Colorado whiskey flows like water, spilling down the mountains and rushing like rivers in high country valleys. Finding interesting and quality whiskey is less like finding needles in haystacks and more like driving a few towns over to check out a new spot.
Sometimes you travel a little further—almost a couple hundred miles—to check out a new spot. Having sampled Deerhammer’s whiskey and gin before, I couldn’t pass by without something to take home.
Resting between the Arkansas River and nearby Collegiate Peaks in Buena Vista, Deerhammer’s tasting room makes for a good excuse to stop for the day. While I was there, I sat down for a sip and a chat with Deerhammer co-founder Lenny Eckstein.
The high country distillery has been putting away barrels and bottles for just over a decade, though exactly when Deerhammer was actually founded is a matter of discussion.
“We were too lazy to do a 10-year thing anyways,” Eckstein says with a laugh.
“It’s always a weird thing, figuring out how old a distillery is,” he adds. “Is it when we were legally up and running, when we got our license?”
Regardless of where you start counting, Eckstein and his small staff have learned a lot in the past decade, particularly about what it means for them to call themselves a craft distillery. When Stranahan’s first started in 2004, it changed the whiskey world. As more distilleries opened their doors to compete with Stranahan’s, LAWS and Leopold Brothers in the years that followed, craft distilling was a spirited scene, if you’ll excuse the pun.
“It was the Wild West, so people were OK with year-old whiskey for a little bit. They were OK with unaged whiskey for a little bit,” he says.
For Eckstein, those early days of craft distilling meant doing whatever the bigger players weren’t. Cold-smoking oats with hickory to add in their bourbon mash was an early example, he explains, which was relatively uncommon in bourbons. Since then, the bourbon mash has moved away from the smoke and a little closer to center.
“Fast forward four or five years, nobody really wants a smoked bourbon. They want it to taste a certain way,” Eckstein says. “There’s enough latitude but not too much latitude.”
Deerhammer primarily bottles single malt whiskey, with bourbon, rye, rum, brandy and gin filling out the portfolio. There’s even a hickory-smoked whiskey at the tasting room that reminded me of my favorite camping trips. After 10 years, Deerhammer’s distillers aren’t afraid to keep things interesting and crafty.
Collaborating with other Colorado makers and producers, Deerhammer’s Progeny series is a prime example. The first iteration involved Denver’s Cultura Craft Chocolate and a cacao-nib barrel finish for the whiskey. Crooked Stave was involved in the second iteration, and now the third is hitting shelves around the state.
Called Honeycomber, the single malt whiskey was made in collaboration with Boulder’s own Redstone Meadery. Deerhammer gifted empty whiskey barrels to age Redstone’s mead, which then came back to the distillery to finish more whiskey. The youngest whiskey in the Honeycomber blend is four years, according to Eckstein.
“Mostly it was two (years) in the new barrels, two in the mead barrels, but some went up to five-and-a-half years,” he says.
Deerhammer’s single malt is already a smooth and approachable barley sipper, but the addition of honey and floral qualities from the ex-mead barrels deliver a remarkable flavor. The recursive loop of barrel aging mellows the oak, softened with a honey sweetness on the nose that never comes off as cloying on the tongue, smoothing out the 102-proof strength of
Deerhammer released 2,000 bottles of Honeycomber to start and put the rest back in the barrels to release later. In the interlude, Eckstein says the distillery has Progeny collaborations lined up for many years to come. Other unique offerings include a distillery-only release variant of the single-malt where more than 80% of the proceeds from bottle sales go to building trails around Buena Vista and Chaffee County.
Finding new adventures and projects helps keep things interesting over a decade of distilling, Eckstein says, but that’s not his favorite new thing.
“I think the newest thing is that it’s getting better, because (the distillery) is getting older and we got better,” he says.
The Arkansas River Valley is one of the more beautiful areas in an already tremendous state, but Deerhammer is as good a reason as any to visit the area. Maybe it’s just me, but good whiskey tastes better at almost 8,000 feet.
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