Why did Jake Norris leave Stranahan's? Ask the bartender...
Jake Norris, head distiller and an original partner, left Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey last month. The brand was purchased late last year by Proximo Spirits, distributor of big brands like 1800 Tequila, Kraken Rum and Three Olives Vodka; after the sale, Norris said he planned to stay on...for a while.
Flickr photo Jake Norris at the Stranahan's distillery.
Norris was one of the last original employees and the final Colorado connection to a brand that this state's bartenders have loved since its inception. When I caught up with him a few days ago, here's what he had to say about himself and the breakup:
Tell me a bit about your history before Stranahan's: Before Stranahan's, I was one of those annoying people who knew way too much about an esoteric subject. I was more than a casual whiskey nerd; I designed my first still when I was about fifteen. I found a homesteading publication in my dad's library, and it had an article about how to convert an old truck to run on alcohol; it had another article on how to make the alcohol to fuel it. That idea really captured my imagination. I was an idealistic kid; I saw this as a way to save the world. No more pollution, no more oil -- just burn excess grain and fruits. By the time reality set in and I realized that was not the way the world worked, at least I had some quality spirits to drown my sorrows. Just before Stranahan's, I was doing independent whiskey educations for restaurants around Denver and working as the whiskey expert for the Celtic Tavern. I was so synonymous with whiskey around town that people started to call me "Jake Whiskey," as if Whiskey were my last name. That's why my blog is Jakewhiskey.com.
Can you tell me about the genesis of Stranahan's, how you got involved in the first place? Jess Graber (my former partner) had been a hobbyist for many years and a very competent distiller. He had always dreamed of opening a very small distillery and making a whiskey as a kind of working retirement. Jess could never really figure out how to make it work financially. George Stranahan was a neighbor of Jess's in Woody Creek, and the majority owner of the Flying Dog Brewery. It occurred to Jess that he could make the distillery work financially if he could outsource the fermentation -- which would cut start-up costs by about half. Jess could contract George's brewery to ferment wash for his distillery.
Mike Freeman was the purchasing manager for the Flying Dog brewery and a good friend of mine for many years. I had been bugging Mike about ordering me a few bags of grain when he ordered barley for the brewery. Mike was alarmed at the amount of grain I wanted: "How much beer are you trying to make, man?!" I had to explain to him that I was not making beer, but rather whiskey. He was confused, so over PBR tallboys I explained how a brewery could produce a "wash" to make whiskey. Not long after that, Jess came in the brewery and was explaining to Mike about the arrangement he had worked out with George and how the FDB was going to make a custom distiller's wash alongside their beers. Mike stopped him and said, "Hey, I know a guy that's already doing that. You need to meet my friend Jake Whiskey." Mike introduced Jess to me, and the rest is history. We worked out the recipe, and a few months later, we were making whiskey. Jess and I meeting was one of those perfect-storm moments.
What are some of your favorite memories in relation to creating Stranahan's? It's hard to pick one. The whole thing was such a great experience. I fondly remember opening the first barrel. I had borrowed one of those Guinness countdown clocks from Chris at Falling Rock, and I had pasted a "Countdown to Barrel #1" sign on the front. When the countdown timer hit zero, I was surrounded by friends standing over the barrel with a hammer and spike in hand. I had waited my whole life for that drink.