Denver's Distillation Future

Meet Todd Leopold, co-owner and distiller of Leopold Bros distillery in Denver, Colorado. You may think you know him and his products, but I assure you: you do not. While you may be aware of his family's many achievements and the incredible portfolio of spirits they've produced over the last few years, I can promise you this: you have yet to really experience and appreciate just what Todd Leopold's family can do. Sure, his father is a landscape architect who helped decorate one of the most pristine campuses in the industry. Yes, his mother is a textile expert who put together the distillery's stunning interior piece by piece. Of course, his brother Scott (co-owner of the brand) trained as an environmental engineer at Stanford and constructed one of the greenest, most eco-friendly distilleries in the country. This information is common knowledge to the many people who think they know the Leopolds and their business. But what I learned this week is that the products that will ultimately come to define the Leopolds and their distillery have yet to be released. They're sitting in wood, racked in a dunnage style warehouse immediately next to the production facility. They are magnificent spirits, steeped in flavor, tradition, and an incredible amount of historical accuracy—painstakingly researched with a level of sophistication usually reserved only for savants. What we think we know of the Leopolds is founded in the present. We know their current work quite well at this point. What we will come to know them for, however, has yet to be unveiled.

The Leopolds have moved around a great deal in their lives. Their father worked for the government when they were kids and was forced to relocate frequently, rendering the two brothers almost defacto best friends. Their work together has also migrated; the current incarnation of the Leopold Bros distillery is the third of its kind. The first was located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The second was also in Denver, just a few blocks down the road. The latest facility (and hopefully final) has only been operational for about two years now, meaning the whiskey currently being made has yet to hit the market. That’s an important point to consider when evaluating their previous work because the strides they’ve taken since then are unparalleled in the American whiskey scene. Leopold Bros does everything from scratch. 100% of the grains used are floor malted by hand, meaning rye, wheat, and barley. With the exception of their grape-based absinthe and maraska cherry liqueur, all of their base spirits are made in house. Even their silky Silver Tree vodka starts off as a fermented barley, wheat, and potato mash in a Vendome pot still before finishing its distillation on the column. While you may have guessed chemistry, Todd Leopold’s background is actually in malting. From 1995 to 2008, he made beer for a living. He has studied and worked in Germany as well, including a stint at Würzberger Hofbräu, perfecting a number of hefeweizen and pilsner recipes before moving over to distillation. In fact, he's so good at malting that a number of breweries are now coming to him for their base malt. As he if he wasn't busy enough, contract malting has now become a side business for the company.

Properly malting one’s grains also involves drying them in a kiln. Just like at Port Ellen and many of the beloved Japanese distilleries, Leopold is adorned with a romantic pagoda roof through which the warm air is released during that finishing process. While Todd does make single malt whisky, he uses a fan rather than peat smoke as as a heat source because once that smoky, peaty, campfire aroma gets in, there's no getting it out. Seeing that the grains for all his whiskies must pass through the kiln, peat is strictly forbidden. I was curious as to why exactly Todd preferred old fashioned floor malting to the more modern and efficient practices maltsers have developed over the years. Was it just for rusticity's sake, or was there indeed a better flavor that came from more antiquated methods? “A floor malt has its own unique environment," he said to me; "It's cooler than a malting house and it's inconsistent, which is the point." Apparently the malting temperature can vary by two or three degrees throughout the floor, meaning different kernels malt to different levels. "It's inconsistent, but it's not imprecise; I'm monitoring it so there's just enough difference to add depth of flavor," he added. Those small differences create a variance that ultimately adds richness and complexity of flavor in the final spirit. "It's more hands on," he continued, "and a combination of technical science with hands on experience is important when making whiskey.”

The other thing to keep in mind about Leopold Bros is that it isn't all that small of an operation. There are eight different stills operating and about a dozen wooden fermenters, making a number of different spirits at any given time. The variety of different shapes, sizes, and pots allows Todd complete versatility at a level I've never seen at any facility ever. A distillation run might begin on one still, then receive it’s second distillation on a completely different machine, depending on which flavors he's looking for in that particular batch. Believe me—he's constantly geeking out about this stuff. I would explain it to you but it involves a lot of talk about esters, acids, and various chemical compounds. I understand it in theory, but I’ll leave it at that.

