“I could tell you I’m passionate about whiskey, but that word’s so overused,” says Al Laws, the founder of Laws Whiskey House in Denver, Colorado. “I would actually use the word obsessed.”
Al started Laws Whiskey House in 2011. Today, it’s one of the most award-winning craft distilleries in the nation, with an unwavering focus on whiskey and an industry-leading commitment to quality and integrity. We caught up with Al to talk about his unlikely path to the whiskey business, how he developed Laws Whiskey House’s distinctive four-grain bourbon recipe, and the challenges and rewards of working with locally grown grain.
From Corporate to Cocktails
Al wasn’t always in the drinks business. Born and raised in western Canada (“Canada’s Texas,” he calls it), Al spent the majority of his career working in oil and gas finance. “I did that for most of my life,” he recalls, “and at a certain point, I didn’t want to continue. I wanted to make something.”
While contemplating his next move, Al had been transferred to Colorado, not far from Stranahan’s. “That really opened my eyes to the fact that distilling can be done on a small scale,” says Al. Intrigued, he started to read, and before long he found himself traveling to Kentucky to learn more.
“That’s where I met Bill Friel,” says Al. The former master distiller at 1792 Barton, Bill was a Bourbon Hall of Famer who had spent decades honing his whiskey-making skills, and he was excited by the opportunity to help Al along the same path. “He became my Yoda,” says Al. “I’d read 50 books about whiskey, but he helped me add soul to it.”
Finally, in 2011, Al decided to take the plunge, trading in the long hours, constant travel, and cutthroat corporate culture of oil and gas for a no less demanding—but significantly more pleasurable—gig: Making booze.
History meets innovation
Laws Whiskey House distilled its first batch of whisky on Independence Day in 2011. “We were born on the 4th of July,” laughs Al. “That’s actually pretty important in my mind. This is American whiskey. This history of America is built around whiskey in a lot of cases, and we want to be part of history.”
The company spent the first three years focused entirely on production, not releasing a single drop until 2014. Three years without revenue isn’t for the faint of heart, but Al was unwilling to compromise his whiskey vision by releasing an unaged spirit, and the gamble paid off. “When we launched our first batch in 2014, it sold out so quickly that we were kind of shocked,” says Al.
One of the most unusual things about Laws Whiskey House is its flagship bourbon, A.D. Laws Four Grain Bourbon. Most bourbon producers choose between the two traditional “flavor grains,” rye and wheat, including only one in their mash bills. A.D. Laws Four Grain Bourbon, on the other hand, contains both.
Why make a four-grain bourbon? When he was designing recipes, Al said he started thinking about the kinds of whiskeys he enjoyed the most. He loved the sweet, fruity, soft flavor of wheated bourbon, but he also liked the spicy, herby zip of rye. Eventually, he decided not to decide—he’d design a whiskey that included the best of both worlds.
A.D. Laws Four Grain Bourbon is made from 60% corn, 20% wheat, 10% rye, and 10% malted barley. “What we’re trying to do is give you more flavor grains and balance it so you can taste all of those grains in the whiskey,” explains Al. “It makes a different bourbon. It’s drier, not as cloyingly sweet, and the flavors are pretty unique. It’s still technically a wheated bourbon since that’s the second highest component, so were going for that softness, but by also adding the rye we get something more unusual.”
It’s a delicious combination, and one we’re excited to be sharing with some of our club members this month. This shipment of A.D. Laws Four Grain Bourbon comes from the distillery’s 16th batch. It’s a vatting of about 40 different barrels, each at least three and a half years old, with a smattering of older barrels for character and depth.
Traditional Practices, Local Grain
All of A.D. Laws’ whiskeys begin with locally grown grain. Despite the fact that Colorado is a major grain-growing state, Al says it was challenging to establish relationships in the beginning. “It was hard at first,” says Al. “Nobody wanted to drive their trucks into the ‘big city’ of Denver.”
So why go through the trouble? “One weekend I had run out of wheat malt, so I had to get some from the local homebrew store,” says Al. He ended up buying some malted wheat produced by a local malting company, and was blown away by its freshness, intense flavor, and performance during fermentation. Today, Laws Whiskey House uses heirloom corn and rye, Centennial white wheat, and malted scarlet barley, all produced by Colorado growers.
In the distillery, those grains are milled onsite, fermented in open-topped fermenters, and double distilled on a traditional copper pot still—all tactics Bill Friel taught Al years ago. Aging takes place in new, full-sized casks from Independent Stave Company, charred to a #3 level—exactly the same casks used at many of the distilleries in Kentucky.
Colorado’s enormous temperature fluctuations help the whiskey mature a little more quickly, with huge barometric pressure swings that force the spirit in and out of the pores in the wood, but Al cautions against the mindset that whiskey can be rushed. “Maturation still takes time,” says Al. “We get a lot of infusion out of the barrel in a short period of time, but there’s also oxidation and evaporation, and we’re not trying to shortcut time.”
It might take longer, and it might be more expensive, but it’s all part of Laws Whiskey House’s underlying mission: “Craft over commodity, quality over quantity, and whiskey above all.”