A famous whiskey quote says, “You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy whiskey – and it’s pretty close.” Woody Creeker Jesse Graber has both.
Over the past 20 years, Graber has created two nationally acclaimed whiskies: Stranahan’s and Tin Cup. He has worked on trade shows, food and wine festivals, and premium liquor presentations as a brand representative while still having time to tend to his small ranch that he and his wife Jane own in Woody Creek and create a new horse ranch in Missouri Heights.
Once in a while, Graber drinks whiskey. He is attracted to whiskey and creates whisky, he says, because it is a robust drink for a robust state. Whiskey is a drink he loves because he loves the craftsmanship behind creating the liquor: the natural color, because “it tastes better than a mango infused vodka” and because “life is too short to drink bad whiskey.
Graber’s stories behind the creation and successes of Stranahan’s and Tin Cup begin and end at Woody Creek, where he ended up after a stretch in the Front Range. There he had been making his own version of homebrew products since the early 70s, and a moving neighbor gave him a simple still and a recipe for making moonshine. It was the start of a wildly successful hobby.
After moving to Aspen in 1974 to ski and work in construction until he eventually started his own home-based contracting business, Graber began manufacturing his own brand of moonshine and offering it in a jar as a unique Christmas gift to its workers rather than making Christmas cookies. Before long, architects, contractors, suppliers and friends were asking to be put on Graber’s Christmas list.
In the late 1990s, he was a volunteer firefighter with the Aspen Fire Protection District. One night he responded to a barn fire at George Stranahan’s Flying Dog Ranch on Lenado Road.
After the fire was put out, Graber and Stranahan talked about the success of Flying Dog Beer which Stranahan had created and marketed throughout Colorado. In this conversation, they found a common appreciation for whisky. For a long time then, Graber had thought about what it would be like to have a commercial distillery. In the late 1990s, there were no commercial distilleries in the entire state of Colorado.
Then one day, while Graber was visiting Stranahan on his ranch, he saw the remnants of mash left over from the Flying Dog beer operations – he says it was like a light bulb had gone out for him: he could cooking it and distilling the liquid into a clean, high-octane liquor that could be used as a base in the creation of a single malt whisky.
Eventually, Stranahan came to terms with the idea of using the Flying Dog mash to create a single malt whiskey. Graber and Stranahan started talking about the specifics of fine whiskey and what they liked about it, and Graber started experimenting with different ideas using Flying Dog mash. He cut up pieces of oak barrels, put them in jars with distilled liquor and let it take on the color and flavor of the oak extract. The color and taste of the whiskey comes from aging in oak barrels.
According to Graber, the distillation process is quite simple. Pure distillation has been attributed to the Arabs, dating back to the 8th or 9th centuries, with the same basic science: taking a grain and cooking it to release the sugars. Like rice, you don’t want to overcook it. When the mixture cools, add the yeast. When the yeast eats the grain and these sugars, it produces carbon dioxide and low-grade alcohol.
Next, distill the low-grade alcohol by boiling it at 176 degrees, which separates the alcohol from the water. At this point, the alcohol is higher proof than what is potable for recreational purposes, so a distiller will add water. Pure Rocky Mountain water is an excellent ingredient.
Unlike many other liquors, making an American straight whiskey comes with strict rules. The liquor cannot be distilled above 160 degrees so that the flavor of the grain comes out – it must be aged in recently charred American white oak barrels, and proof in barrels cannot be higher than 125 degrees. The liqueur must be aged for at least two years and cannot be bottled at less than 80 degrees.
Stranahan’s was unique because it was and still is an American single malt liquor. Stranahan’s is made with just four ingredients: 100% malted barley, yeast, Rocky Mountain water and time in the barrel. Stranahan’s is called an American whiskey straight from Colorado. It resembles a fine Scotch because both are made from 100% malted barley, but the liquors are aged differently, so their flavor profiles are different.
It takes about 10 hours for Stranahan to “go through the column” and complete the distillery process. And then years of aging in freshly charred oak barrels. “Whiskey is a long game,” notes Graber.
It took Jesse Graber about six years of experimentation to create the perfect flavor profile for Stranahan’s Colorado Whisky. Along the way, there was an immense amount of research into the various base recipes and years of bureaucracy from Colorado liquor licensing authorities as Graber and Stranahan worked to make their liquid creation legal. They got their license to distil alcohol in 2002 and then started distilling in 2004 because it took Graber two years to build a distillery.
They opened Colorado’s first commercial distillery in 2006, next to Flying Dog Brewery in downtown Denver. At first they were producing about three barrels of Stranahan’s a week. Now, production is more like 60 to 70 barrels per week.
An intense investment – of time and money – was made on marketing, promotion and the distribution of free samples, but very quickly Stranahan garnered positive press and, more importantly, positive feedback from everyday whiskey drinkers and liquor connoisseurs. Eventually, Stranahan’s success caught the eye of a major global liquor distributor, Proximo Spirits, and they purchased Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey in 2010.
While Graber had succeeded in expanding Stranahan’s distribution to 35 states, Proximo, the distributor of Jose Cuervo and many other liquor brands, expanded distribution to all 50 states. It is marketed alongside other premium whiskeys in the $50 range. Their product offerings have grown and seven different Stranahan distillations are now produced.
Instead of retiring to a ranch and enjoying the success of his co-creation, Graber decided to create another whisky, using slightly different ingredients and a slightly different process. He decided to mix rye bourbon distilled and aged in Indiana with a small amount of the same Colorado single malt whiskey that goes into every bottle of Stranahan’s. The mixture is then cut with clean water from the Colorado Rockies, and a new whiskey is created. He called this one Tin Cup, after the whiskey miners in Colorado used to drink.
Tin Cup is also enjoying success on a similar scale to Stranahan, and its reputation continues to grow. Proximo participated in the creation of Tin Cup and Graber noted the success of their collaboration.
Originally, Graber was told he couldn’t add single malt whiskey to a bourbon and still call it that because, like all whiskeys, bourbon has strict rules. But Graber was undeterred.
“We’ll call it American Whisky,” he answered proudly. “We’re from Colorado and we don’t have to follow the rules.”
And so Tin Cup was born. Now, Proximo Spirits has premium whiskey at Stranahan’s and modestly priced whiskey ($30 range) at Tin Cup. Three different distillations of Tin Cup are produced.
Woody Creeker Graber is no longer a volunteer firefighter. Currently, he works as a brand rep for Tin Cup, which gives him time to do his ranch chores in Woody Creek and spend time building his new ranch in Missouri Heights.
And, from time to time, he enjoys a glass of Tin Cup.