Who: Owner/head distiller Michael Myers
When: Our town's first distillery, 291, opened 3½ years ago in a 339-square-foot spot in the Ivywild neighborhood. It grew more than 20-fold into the former Bristol Brewing Co. space in 2013. Myers says he still can't make enough to keep up with demand, but he's been carefully, patiently adding accounts statewide.
Where: Tasting room (open 5-11 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays only) and production facility at 1647 S. Tejon St. For sale widely in fine eating and drinking spots and liquor stores; visit distillery291.com for cocktail recipes and more.
What: Moving into a former brewery has benefits, such as the recycling/reclamation of a huge fermentation tank and large hot and cold water tanks. The hot pre-heats 291's 500-gallon mash tun, while the cold feeds water into the column's condenser to cool passing vapors. But other than that, it's a whole new space with around 50 full whiskey barrels maturing where beer cases were once stacked.
Two mash runs fill the fermenter, where yeasts produce alcohol over a five- to six-day period. Next, a five- to six-hour "stripping run," with the grain remaining in the 500-gallon pot still, pulls the alcohol and water vapor out as a 70- to 80-proof "low wine."
Then another 12-hour distillation yields liquid that runs through a smaller "thump keg" or "doubler," effectively creating a third distillation, or "high wine" at 145 to 150 proof. This is proofed down to barrel proof. The alcohol either enters barrels for aging or gets proofed down further for Myers' white whiskies. The mash recipes are different, and detailed in the tasting notes below.
Why: You've probably heard the story by now, but Myers remains as much an artist as a spirit-maker. A former New York fashion and advertising photographer, he shot for pubs like GQ and Vanity Fair before 9/11 compelled him to move his family here. Local craftspeople helped him fuse his passions by constructing a pot still out of copper photogravure plates from a previous fine art show. Some etchings remain visible on the outside, while others face inward to "help add friction in the distillation process and make a different, smoother flavor," he detailed in 2011.
He's since earned a bounty of prestigious awards, including the People's Choice Award over 30 peers at last year's Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival; medals from the Beverage Tasting Institute and American Distilling Institute; and two Liquid Gold Awards from Jim Murray's Whisky Bible, which termed his Bad Guy Bourbon Whiskey "obscene" and "arguably the most astonishing whisky of its age worldwide of the year."
• 291 Fresh Colorado Whiskey: Developed as a replacement for other clear spirits in drinks like margaritas or Bloody Marys. A mash of 80 percent corn, 19 percent rye and 1 percent malted barley; 90 proof. This recipe turns into 291's American Whiskey after three months in a 30-gallon barrel, and 291 Colorado Bourbon Whiskey after nine months to a year in a 10-gallon barrel (which increases maturation because of more surface area by volume). It also makes The Decc citrus-clove liqueur. On its own, you taste a little corn in the finish and no heavy character; it's fairly hot on the palate.
• 291 Colorado Rye Whiskey White Dog: Designed to be sipped neat or on the rocks. A mash of 61 percent rye malt and 39 percent corn, set in oak for literally just a moment, by law, and proofed to 101.7. This recipe becomes 291 Colorado Whiskey after nine months to a year in a 10-gallon barrel. You'll taste a big rye bite and more character and flavor than the Fresh.
• 291 Colorado Whiskey: Toasted aspen staves finish off the White Dog base toward the end of that nine months to a year, adding smokiness and what Myers calls "Colorado flavor." The proof remains 101.7, and in the flavor you pick up lots of rye as a spicy middle, but also sweet notes of caramel and maple, with a faint finish of dark fruit, like raisin and fig.
• 291 American Whiskey: Again, the Fresh base ages for three months in a 30-gallon barrel, with a final aspen charcoal filtering to "mellow it out." Myers was sold out of this during my tasting, but he describes it as uniquely fruity and floral.
• 291 Colorado Bourbon Whiskey: This is 291's latest release, which hit shelves this past fall. It's 100 proof, again based out of the Fresh and simply aged longer than the American, thereby picking up even more barrel essence. A fun post-drink appreciation that Myers walks me through: Finish your drink and allow the residual liquid to evaporate off a bit. After a few minutes, stick your nose in and inhale deeply and you'll smell faint cherry tobacco, as if in a fine cigar shop ... which'll pretty much just make you want another drink.
• The Decc: A citrus-clove whiskey liqueur, so sweeter and more viscous, with a slight stickiness. That's from clove simple syrup added to the proofed-down Fresh, plus citrus peels that go into the distillation run. It's only 70 proof, but warming, with beautiful botanical influence.