Let's talk about this guy now: the big secret that everyone's dying to know more about, from whiskey historians like David Wondrich and Mike Veach, to whiskey super nerds who masterbate over production details and spec sheets. This girthy piece of equipment is called a chamber still and it was once used in a number of American distilleries around the turn of the 20th century and into the mid-1900s. Few people, however, seem to understand exactly how or why it was used. Fortunately for us, Todd is a dedicated researcher and reader of old documents. He spends his free time digging out the recorded minutes from forgotten community farmer meetings, or various malting essays written by brewers in the 1920s. Even Vendome, the heralded American still company that made the equipment for him, doesn't really understand how the chamber still works—and that's exactly how Todd likes it. This is his baby—his reenactment—and he thinks its going to set Leopold Bros apart from the general market in a major way. Working from a design he located in an old diagram of Hiram Walker's former plant in Peoria, Illinois back in 1910, Todd helped to create this three column monster that—despite its look—distills in batches rather than continuously. I don't want to give away too many of Todd's secrets, but lets just say that there is mash loaded into each level and as the liquid vaporizes it passes through the mash as it moves up through the chamber. Think of gin vapor moving through a botanical basket, but instead it's actual whiskey vapor moving the same flavorful whiskey mash from which it was originally boiled. Todd has been distilling rye on this beast for the last six months and the result is pretty ungodly. We're still many years away from a release to market, but expect heads to explode once Todd finally decides to share it. The resulting spirit is far more flavorful and oily than any rye whiskey I've ever tasted. I can't even imagine what it will taste like after four years in wood.

Fermentation technique also sets Leopold Bros apart from many of its colleagues. Todd chooses to ferment his whiskey mash at a much cooler temperature than most Kentucky distilleries, for example. He also lets it go for more than 120 hours which is longer than I've heard of for any whiskey producer. The result is a fruity and complex liquid that has more inherent flavor than just about any whiskey beer I've sampled in my distillery visiting days. It’s slow and low, baby; just like Texas barbecue! Then take into account the other factors that Todd is utilizing like the fact that he's purposely planted fruit trees outside the distillery wall so that, when the windows are opened, the wild and native yeasts from the fruit make their way into the building, embedding themselves in the wooden fermentation tanks. At this point there's so much organic matter playing an active role in Todd's mash that it actually forms a layer of bacteriological flor! I've never even heard of that happening at a whiskey distillery, but apparently it's common in the brewing of sour beers with all that lambic action.

Regardless of what the Leopolds are doing now, it’s what they’ve already created and sold that customers know them by. Two world class gins made by distilling each botanical separately into its own spirit, then blending those resulting spirits into two completely different small batch products. A ridiculously vast and delicious portfolio of liqueurs including three fruit-macerated whiskies that taste like heaven. A Campari-like aperitivo. A pristine vodka and, of course, a small batch American whiskey. However, it’s what’s sitting here in barrel that I believe will some day elevate Leopold Bros from a devoted boutique distillery into the upper echelon of serious American whiskey culture. It’s inside the dunnage warehouse—an exposed floor building with no electricity and all natural lighting—where the temperatures fluctuate greatly between the hot Colorado summers and frigid Denver winters, creating the perfect environment for whiskey maturation. It’s there that you’ll find Leopold Bros single malt, Tennessee style whiskey, Maryland style rye whiskey, Bottled in Bond Bourbon, and the coveted Leopold chamber rye still whiskey still in its infancy. All five whiskies are beyond anything Leopold has brought to the general market thus far, and—with the exception of the Maryland rye—four of them have never been released whatsoever. But it’s not just the fact that Todd Leopold is making Bourbon, or Tennessee whiskey, or chamber still rye that has me excited. It’s that Todd Leopold is going back into historical manuals, doing his homework, researching even the filling proofs of these former whiskey styles, and incorporating a number of traditional and overlooked techniques long forgotten by the current generation of distillers in order to do so.

