We can share the whiskey, we can share the swine
summit daily news
FRISCO – Colorado may be better known for its skiing than for its barbecue or its whiskey, but the Centennial State doesn’t have a short supply of either. And top-notch interpretations of both were on display at the 17th Annual Colorado BBQ Challenge in Frisco.
For the second year in a row, Frisco’s celebration of swine and sauce featured the “Rub It, Smoke It, Sip It Tour,” during which a couple dozen food and drink aficionados were entrusted with the Colorado-style secrets of smoky meats and sultry spirits.
The whiskey portion of the tour was led by self-described “supernerd” Jake Norris, the master distiller at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, a small-batch distillery based in Denver. Norris, 36, let the whiskey flow freely as he discussed the particulars of water, grains, fermentation, distillation and aging. And as the tour progressed to matters of meat, the whiskey-quaffing continued, warming participants’ bellies as the late-day sunshine warmed their faces.
According to Norris, barbecue and whiskey are a match that’s hard to top.
“Barbecue is unctuous and rich, with big, strong flavors and fat,” he said. “What works really well in between bites is a little nip of whiskey to cleanse your palate. It cuts through all those rich flavors.”
And there’s a parallel between barbecue and whiskey that appeals to Norris’s nerdy side: Neither can be crafted in the Rockies like it is in its Southern strongholds. They both take some tinkering and a healthy understanding of the processes involved.
“It’s a different game up here. You can’t just take your Kentucky recipe to Colorado and expect it to work,” Norris said.
In the barbecue realm, the Rocky Mountain climate requires at least an hour more of smoking time, according to Norris, who is an avid amateur barbecuer himself. As for whiskey, the aging process begs for that sticky Southern air, so Stranahan’s solves that problem by racking its barrels in a heated, humidified warehouse that never drops below 68 degrees.
Other than that, Norris contends that Colorado is uniquely suited to producing some of the best whiskey in the world. One of the biggest factors is the purity of the water.
“Colorado water is incredible – the whole rest of the country’s water supply is downstream from us. If you’re a camper, you know what that means,” Norris said.
Just as important is the quality of the grain. The company uses 100 percent Rocky Mountain malted barley, 80 percent of which comes from Colorado. Many other whiskeys are more commonly distilled from fermented corn and other grains, such as rye or wheat.
Norris considers his process a “terroir approach” to whiskey, whereby a sipper can taste the distinct character of the land and water in every glass.
The only part of the established whiskey equation Stranahan’s didn’t change was the barrels. It uses 100 percent new American white oak, heavily charred.
“The barrels we’re using are the quintessential American whiskey barrels that everyone uses, from Jack Daniel’s on down to us,” Norris said.
Oak is high in sugars and vanillin – the same compound that gives the vanilla bean its distinctive flavor. Charring the barrels results in caramelization of the natural sugars in the oak and a layer of activated carbon. The carbon removes impurities in the spirit during its two-year-minimum aging process, making it smoother. The caramelized sugar and vanillin impart the whiskey’s golden-brown hue and about two-thirds of its flavor.
“The remaining flavor comes from the barley. That’s the magic you just can’t mess with or improve upon,” Norris said.
Barrels are never reused. The distillery sells most of them, but the lucky ones end up (where else?) broken down and tossed into Norris’s backyard barbecue smoker.
SDN reporter Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or
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