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 52.95% ABV, 750 ml. This is a 50-50 blend of a wheated bourbon and a high rye bourbon. The whiskey is sweet and fruity, with notes of vanilla, caramel, and cherries and spice notes of cinnamon and clove.
Laws Whiskey House is another innovative craft distiller that pioneered the use of heirloom grains to craft whiskey. A farm-to-bottle distiller, its heirloom grains are grown on two Colorado family farms: the Cody’s in the San Luis Valley and the Ohnmacht’s in Colorado’s eastern plain.
Laws Whiskey House, Four Grain Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 47.5% ABV, 750 ml, is the company’s flagship whiskey. It’s also available as Laws Whiskey House, Four Grain Bottled in Bond Bourbon, 50% ABV, 750 ml, and Laws Whiskey House, Four Grain Straight Cask Bourbon, ABV Varies by Bottling, 750 ml. All three whiskeys have a mash bill of 60% corn, 20% heirloom wheat, 10% heirloom rye, and 10% heirloom malted barley and are aged for three years.
The whiskeys feature notes of black tea, dried orange zest, dark fruit, caramel, vanilla, and cinnamon spice. The higher proof expressions seem more aromatic, exhibiting more floral aromas on the nose and sandalwood and clove notes on the palate.
291 Colorado Whiskey is one of Colorado’s most successful craft distillers. Started by Michael Myers, a former New York City-based fashion photographer, it has gained international acclaim for the quality of its whiskeys. In 2022, it was chosen as Craft Producer of the Year and an Icons of Whiskey America by Whiskey magazine.
The distillery is known for using charred aspen staves to finish its whiskey and a proprietary sour mash process where alcohol-free stillage from a Bristol IPA is added to each successive mash – a term it calls the “El Paso County Process.” It also triple distills its whiskey.
The company’s core selection consists of nine whiskey expressions ranging from white dog to a selection of small batch and single bourbon bottlings. It also has a wide assortment of experimental bottlings.
Try 291 Barrel Proof, Colorado Rye Whiskey, 63.5% ABV, 750 ml. Made from a mash bill of 61% malted rye and 39% corn, this expression has been the most medaled of the company’s whiskeys. This is a rich, bold rye whiskey with a notable, marshmallow-like candied sweetness on the palate, which features notes of maple syrup, dried stone fruit, hints of tropical fruit, orange zest, rye bread, a touch of herbaceous mint, and spice flavors of cinnamon, allspice, and white pepper.
Also consider the 291, Small Batch, Colorado Rye Whiskey, 50.8% ABV, 750 ml. The small batch expression is similar to the single barrel, but it has more pronounced notes of pine sap and freshly cut wood on the nose. On the palate, it has the same vanilla, rye bread, and spice notes as the single barrel expression. The clove and dried cherry notes seem more pronounced in the small batch bottlings.
291, Small Batch, Colorado Bourbon Whiskey, 50% ABV, 750 ml is another standout. It’s based on a mash bill of 80% corn, 19% malted rye, and 1% malted barley. The whiskey features aromas of brown sugar and buttery caramel, along with notes of vanilla, black tea, tropical fruits, dried orange zest, herbal notes, some rye bread, cinnamon and clove spice, and a hint of dark chocolate.
These suggestions are just a smattering of the outstanding whiskeys available from Colorado’s craft distiller community. There is plenty to explore here. If you have the time, visit Colorado’s Spirits Trail. There is even a Colorado Spirits Trail App that will give you precise directions and comprehensive distillery information.