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Over the past decade, craft American whiskey has experienced explosive growth. With thousands of distilleries and even more brands and individual products, creating a unique product that makes consumers take notice is a challenge every distiller must face.

This is where Distillery 291 has excelled, creating a distinct product that has received overwhelming critical acclaim within the whiskey world. This includes high honors from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the International Wine and Spirits Competition, and a “Liquid Gold” rating from Jim Murray, describing 291 Colorado Whiskey Aspen Stave Finished rye malt mash as “a superb, enigmatic rye whiskey which ticks every box.”

Distillery 291 is the product of an unusual but heartfelt inspiration. After watching the events of 9/11 firsthand, fashion photographer Michael Myers decided New York City wasn’t the place to raise children. He left the area, moving closer to family in Colorado Springs. He continued his career in photography, but found inspiration that started to plant the idea of distilling along the way. And then, in 2011 on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, he started distilling.

Myers never considered sourcing whiskey, and instead set out to cultivate a handmade “Western Whiskey.” This starts with a unique creation process that ultimately culminates into the bottle and label design - a label representative of leather and caged cork symbolic of the days cowboys transported wagons full of nitroglycerin.

The custom mashbills draw inspiration from Myers' favorite whiskey, Sazerac’s Thomas H. Handy Rye. Grain is milled from scratch, and after cooking sours in open air fermenters. Their process takes secondary stillage originating from an accident - Bristol IPA beer spillage that Myers noted had flavors of citrus and hops tea - and adds it to each batch of mash. They’ve dubbed this the “El Paso County Process,” and it’s something no one else is currently doing.

From there, it’s distilled three times. While a locally sourced 300 gallon pot still is currently used, the original still was a 45 gallon pot still that utilized seven copper photogravure plates leftover from Myer’s photography career. The original still continues to be used as a doubler, meaning all of the company’s whiskey still passes through those seven copper photogravure plates. Their white dog or unaged whiskey, which is also bottled as Fresh Colorado Whiskey, has been well received among critics.

After distillation, their whiskeys are aged in heavily charred 10 gallon oak barrels for about a year. As they approach the end of the aging process, Aspen oak staves harvested from a friend’s nearby land are toasted over a charcoal grill and then added to each barrel for about three weeks, which is somewhat similar to Maker’s 46 barrel stave finishing process. The end result is a unique single barrel whiskey that often only yields approximately 40-60 bottles of whiskey per barrel.

291 Aspen Stave Finished Colorado Bourbon

Single Barrel

Barrel #336

Bottle 4/61

100 Proof

Aged less than 2 years

Nose: Cinnamon, cornbread, caramel, ethanol

Palate: Cinnamon, toffee, hazelnut

Finish: Maple syrup, allspice, liquid marijuana

This whiskey transitions from a slightly heavy spice and ethanol note on the nose, to an unusual palate and even more unusual finish. Blending sweet and spice with more earthy notes, it ends on a quite unusual liquid marijuana flavor. While a bit unbalanced, it’s an interesting array of flavors.

291 Aspen Stave Finished Colorado Rye

Single Barrel

Barrel # 390

Bottle 30/60

101.7 Proof

Aged less than 2 years

Nose: Apricot, baking spice, rye spice, summer fruit, mineral note

Palate: Honey, fruit, light/mild

Finish: Pop of rye spice, burnt brown sugar, rock candy, hops

Fairly well balanced overall, the sip is light and sweet. The sweetness crescendos in the finish, with a touch of a hoppy note at the end. It’s not a typical rye and challenges the drinker.

291 Aspen Stave Finished Barrel Proof Colorado Bourbon

Single Barrel

Barrel # 348

Bottle 42/49

126.8 Proof

Aged less than 2 years

Nose: Vanilla pudding, caramel popcorn, ethanol

Palate: Candy corn, baking spice

Finish: Rush of baking spice, maple sugar candy, cinnamon

Intensely sweet, aside from ethanol on the nose, the proof is fairly well hidden. The flavor profile isn’t as unique or challenging as the lower proof bourbon, however it’s quite a bit more balanced.

291 Aspen Stave Finished Barrel Proof Colorado Whiskey

Single Barrel

Barrel #378

Bottle 47/47

129.3 Proof

Aged less than 2 years

Nose: Vanilla, pine, ethanol

Palate: Sweet, caramel, brown sugar, cedar

Finish: Rush of brown sugar, dark fruit, mineral note

The least challenging of the bunch, a few odd notes present themselves in a very subtle way. Pine on the nose transitions to more traditional flavors of caramel and brown sugar, with a hint of cedar mingling in. On the finish sweet notes are contrasted with a subtle mineral note. Overall traditional flavors are at the forefront, but behind them are some very subtle and unusual notes.

Learning about Distillery 291 and tasting through a variety of their products proved to be an interesting process. Notably, each whiskey I tasted is single barrel, which means even among the variation between each label, there will be variation from barrel to barrel. We talk about uniqueness in our reviews, and it’s important to point out their creation process and resulting products would rate high on that chart. Because of this, the whiskeys may be polarizing, serving up flavor profiles I wouldn’t consider like much else out there. Additionally, while utilization of small barrels and relatively short aging are often considered stepping stones to the next iteration of products, it seems with everything Distillery 291 enjoys being different, and hasn’t announced plans to move too far from their current way of doing things anytime soon. Moreover, moving towards a more mainstream creation process doesn’t seem inline with Myers' take on things. These are interesting whiskeys that will not be for everyone, but instead challenge the drinker to explore a unique process and the resulting flavor profiles that process serves to create.

The samples used for this article were provided at no cost courtesy of Distillery 291. We thank them for the samples and for allowing us to write about them with no strings attached.

Written By: Nick Beiter

July 18, 2019
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Distillery 291: A Uniquely Western Whiskey
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