From the particular strain of the barley and rye, to the hands on specifics of floor malting, to the kilning and the milling of the grain, to the cultivation of yeast, to the time and temperature of fermentation, to the type of still, to the charring of the barrel, to the natural conditions of the warehouse, Todd Leopold has geeked out about the minute details of whiskey production to a level perhaps unseen in this business. He’s not only the co-owner of his company; he’s the bonafide expert of every single process of its production from front to back. In the process, he’s become a beacon of American distillation knowledge; a veritable sponge of semantics. But does that maniacal level of dedication make the whiskey taste better, you ask? I don’t want to ruin the ending of such a great story so far in advance, but you’ll know in a few more years—right about the time the Leopold brothers take over the world. What you should be most excited about is this: everything that American farmers, maltsters, brewers, and distillers have discarded and removed from whiskey production over the last century in the name of efficiency and economics has been painstakingly researched, rediscovered, and reinserted back into the process by Todd Leopold. Come bottling time circa 2019, you’re all going to find out exactly what you’ve been missing. You’re going to find out a lot more about the Leopolds and their incredible spirits than you thought you knew.

-David Driscoll


A Mile High, But Miles Ahead

I think it’s a rather widely misunderstood facet of the modern day spirits craze that most craft gins are indeed “crafted” much like your typical “homemade” spaghetti sauce. I’m putting those two words in quotes because they’re not necessarily untrue in this circumstance, they’re just relative in terms of what we constitute as rustic these days. For example, I’ve “made” my own spaghetti sauce hundreds of times during the course of my life; a recipe taught to me by my father. I generally head to the grocery store, purchase a large can of San Marzano roasted tomatoes, crush them into a thick liquid, then add in various herbs and spices to season that base as it cooks over a low heat. I’ll usually add garlic, oregano, red chili flakes, some bouillon cubes, and parsley; as well as healthy dollops of salt and pepper. After an hour or so of slow simmering, I’ve got my “homemade” spaghetti sauce. To some people, that process is a hell of lot more rudimentary than simply dumping a jar of Prego over some boiled noodles, so they’re impressed by my work. To the more professional cook, however, the term “homemade” means starting from scratch, and using canned goods is perhaps stretching the definition of the word a bit. To the purist, however, calling a sauce “homemade” can go so far as to mean “farm to table,” as in one must first plant their own tomato seeds, tend to the resulting vines, and harvest ones own fruit in order to truly claim origin. But I still know many people who would constitute my recipe as “homemade,” thus they’ll likely have little issue with how most craft gin is crafted today.

And how is that gin made, you ask? In most cases, by running grain neutral spirit through a still within which hangs a botanical basket brimming with twigs, and leaves, and other dried stuff. The boiled alcohol vapor passes through the collection of juniper and various herbs and spices, and—after it condenses back into a liquid—carries the essence of that particular recipe in its spirit. However, much like my “homemade” spaghetti sauce, most craft distilleries start by purchasing their base spirit from larger grain alcohol distilleries. When they say they’re crafting a gin, what they’re really doing is taking another producer’s base material (just like me with my can of San Marzano tomatoes) and flavoring it to their particular liking. The really hard part has already been done for them. They’re not harvesting grains, processing the starch into sugar, and running that sweet liquid through a large column. They’re just finalizing the recipe; they're adding a few sprigs into the so-called sauce. Not to imply that there’s little skill or creativity in creating a gin that way because a number of my favorite gins are made in such a manner. It’s just to say that when I hear about someone actually “crafting” something “by hand” in “small batches” (oh…so many great buzz words!), it would be nice to know if they’re actually starting from scratch. Take the Leopold Brothers for example, two guys who not only make their own base spirit, they also distill each botanical separately and then blend the individual distillates together much like a blended whisky, in true small batch fashion.

Not only is the Leopold Brothers gin truly crafted, it’s one of the great American gins on the market—period. You'd think that would be an easy sell to most consumers, but—alas—Todd and Scott are the Screaming Trees of the grunge rock gin era. They’re like the Pixies, or the Cocteau Twins of alternative distillation—the guys that everyone loves and strives to imitate; the T-shirt you wear when you want other people to know you’re pretty knowledgable about underground booze—but who for some reason never go mainstream and achieve the huge commercial success they fully deserve. But maybe that’s the way they want it. They don’t really need the credit. Everyone knows they’re one of the original craft distilleries (back when that term actually referred to making something more interesting on a smaller, more nuanced scale), committed to creating better spirits via more artisinal methods. The Leopolds floor malt their own rye and barley just like all Scottish distilleries used to do. They work with local farmers to revive interesting and flavorful strains that haven’t been grown since Prohibition. They mill their own grains, ferment their own mash, and everything on site is done by hand (literally, not just for the sake of putting the word on the bottle). They’re also pretty damn good at making just about everything: vodka, rye whiskey, single malt whiskey, liqueurs, absinthe, aperitifs—you name it. I’ve been trying to get out and see the distillation mecca they’ve created in Denver for years, but the opportunity never seemed to materialize until this week. So, once again, I’m on a plane. I can see the Rocky Mountains from the window. I’m ready to hit Colorado running. I’ve just got to get in and out before the Broncos home opener.

