Review: Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey

I’m not gonna pull any punches here. Stranahan’s is the strangest whiskey I’ve ever experienced.

It looks harmless enough, a bright, orange-hued spirit with a relatively mild nose — almost rye-like. Though 94 proof, the nose isn’t particularly hot. Looks promising.

Then the tasting. Hmmm. Stranahan’s is a rarity among American whiskeys, distilled from 100 percent malted barley (just like the Scots). It is then — just like in Bourbon country — aged in charred, new oak barrels, but for a mere two years.

The result is something wildly unlike any other whiskey on the market, and if you’re a traditionalist you probably aren’t going to be thrilled with the results. The grassy, chewy character from the rye hits you first, but then Stranahan’s wood component takes over. A huge wall of oak wood and smoke literally punches you in the face just as you’re about to settle into the malt, and it doesn’t stop with the hitting.

I like “smoky” Scotches, but Stranahan’s is something entirely different. It’s like someone hollowed out a tree stump, filled it with whiskey, covered it with a tarp, and let it marinate for a decade. I can’t cut through any of these smoke-and-wood flavors; any sense of vanilla or sweetness (the normal hallmarks of new charred-oak barrels) are really just hinted at deep in the finish.

Some call Stranahan’s a masterpiece, and I’m perfectly willing to accept that some palates might be better suited for this spirit. Alas, it’s just not for mine.

By the way, pay special attention to the bottle, which is hand-labeled with a batch number, the date of distilling, signature of the distiller, and a comment (the two bottles I’ve encountered read “Listening to NPR” and “Listening to Bright Eyes”). Hmmm… shouldn’t he be listening to Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson? C

9/2011 update: I’m checking out batch #33 again (“Listening to NPR,” bottled in 11/2006), and finding it quite a bit more engaging today. Perhaps my palate has evolved or the whiskey has oxidized… but 2 1/2 years later, I’m finding a lot more to love in Stranahan’s than before. The nose is huge with toffee character, and while there’s a ton of smoky wood (still too much) in the body, it’s not nearly as intense as I’d found it before. Big cinnamon notes on the finish. Lots of fun, actually. If I had to rate it again today, I’d go with something around an A-. Looking forward to trying it again since batches seem to differ quite a bit.

$60 / stranahans.com

stranahans colorado whiskey Review: Stranahans Colorado Whiskey

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29 Responses to Review: Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey

  1. I almost picked up a bottle of this in Beaver Creek a couple of months ago. After further consideration I decided that this whiskey may be more hype then substance….at $60 and only 2 years of aging it makes you think twice. I’m glad I went back to Ky and bought a bottle of Bookers.

  2. Mine had “listening to Bjork.” Among the new American single malts, I think this is one of the better ones, and I’ll be excited to taste it with a few more years in the wood.

  3. My neighbor has a bottle of Colorado Whiskey, and I’m pretty fond of it. I wonder if there’s a significant variance between batches/bottles, because I’ve tried it several times and didn’t experience ANY overpowering oak or smoke. (But then, I really like Lagavulin scotch so…)

    I taste caramel and vanilla– only in the finish, which in this case is more appropriately called an ‘aftertaste’. I feel that SCW is (somewhat) overpriced for almost opposite reasons; it is pleasant and very drinkable without imparting a lot of character. For $60, I expect something to define its imprint, something special or memorable. SCW is just not fancy or robust enough to warrant that kind of price tag.

    Maybe my favorable impression is affected by the fact that it isn’t on my dime. I’ll admit, though, if this whiskey were under $40, I’d drink this on a regular basis. Given that, I’d rate this whiskey a B+. I’d be interested to read if you follow up with this whiskey in a few days/weeks.

    My neighbor’s bottle says “Listening to the Pixies”. FTW!!!!

  4. I’m going to have to add this to the list of drinks i need to try in the coming future

  5. im not a whiskey drinker… but i gotta say that bottle is clever-looking!

  6. the bottle looks really badass. i wonder what getting punched in the face tastes like…

  7. The metal cap is truly awesome (it has a cork inside at the very top, so it doesn’t work as a shot glass). Alas, mine broke during shipping so I had to replace it with a different stopper.

  8. damn. I gotta try this sooon

  9. The metal cap looks like a jigger, but it’s for decoration only. It’s quite thin and would dent or scratch if you did anything but admire it as a cap.

  10. Too be honest I live in Denver and and pretty much won’t drink anything else anymore. The distillers will let you help out on bottling days and you get paid a bottle for your day. You can have your overcasked and smoke bomb whiskys this is a new breed and should be considered as such when contemplating a purchase of this whiskey the key is how good the spirit they distill is not how smoked out it gets.

  11. I’ve seen this in stores in Atlanta for a few months, but the pricetag has always scared me away. Today, I’m in Denver for a conference, and our colleagues from Kentucky are hosting a Bourbon tasting, so I had to take the plunge. My bottle was indeed prepared while “listening to Johnny Cash,” so perhaps that accounts for my more favorable reaction.

