Deep roots

With some help from a Boulder distillery, Loveland-based Root Shoot Malting launches its own line of whiskey

Photos courtesy Root Shoot Malting

There’s a plot of land in Northern Colorado, somewhere between Berthoud, Loveland and Johnstown, where the Olander family has been farming since 1926. For five generations, they’ve grown grains, including barley, wheat, rye and non-GMO corn, under the name Olander Farm.

And just last week, the family business launched its first line of single malt whiskey, with a bit of help from Boulder’s Vapor Distillery.

Todd Olander grew up on the farm, learning the ins and outs from an early age. “In high school, I had decided I was never going to come back to the farm,” he says. He attended Colorado State University where he got a degree in construction management.

But it didn’t take long for the prodigal son to return. “As soon as I got done with college, I went straight back to the farm,” Olander says.

As luck would have it, his time in Fort Collins proved highly influential for the future of Olander Farm. “I watched the growth of Odell and New Belgium,” he says, adding that it didn’t take long for him to become infatuated with Colorado’s growing brewing culture.

So in 2016, he and his father, Steve, launched Root Shoot Malting, with the expressed intent of providing high-quality grain and malt to the many local breweries that were looking for a superior product. “We took a lot of tours of breweries and asked them where they got their grain and there really wasn’t a Colorado option,” says Olander.

Since its debut, the business has boomed. “Five years ago we had the opportunity to malt 10 tons a week, now we’re up to 30,” Olander says, adding that Root Shoot distributes to between 125 and 150 breweries, as well as 15 distilleries, almost all of which are in Colorado. Root Shoot grain can be found in spirits from Breckenridge Distillery, The Block, Distillery 291, The Family Jones and Vapor Distillery, home of Boulder Spirits. “It’s more influential when you try to keep it local,” Olander says. 

While Root Shoot is relatively new, Olander Farm has been providing barley to Coors since the 1980s. “That’s the most important piece of the puzzle, having good grain,” Olander says.

For the first time, the farm decided to use that grain to produce Root Shoot Spirits’ first single malt whiskey. “What better way to express our malting plant and our farm than a single malt whiskey,” Olander says. The five-year aged, bottled-in-bond release was produced at Vapor Distillery, with the initial run limited to 10 barrels, or 2,400 bottles. It’s currently being distributed across the Front Range.

While Vapor started out as one of Root Shoot’s clients, it quickly became clear that the two could expand their partnership: Vapor provides equipment and licensing, managing the actual distilling and bottling, while Olander supplies the recipe and grain. “Pretty plain and simple,” says the distillery’s brand manager Ryan Negley.

“You can’t get any more Colorado than this,” says Olander. “Distilled just miles from Olander Farms, where its raw materials were grown, Root Shoot Whiskey is true Colorado whiskey, from our grain to your glass.”

Going forward, Root Shoot is planning to do a unique annual release, with next year’s production set to be three times larger than this round. “With single malt, you’re not relying on new grain, instead you’re working with the malt characteristics. Every year is going to be a different recipe for the malt,” says Olander.

“The Root Shoot whiskey is good. There’s no denying it,” says Negley. “It started with great farming, which they’ve been doing forever. The malting equipment they use is top notch, world class. Then it gets to us, and our still was built for barley. Add in the magic of Colorado aging and voila.”

As self-described stewards of the land, the Olanders take regenerative agriculture seriously. In December of 2022, Olander Farms and Root Shoot Malting together finalized a conservation easement with Colorado Open Lands, an agreement that permanently limits the use of their 112 acres, enduring the continued pace, quality and permanence of protected agriculture in the region. Good ethics aside, the whiskey is a great sipper. “We’re trying to find sustainability within agriculture on our own terms,” says Olander. 

Root Shoot Farmer and Founder Todd Olander.