There are two things on Jess Graber’s business card that might give people pause. First is Graber’s title, Emperor, a nod to his role as managing partner, leader and inventor of the card’s second misnomer: “Stranahan’s” Colorado Whiskey.
“It’s my baby, my product,” says Graber. Although most local whiskey lovers assume it’s crafted by longtime valley resident George Stranahan, the label—which Graber calls “a great whiskey name”—is simply homage to the friend with whom Graber once conducted “practical experiments with distillation” in Woody Creek.
“People like the name,” says Graber, who has been making whiskey for more than 35 years and bottling his own consumer product for five. “They want somebody behind it. They connect with the figure and want to know that someone’s taking time to create it.”
Graber’s baby found an immediate following upon its debut. Made with a secret mash (once produced at Flying Dog Brewery in Denver), it’s the largest-selling premium whiskey in the state of Colorado. Consumers can now find Stranahan’s in 35 states and four countries. It’s acquiring so much shelf space that Graber has increased production at his Denver distillery from six to 18 barrels a week, with total bottle production bumping up from 1,200 to 4,000 a week. While it will take about two years for those bottles to come online, this former Aspen volunteer firefighter and “filthy contractor,” who taught himself the craft of whiskey-making, has found his niche with small-batch whiskey drinkers.
“We have good quality and a product unique to Colorado,” says Graber, who gets most of his ingredients from the Centennial State. “We strive to create the same thing that we’ve always done: We’re dedicated to the best single product we can do.”
Head distiller Jake Norris tastes every single barrel of whiskey they make. After choosing six of the best, the whiskey is carefully mixed and prepared for bottling. Finally Graber and crew ensure its quality. “As the whiskey ages in the wood it takes on different flavor profiles,” Graber explains. “Jake and I and the rest of crew will taste it and try to decide what’s good about new batches. I taste every batch before I send it out to everyone else.”
His dedication to his product has not gone unnoticed. In 2009 Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey was awarded Best Small Craft Distillery of the Year by Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible.
“The comment we get most in tasting rooms is that people who normally don’t like whiskey like ours,” Graber says. “This is not made to be like everybody else’s whiskey.” Visit stranahans.com.
photograph by ben tremper