    I’m surprised at your strong rye reaction–I got none of that on the nose or the tongue. My perception is all malt and oak. Super-strong wall of oak on the nose, vanilla with maybe some banana hiding in the background–maybe. With all that wood, I was worried that it would be astringent with tannins when I tasted it. But no–big, thick, chewy sweet barley malt, with so much wood you’d swear there was a tablespoon of vanilla in the bottle. Again, no rye on my tongue, and I think that’s what makes this one so interesting. Pure barley, like Scotch and Irish, but without the peat quality of the one, and, I’ll wager, not triple-distilled like the other. Still a lot of grain personality in this one, like chewing on toffee. A touch “hotter” than I like–I’m for 80 proof or just a touch south of there. I found that a splash of water opened it up a bit and made especially the vanilla less overpowering.

    I rather like the little metal “cup” that comes on the bottle. Like Taiwanese teacups, it concentrates the aroma and lets you bury your nose and inhale. I might even keep it when the bottle is gone.

    I don’t think I’d regularly pay $55 for this bottle, but it is certainly one of a kind in the whisk(e)y world, and I think very much worth a look-in. Everyone I’ve talked to here in Denver about it practically grabbed me by the lapels to communicate their passionate enthusiasm for it, and I think I’d be proud if my city produced it, too.

  12. Grrr. I really want to try this stuff. The comparisons to rye sound good to me. It is damned pricey for only 2 year aging….not that I’m crazy about old overly smooth and sweet whiskey, but is this stuff drinkable neat??

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  15. Ours DOES say “Listening to Johnny Cash”. Definitely that Scotch-y, barley taste. For 94 proof, I’d expect it to be a bit more of a kick, but the oak/cedar afterkick is very nice.

  16. Charlie Davis

    No offense to anybody: but I can’t imagine how the guy who reviewed this whiskey above got any of the nose or flavors profiles he described.

    I was a single-malt aficionado for decades. I love Speysides, Islay, Highlands. I flirted with bourbon; Wathen’s, Blantons, Booker’s, Pappy’s. I dig Japanese: Yamazaki, Yoichi. Irish: RedBreast, Kanppouge, etc. Suffice it to say, I am a whiskey nut. Stranahan’s beats the pizz out of all of them.

    Here’s how it works: having been to the distillery many times–out of sheer love of this whiskey–and having had the pleasure to own a bottle of every single batch since #24 (they’re now on #45) I can tell you in very accurate detail how this whiskey is made, how it smells and how it tastes. I do NOT work for Stranahan’s, and receive no compensation from them for this or any other correspondence (although I have been paid in whiskey for helping to bottle periodically as described by an earlier poster, above).

    Stranahan’s is made from a 100% barley malt wash, and the wash is one of the best beers I’ve ever tasted, even though it is un-hopped. The wash is distilled in a unique pot-column still, combining the technologies of the inefficient but flavor-enhancing pot-stills the Irish and Scottish use with the efficient but character-reducing column-stills that the Bourbon fellows use. It is double-distilled to a proof of about 140, then cut to around 144 proof with pure Rocky Mountain spring water from Eldorado Springs just south of Boulder (which by the way, is one of the world’s best tasting waters). It is then casked and aged is heavily-charred 100% Missouri white oak barrels. It is not bourbon, nor is it very similar. It is not Scotch, either. It is a new style of whiskey: Colorado Whiskey. The one thing I agree with in this review, is that there’s nothing else like it.

    The aging process is deceptive, for three reasons: first, the makers of all those other whiskies want you believe that age is better; they make more money that way. Mark my words: older is not always better. I’ll explain momentarily.

    Second, the whiskey in Stranahan’s is NOT TWO YEARS OLD–two years is simply the YOUNGEST whiskey in that particular batch. There are older barrels included in each batch, rest assured.

    And third, Stranahan’s is aged in a temperature and humidity controlled environment, drastically increasing the rapidity of it’s aging process. Other whiskies are often aged outside, meaning they are only at the optimum aging temp and humidity for a few weeks each year; and, with regard to the Scotches, they’re in used casks which also slows the aging. It’s like putting a used tea bag in cold water. Stranahan’s gets there quicker.

    I stopped by the distillery one day when the head distiller Jake Norris was having a slow day. As a result, I was treated to tasting the spirit at a variety of ages from 6 months (deliciously creamy and malty, but very simple) to 5 years (very intense and oaky, astringent and spicy, but extremely complex). Trust me: older is not always better. Jake uses his nose and palate to build a unique batch of around 600 gallons for each bottling, marrying together barrels from different ages to preserve the creaminess, the vanilla, the toffee, the spice, the complexity. Every batch is different; they all taste like Stranahan’s.

