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Distillery 291’s Michael Myers and the road to the World’s Best Rye whiskey 

Spirit of the West

click to enlarge Michael Myers has only been making whiskey for seven years, but in that time, he’s racked up an impressive collection of awards, the crown jewel of which is Distillery 291’s Colorado Rye Whiskey taking home World’s Best Rye in Whisky Magazine’s World Whiskies Awards. It’s also sold at barrel proof for diehards. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Michael Myers has only been making whiskey for seven years, but in that time, he’s racked up an impressive collection of awards, the crown jewel of which is Distillery 291’s Colorado Rye Whiskey taking home World’s Best Rye in Whisky Magazine’s World Whiskies Awards. It’s also sold at barrel proof for diehards.
Local distilleries have been making their excellence known at international spirits awards competitions for several years now. But in March 2018, Colorado Springs’ own Distillery 291 brought home one of the biggest awards in whiskey: Their Single Barrel Colorado Rye Whiskey was named World’s Best Rye by Whisky Magazine, as part of their 2018 World Whiskies Awards.

“A lot of people don’t realize this is a Golden Globe or an Oscar for the whiskey world,” says owner/founding distiller Michael Myers. It’s not just a craft competition — small producers like 291 compete directly with big-name spirits-makers like Diageo (owners of Bulleit and Johnnie Walker, plus many more) and Beam Suntory (owners of Maker’s Mark and Knob Creek, plus many more).

“It’s a gigantic win,” says Myers. And while it’s the biggest award that 291 has taken home in its seven years in business, it’s far from the first. That rye’s also won a Double Gold at the 2017 Denver International Spirits Competition (DISC), a Gold at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC), and more. In addition to taking home a Double Gold at the 2016 SFWSC, 291’s bourbon was also declared Liquid Gold by the Jim Murray Whisky Bible in 2015. That same honor’s also held by both 291’s White Dog whiskey, an unaged rye; the Fresh whiskey, an unaged bourbon; and the barrel proof Colorado Whiskey, a more concentrated version of their award-winning rye. (See the impressive digital trophy case of all the distiller’s major awards at distillery291.com/awards.)

The rye too earned Liquid Gold status. The 2013 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible dubbed barrel two of the spirit, then called Colorado Whiskey, “a superb, enigmatic rye whiskey which ticks every box,” scoring it 94 points. While every barrel’s different and the spirit’s evolved since, that’s still high praise.

All those accolades have opened doors for the distillery to increase its sales. They’ve started distributing both their rye and bourbon whiskeys in the United Kingdom. Boutique bottler That Boutique-y Whisky Company of Royal Tunbridge Wells will also be doing a limited run bottle series for the rye and bourbon featuring special artwork. Myers and his crew have also started distributing in California and hope to be in another few states by fall.

All these new accounts have forced the distillery to ramp up production, though the rye and bourbon’s 12- to 14-month aging time adds latency. So while Myers has twice as much whiskey aging currently as he had at the same time a year ago — and intends to triple his 2017 inventory in 2019 — he’s not going to suddenly flood the market with more whiskey. It’s going to be a gradual increase in retail-ready inventory.

All of this stands as a huge honor for a man who’s only been in the booze biz since 2011, when he started 291 here. But the idea for his flagship Colorado Rye Whiskey, the World’s Best now, has been percolating in his head for much longer.

“I was looking to make a Western whiskey,” he says. It came from a specific vision, one that’s pure Hollywood. Picture: A trail-weary soul pushes through the swinging double doors of a sun- and dust-worn saloon somewhere in the high Colorado prairie. They walk up to the bar and, setting one leather boot on the brass rail, they ask the well-dressed bartender for a whiskey. The bartender pulls out a bottle, sets it on the bar, pops the cork and pours the traveler a shot of something caramel-brown, just as rugged as the landscape around them.

“What would that bottle look like?” asks Myers. “What would that whiskey taste like?”

He’s from Georgia originally, and he remembers watching Western movies on a Ted Turner-owned station as a kid. His infatuation with the myth of the American West was fueled further by the fact that his family owned and rode horses.
click to enlarge Assistant distiller - William Ladnier finds wonder in each barrel, bottle and glass of 291 whiskey, something he feels is cheapened by translation into words. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Assistant distiller William Ladnier finds wonder in each barrel, bottle and glass of 291 whiskey, something he feels is cheapened by translation into words.

