From moonshine to malt whiskey
July 25, 2006
Jess Graber is not your typical moonshiner.He’s fairly tall, slightly lean and average looking; he shows none of the hillbilly characteristics one might expect in a moonshiner.Graber more likely would be identified as a master builder (which he is) than a man who’s spent a considerable portion of his life turning out batches of a liquor so potent that, if consumed undiluted and in sufficient quantity, could make you go blind.
Graber himself never imagined he would expand a hobby – making corn liquor in his horse barn – into a regionally and perhaps nationally distributed malt whiskey.But that’s just what the Woody Creek resident has done. With the help of a neighbor who owns one of the West’s hottest microbreweries, Graber is working to bring Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey to a profitable production level.The whiskey, which is somewhere between a Scotch and a bourbon in flavor, hit the market earlier this year with grand tastings at its lower downtown Denver distillery and in the Roaring Fork Valley.”I’ve been here now 32 years, and I’m commuting to Denver to work,” said a bemused Graber, sitting on the deck of his home and sipping lemonade (he offered a glass of his whiskey, but a noon interview did not strike anyone as the best time to start drinking on a workday.)Graber, 55, grew up in Kansas and Missouri farm country. He moved to Colorado in 1972 to fulfill a dream of living in the mountains, where he had camped as a Boy Scout.Landing in the rather funky town of Nederland, outside Boulder, Graber soon met another Missourian. “Larry, the Missouri River Rat” distilled corn whiskey as a hobby, but he was moving back to Missouri and didn’t want to take his old copper still with him. He bequeathed it to Graber, and after showing him how to prepare the cracked feed corn for the mash and work the 15-gallon still, the pair produced Graber’s first batch of booze. Graber admits it was “basically white lightning. I don’t remember what it tasted like. It smelled up the whole neighborhood.” Nobody complained, though, as long as he was liberal with his whiskey offerings.
By the time Graber moved to Aspen in 1974, he had established himself as a friendly man with a handy jug, a practice he continued while working on various construction jobs.Graber traveled for work, going to California a couple of times to build barns for friends. He took his still wherever he went, making a batch here and a batch there, and supplying his friends and co-workers with enough hooch to keep them happy.”It was for fun, not for sale,” Graber said of his hobby. “It was a hit at parties.” Graber continued to refine his skills and upgrade his stills to the point where, after buying his Woody Creek home in 1989, he had a friend in the metal-working business fashion two 65-gallon copper barrels to use as stills. They were a marked improvement over the old wooden barrels he had been working with.By the mid-1990s, married to Jane and raising a family, Graber was producing 10 gallons per batch in his horse shed and gaining a reputation locally. He would occasionally put labels on the bottles of whiskey he handed out. One featured a picture of a cow and was christened, “Udderly Delicious.”
One year, someone turned him in to the national television show, “America’s Most Wanted,” fingering him as a moonshiner operating a still near Aspen (it was and remains illegal to make whiskey without a federal alcohol permit). He heard the feds were coming and hid his still in the woods, just as countless moonshiners before him have done, but the FBI never showed up.He eventually called the FBI in Glenwood Springs. They said they’d checked around and heard about the low-key, friends-only nature of his outfit and decided he wasn’t worth bothering.But, he exclaimed, “It sure scared me.” Not enough to make him quit moonshining, however.”I looked at it back then as an experimental art form,” he explained.So it wasn’t bootlegging, it was art?”That’s right,” Graber replied with a grin. “It was art.”
Fire, that elemental force of nature, is part of the whiskey-making process. It has also caused some significant changes in Graber’s life.Fire once destroyed the house where he kept his still. He wasn’t bereft of his hobby for long, however – someone who liked his product dropped off another, somewhat more modern still so he could keep up the good work.A more recent fire led to his lucky encounter Woody Creek landowner George Stranahan. One of the barns at Stranahan’s Flying Dog Ranch in Woody Creek caught fire in 1999, and Graber, a member of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, helped put out the blaze. (Stranahan, it should be noted, had years earlier started the Flying Dog Brew Pub in Aspen, which morphed into the Flying Dog Brewery in Denver, shipping beer across the West.)
The two got to talking about their mutual love of whiskey (Stranahan said he had never heard of Graber’s little operation), and Stranahan offered to let Graber set his still up in the new barn once it was built.”George supported a lot of art forms in Woody Creek at that time,” Graber noted with another grin.Calling their joint venture Collins Creek Whiskey, named after the creek that flows through Stranahan’s property, the duo cranked out a couple of batches a year. It was still basically white lighting made of corn squeezings – until the day Graber noticed a couple of almost-empty Flying Dog kegs sitting around. With Stranahan’s permission, Graber emptied the kegs into his still for use as a “distiller’s beer,” and brewed up a batch of fine tasting, malt-based whiskey.”That’s when the light went off,” he said. “It was really amazingly smooth. This [the stale beer] was a much more purified whiskey mash, because it was made from barley.”Although nervous about the new venture, he took heart from a USA Today article about “craft distillers” that calmed his fears and convinced him, “it’s legitimate. It’s not just crazy Jesse the moonshiner, there are others who have actually made it work.”He and Stranahan talked again, bringing Flying Dog Brewery CEO Eric Warner into the conversation. A bargain was struck for Graber to get uncarbonated beer directly from the Flying Dog barrels, before the hops were added, to make a special Colorado whiskey. For a couple of years they experimented, and tastes were passed out to discriminating friends.
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Graber, in the interests of research, made two trips to Kentucky and one to Scotland to study whiskey-making at the hands of acknowledged masters. He also read every book he could find on the art of whiskey-making.A federal license was applied for in 2003 and finally granted more than a year later. The equipment was set up on the Flying Dog premises in Denver, and by early this year the first bottling of whiskey – aged for two years in new American Oak barrels – was ready for public consumption.The whiskey is now being distributed throughout Colorado, and Graber hopes to begin broader distribution within two years, once the distillery has reached its “maximum production” of about 6,000 cases per year. He said there is one other business, Peach Street Distillers in Palisades, that may begin its own whiskey experiment, but he knows of no others in the state.And, he said, “Right now, Stranahan’s is the largest craft whiskey-maker in the country,” with some 20,000 gallons either bottled and on sale or aging in the barrels.He said the process (patent pending) is unique for several reasons. It starts with the use of distiller’s beer, cooking that in specially created, small-batch pot stills made by the century-old Vendome Copper & Brass Works Inc. of Kentucky. The whiskey is then aged in American Oak to imbue a slightly sweeter flavor than its closest chemical cousin, Scotch, which also is made basically from distilled beer.The beery beginnings are critical, Graber said, because it starts out more refined than most “mash” mixtures, so the whiskey requires less time in the barrel.
So at two years old, he say, “We feel like we’ve accelerated the aging process,” such that their two-year-old concoction tastes much smoother than other whiskeys of the same age. He declined to name a comparative age-to-taste advantage that their whiskey enjoys, however.Another unique quality is the use of “pure Rocky Mountain spring water” to dilute the final distillation and achieve the ultimate bottle strength of 94 proof.”We wanted to have a whiskey that is uniquely Colorado,” he said.Interested parties can check it out for themselves by taking a tour of the lower downtown Denver distillery, every day at 4 p.m. except Sunday. Or, for more information, visit http://www.stranahans.com.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org