    So far, in my fairly educated opinion, Stranahan’s takes the prize. I still buy other whisky. I still love my Laphroaig, my Highland Park 18, my Yamazaki 18, my Pappy Van Winkle’s 23. I think this whiskey is worth double what they charge.

    Don’t believe me? Who’s this random dude, and where did he com from? Indeed. I don’t blame you. Check out Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2009–he reviews Stranahan’s batch’s #1 through #23, and gave Stranahan’s the award for best small batch distiller of the year, with scores as high as 96 and none lower than the high 80’s.

    As the one poster above noted, if you drop in some water–the amount will vary by personal taste–the whiskey will open up and offer you more complexity and flavor (although you will lose some of that fantastic rich syrupy mouth-feel).

    This post is getting very long. I will post my tasting notes from a recent batch in a second post; since Murray’s reviews the whiskey has only gotten better.

    Charlie Davis

  17. Charlie Davis

    Batch #40 Tasting Notes (freshly opened bottle)
    *
    NEAT:
    *
    Color: Rich reddish gold
    *
    Nose: Malty spice; shortbread. Cloves and vanilla. Cookies. Understated for a Stranahan’s.
    *
    Body: Firm and rich.
    *
    Palate: Instant full, rich, powdery malt. Huge. Belies the fairly gentle nose. Unique. I have never tasted a Stranahan’s like this one. But then that’s true of every batch…
    *
    Finish: Long and flawless. Chalky, powdery. Crumbly by some magic. Cookies; orange biscotti. Tastes like it’s been baked.
    *
    *
    DILUTE:
    *
    Nose: More accessible; less burn, you can get a good whiff. Vanilla-citrus. Banana bread, wet and chewy.
    *
    Body: softer/wetter than neat.
    *
    Taste: The water ups the vanilla, mutes the spice and powder–still plenty here though. Spicy powdered sugar; vanilla crumb crumb cake.
    *
    Finish: Faint candied yams. Always the vanilla-citrus, but it’s always understated, never overbearing.
    *
    *
    Summary: Outstanding. This has to be a one-off; definitely a must-have.

    *
    *

    –Charlie Davis

  18. Dear God in heaven, I just opened up a bottle of batch # 29 Comment: SWT night with the guys. I have never tasted anything like this, I am hooked.

    -Paul

  19. Michael Wilson

    I’ve been waiting for quite some time to try Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey and today I purchased my first bottle. Batch #28; Distilled 06/09/05 by Rob Dutch while playing his guitar. As for the rather brutal review I look forward to trying it tonight and I will follow up with my review not as a Distiller but as a very limited whiskey drinker with my favorites being CROWN and Jim Beam so this will definitely be a difference for my palate. CHEERS!

  20. Michael Wilson

    One word: Impressed. Folks, the review of this Whiskey is so far off it’s not even funny. I agree with comment #18 that Paul left and as for me: Last night I opened my bottle of Stranahan’s and poured half a shot; The aroma was light and subtle so I untraditionally poured it into my mouth and gave it a few seconds before swallowing and the taste was very nice very smooth and NO burn and I definitley could taste a light vanilla, caramel with a hint of char. On gradeing it 4.5 Stars! I have to agree with several others that at $61.00 a bottle it’s a tad pricey BUT if you are a light drinker like myself that only drinks a few times a year and during the Holidays then absolutely treat yourself. Contributing tasters: My wife, daughter and future son-in-law all agreed it was VERY good. I now have a NEW favorite Whiskey. Cheers! and Happy Holidays.

  21. I got my second bottle and can not believe how good this stuff is. I am hooked.

  22. I taste an “herby” aftertaste. Unlike any other whisky I’ve ever tried, but very tasty.
    Batch #43, listening to Old and In the Way. Nice~!!

  23. Charlie Davis

    Whoops–I just noticed that in my earlier post from back in August I stated that the 140 proof new-make spirit is cut to 144 proof–now, that doesn’t make much sense. Sorry. It’s cut to 110 proof for barreling.

    And in the interest of transparency, I should disclose that I now DO work for the distillery–as a tour guide (although I did not at the time I made my earlier post here). : )

  24. I don’t think there is any rye in Stranahan’s.

  25. Had a glass of this stuff in a bar in Denver a few days ago. F***ing excellent stuff! I only occasionally drink whiskey and I haven’t tried more than maybe 10 different ones in my life, but this is probably next to Glenfiddich 12 the best I’ve had.

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  27. “can i drink this neat”

    Abso-fucking-lutely! This stuff is excellent. The best graduation present I got. My godfather snuck it through the airport in his checked bag, and I’m super glad he did.

  28. No offense meant to anyone here, but this stuff has a smell and taste seriously like cheap tequilla. Way over priced as well. Sorry but this isn’t for me.

  29. Toured the distillery last year. The bottle is taller so it cannot be shoved in the bottom shelf and it requires being up front on the back bar.

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