Every element of 291’s rye was chosen in service of that image, from the decision to use rye’s spiciness, to aging it on aspen staves, to the hotter palate, a contrast to generally smoother East Coast whiskeys. The packaging, too, serves the image. The label evokes leather without feeling kitschy. Even the caged cork that seals each bottle is a nod to the silver screen. Myers remembers a movie — he can’t recall its name though — in which the characters were tasked with transporting a caged wagon full of volatile and explosive nitroglycerin.

The whiskey’s so visually on-point that it’s wound up in the hands of legendary cowboy actor Sam Elliott in several episodes of Netflix’s The Ranch. It’s also netted a product placement in HBO’s Silicon Valley.

But a vision’s just a vision if it’s only in someone’s head, and Myers’ ability to turn it into reality impresses, especially considering his relatively short time as a distiller. For most of his life — 27 years, by his reckoning — he earned his keep as a photographer. His mother gave him his first camera at the age of 15, and he would sell portraits to his high school’s athletes. After college at the Savannah College of Art and Design, he moved to California and went into photography full time, specializing in fashion and ads. After five years, in 1993, he moved to New York City. That’s where he lived until 9/11 forced him and his family out of their apartment.

“We went to Long Island to a friend’s house and were there for a little over a week, then drove to Colorado,” he says, noting that he drove back — he had a job the day after that road trip. It took a month before they could even get back into their apartment, and his family didn’t move back until mid-2002, nine months after. Ultimately, they left New York for good in 2004, and Myers commuted for photography, film and TV work.

When Distillery 291 started in 2011, Myers built his first pot still out of copper photogravure plates (basically, etched metal plates used for printing photos) from one of his prior fine art showings. A deliberate man to say the least, Myers didn’t miss observing the symbolic evolution as he formed his old work into his new work. Etchings on the metal add condensation points to the still, pulling out more impurities and contributing to a smoother flavor, he told the Indy at the time.

Then, he toiled in a tiny 300-square-foot basement space in the Ivywild neighborhood, making modest 55-gallon batches at a time. He grew into his current space in the former Bristol Brewing Company in 2013, where it’s continued to grow in scope ever since.

Today, Distillery 291 produces eight flagship spirits, as well as a few limited-run series, all distilled on-site “from grain to barrel to bottle,” Myers says. Three of the eight are made with 61 percent rye and 39 percent corn: the best-in-the-world Single Barrel Colorado Rye Whiskey, the Barrel Strength Colorado Whiskey and an unaged White Dog whiskey. The remaining five are distilled from 80 percent corn, 19 percent rye and 1 percent malted barley: single barrel and barrel proof bourbons, a short-aged pre-Prohibition style American whiskey he considers an intro whiskey for those who aren’t fans of the spirit; an unaged fresh whiskey just as clear as the White Dog; and a citrus clove liqueur called The Decc.
Location Details Distillery 291
1647 S. Tejon St.
Cheyenne Mountain
Colorado Springs, CO

Whiskey starts much like beer: The grains are added to hot water, which draws out starches and, thanks to a group of enzymes called amylose, are converted into fermentable sugars. That’s called wort, and at this stage, beer brewers would boil it with hops and other ingredients to add flavor. But for whiskey, it’s instead moved to a fermenter and turned into what’s called a distiller’s beer, usually around 10 percent ABV. At 291’s current capacity, each batch of wort totals around 1,000 gallons.

In making this distiller’s beer, Myers and his team implement what he calls the El Paso County Process. He takes consumer-ready Colorado-brewed beer — source confidential and subject to change — and cooks off all of the alcohol before adding it to the wort. Myers says it adds a little bit of depth to the flavor that other whiskeys don’t have.

Once it’s fermented out, the staffers run the distiller’s beer through a still to start removing the water and concentrating it into what’s called a low wine, over a six-hour process. Each 1,000-gallon batch of wort produces around 250 gallons of 35 percent ABV low wine.

