When it comes to craft whiskey, few states can hold a candle to Colorado. This mountainous land in the center of the country seems to exert a special pull on distillers, not only inspiring them to start businesses (there are around 100 craft distilleries in Colorado), but prompting some of the most creative products in the nation.
Case in point? Deerhammer Distilling. Based in Buena Vista, Colorado, this independent craft distillery makes some of the most distinctive whiskey that we know of. Some of our club members have gotten the chance to know Deerhammer better with their very own bottle of Deerhammer American Single Malt Whiskey—and now, we’d like to take the opportunity to introduce this American single malt pioneer to the rest of Taster’s Club.
Deerhammer started in 2010, the brainchild of husband and wife team Lenny and Amy Eckstein. It wasn’t the Eckstein’s first creative venture. Before starting the business, Lenny was a graphic designer, working with creative agencies to help other peoples’ brands come to life. But eventually, he realized he’d rather be spending his creative energy in a different way. “The desire to make things was always there,” says Lenny. “But it turned out that making things behind a computer wasn’t really the medium I wanted to express myself in.”
Soon, Lenny discovered the joy of homebrewing, falling in love with the sometimes-finicky art of fermentation. “I had a job for a small agency that was a few blocks from a homebrew shop, and it just kind of spiraled out of control from there,” says Lenny. Soon, he realized that distilling and brewing shared many things in common, especially when it came to distilling whiskey, since both are made from grain.
How did Lenny and Amy make the leap from hobby to profession? Lenny says there was no one single moment. “It was more this gradual progression, seeing other distilleries open,” says Lenny. “It slowly developed into something we had to do.” Then he chuckles. “Well, I had to do it. My wife was like, ‘Cool story, I’m going to keep working as a nurse.’”
Without huge seed capital or investors, and depending on Amy’s income as a nurse to support them, Amy and Lenny committed to starting small. Their first still was just 150 gallons, a custom-made hand-hammered copper pot still modeled after Scottish styles. While looking for a location, the two stumbled across a space in downtown Buena Vista, Colorado. It was way bigger than they’d imagined, but they fell in love with the town—even though it wasn’t exactly bustling.
“This town was so sleepy,” says Lenny. “Every other door was boarded up.” But the Ecksteins saw the potential of Buena Vista, which has an enviable location along the Arkansas River in the heart of the Rocky Mountain Range. “It wasn’t that no one came here, but that there just wasn’t a whole lot of other business going on. We thought, ‘So what? We just need a place to make whiskey, and we want to live here.’ So we bought the building, plus another lot next door,” says Lenny.
Today, Deerhammer has expanded way beyond Amy and Lenny’s initial imagination. “We’re busting at the seams!” says Lenny. The two are about to close on another 5,000 square foot building down the street, and they recently bought another one-acre parcel for future growth. That initial 150-gallon pot still? It’s still in rotation, although today it’s helped along by a second 650-gallon pot still to boost capacity.
It Takes a Lot of Beer to Make Good Whiskey
It’s an old saying among winemakers: It takes a lot of beer to make good wine. After a long day of loading fruit into presses, sterilizing tanks, and punching down vat after vat, winemakers don’t want to see another grape. Instead, they all pine for a tall, frosty beer.
It turns out that the same thing holds true for whiskey—and in the case of Deerhammer, that doesn’t just apply to the occasional six-pack of Sierra Nevada shared among distillery employees after the tasting room closes for the day. Lenny actually took cues from his old love, beer brewing, when deciding what kind of whiskey he wanted to make.
“I understood working with malted barley, so that was why we always wanted to make a single malt,” says Lenny. “And we also this desire to be just a little left of center. Our mission has always been to strive to redefine the flavor and the future of American whiskey.”
Seeking ways to boost flavor, the two looked to the legacy of American craft brewing. “Craft beer has this tradition of thinking about new ways to bring in cool flavor,” says Lenny. “Single malt in this country wasn’t really there yet. But we saw craft as an opportunity to fill the voids that big distilleries might not be identifying.” One of those voids? The use of specialty malts like those used to flavor craft brews like stouts, amber ales, and red ales.
Lenny says it only took a few trial batches to settle on what would become Deerhammer’s signature grain bill, which includes some chocolate or “patent” malt, a deeply roasted malt that gives porters and stouts their signature roasty coffee- and chocolate-like flavors. “We’ve made a few slight tweaks along the way, but those early batches were really close to our current grain bill now,” explains Lenny.
That initial idea has been a major success. But Deerhammer isn’t resting on its laurels. “We’re always looking to push the boundaries a little bit,” says Lenny, describing recent experiments finishing the American Single Malt in port casks, or resting it in custom-made cacao barrels to amp up its inherent chocolate flavors. “We have a massive respect for tradition, but we’re also looking to see where we can innovate and do something new,” says Lenny. “We never try to make something that’s already out there. People are doing that stuff already, and doing it well. We always think, ‘Where can we bring cool flavor and new experiences to the flavor of American craft whiskey?’”
For more information: www.deerhammer.com