From there, the low wine’s run through a 300-gallon finishing still, a sized-up version of Myers’ original. Finally, in a 12-hour process, every batch of spirit runs through that very same photogravure still, winding up as a crystal clear high wine. Each batch produces about 110 gallons of 150 proof (75 percent ABV) spirit, which Myers and team dilute to 126 proof (63 percent ABV) before aging in virgin American white oak casks. Both Myers’ bourbons and ryes age for over a year before they’re finished on toasted aspen staves — another flavor unique to 291 and an homage to Colorado’s wilderness besides.

According to assistant distiller William Ladnier, a moonshiner by heritage who’s been with the company for two years and has a total of eight in the biz, it’s unusual to age or cook with soft woods like aspen. They can add a mossy, damp flavor, not typically desirable. But at 291, they toast the aspen enough to avoid those unpleasant notes.

Not every whiskey — not even every craft whiskey — goes through the same process as 291. Some outfits, commonly labeled rectifiers, buy neutral grain spirit from industrial producers and age it. Others buy pre-made whiskey from factory distilleries and blend or finish it. Myers acknowledges that he’s had some good product from these distilleries, but it’s not craft, and it’s not what he wants to do.

“I don’t feel that if you buy your spirit from a large distillery, that you are craft,” he says. His analogy: bulk-buying Ford automobiles, popping off the emblem and replacing it before selling it at a markup. “You are, to me, just marketing a brand.”

While Myers declines to name names, it’s not hard to find a few major whiskey brands selling booze from someone else’s still. Many a whiskey comes from MGP of Indiana, a massive distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, owned by Kansas-based Midwest Grain Products. Diageo puts MGP-distilled rye into every bottle of Bulleit. Templeton Rye’s much the same, a fact only revealed on labels after the company lost a lawsuit in 2015. The lack of transparency in the industry has bothered Myers.

“Everybody has their own business model, and that’s fine,” he says. “I just think that the public should know.”
click to enlarge SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
During the writing of this piece, Ladnier invited the Indy to sample a few glasses of 291’s single barrel bourbon and rye whiskeys, offering his tasting notes as well. To be clear, since these are single barrel spirits, every batch varies somewhat due to variations in the wood in the barrels — he and Myers have noted flavors like spearmint and cherry candy in their rye in the past. Whiskey’s wild like that.

We start with the Single Barrel Colorado Bourbon Whiskey, aged between 12 and 14 months. We note vanilla bean and faint oak in the nose, with a fruity acidity, all distinct and clean. Ladnier says it evokes citrus, dried banana and stone fruits. We get more green apple, though it’s certainly a fruity acidity.

On the palate, the bourbon leads with vanilla and caramel, with a little astringency from the oak that quickly fades. Ladnier describes a soft oak flavor leading the finish, with light leather joining for a medium- to long-finishing sip. We note a certain warmth that resembles almond in the middle before the leather and oak come in for the finish. Overall, we’re impressed by how much the whiskey travels from start to finish.

Right off, the Single Barrel Colorado Rye Whiskey — the World’s Best Rye, need we remind — has a richer nose to it, much less acidic. Ladnier notes a dryness that plays with a fruity sweetness in odd ways, suggesting the smell of fresh-baked rye bread with a little honey sweetness, maple or, his best comparison, pink bubble gum. He notes also a woodsy or meadow sort of earthiness, almost like pollen, with a brightness that evokes freshly peeled bark.

We note how rich the nose is, with a sweetness that’s fruity in the way maple is fruity, though not quite maple itself, like an apple without the acidity. There’s little to no oak in the nose, of note.

On the palate, Ladnier gets a true rye bread note, but it’s not too dry or cloying. As it opens up, he gets sandalwood or cedar, with maple and vanilla keeping cinnamon notes from making the sip too dry. We get a warm, leathery finish following maple and cooking spices, again very rich, traveling from warm and friendly to dry, as if to say “see you around.”

For diehard whiskey fans, Ladnier recommends 291’s barrel proof whiskeys, especially the barrel proof rye. The crew feels they’re stronger products, though international competitions’ lack of separation between barrel proof and bottle proof makes them weaker competitors due to the extra heat on the tongue. He’s hesitant to put all he feels about that barrel proof rye into words, though — it would pale in comparison to experiencing the spirit itself.

“You clip a bird’s wings, and what do you gain?” he asks. “Come try.”

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