We’ve got dinner plans tonight. If Todd’s making spaghetti with homemade sauce, I’m pretty sure it will be from scratch.

-David Driscoll


Whisky Season 2016 Update

Well...things seem to be moving along quite well now, don't they? Let's look at the results from the first nine casks since we began releasing them less than a month ago:

Round One - August 10th

Auchentoshan 18 year old "Old Particular" - 15 bottles left

Arran 19 year old "Old Particular" - SOLD OUT

Glenturret 28 year old "Old Particular" - SOLD OUT

Round Two - August 19th

Royal Brackla 17 year old "Hepburn's Choice" - 72 bottles left

Glen Keith 24 year old "Hepburn's Choice" - 130 bottles left (from a 500 bottle sherry butt)

John McCrae 24 year old "Hepburn's Choice" - 6 bottles left

Round Three - August 25th

Bunnahabhain 25 year old "Old Particular" - SOLD OUT

Invergordon 50 year old "Old Particular" - SOLD OUT

Garnheath 42 year old "Old Particular" - 60 bottles left

We've released nine casks in the last twenty-five days, four of which are already sold out and another two that are a few days (or even hours) from vanishing. I'd say things are looking pretty exciting thus far! We'll have another teaspooned beauty for you this week (a hot value to boot at just a hair under fifty bucks), before we move deeper into September and begin bringing out the peated malts. Grab a bottle of the John McCrae (Balvenie) soon if that was a whisky that interested you. Ditto with the Auchentoshan!

-David Driscoll


Bruichladdich Master Class @ Palihouse in West Hollywood


Join us for this incredible event this WEDNESDAY @ Palihouse in West Hollywood for ONLY $15! Space is extremely limited 

Bruichladdich Master Class @ Palihouse, Wednesday September 7th, 2016 - 7-9pm - $15

 -David Othenin-Girard


R.I.P. Gene Wilder

Back in the 1980s while growing up in a working class Modesto family, kids like myself counted the days between the free HBO previews; those magical weekends when the premium networks would remove all restrictions and give everyday people like us the chance to watch unedited, uncut, commercial free movies for forty-eight hours. As an only child obsessed with TV, I would beg my parents to buy me four or five blank VHS tapes each time these blessed instances would occur. I would then proceed to record as many movies as I possibly could while the limited offer lasted, then watch those films on repeat in my room before going to sleep each night. One of the most worn and weathered cassettes (so worn I had to really be sharp with the tracking button) was the one labeled See No Evil, Hear No Evil: one of the last great Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor buddy comedies. I must have watched that flick more than a hundred times back in the day. I could never get enough of it. The above photo pretty much sums up what exactly makes the film so endearing: a blind Richard Pryor constantly screaming at a deaf Gene Wilder who remains utterly calm and collected throughout the adventure because he can't hear a word Pryor is saying.

Every Gene Wilder tribute I've read over the last few days has focused on his most iconic roles: Willy Wonka, Young Frankenstein, etc—and rightly so. Those characters have become engrained in our pop culture collective as some of the most beloved and memorable in history. The most amazing thing about Gene Wilder as an actor for me was his ability to go from zero to a hundred and then back to zero again before you knew what had hit you. He had a twinkle in his eye at all times—a piercingly quizzical expression that said: I know a lot more than I'm letting on. I'll always adore the boat sequence in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where he builds the tension to a maniacal crescendo. I'll always love the smirk on his face as the Waco Kid disarms a herd of gun slingers in Blazing Saddles. But there's a scene in See No Evil, Hear No Evil (actually the one pictured in the image above) where a naive Richard Pryor tries to cure Wilder of his deafness by yelling in his ear at close range. Wilder's reaction is priceless. He sarcastically plays along, feigning perception, until finally boiling over and losing it. He grabs Pryor by the arm and screams: "No, schmuck; I'm deaf!! Now do you get it?!" and then shakes a shocked and fragile Pryor like a rag doll. To me, that's vintage Wilder.

R.I.P Gene Wilder. We loved you. I'm sure Gilda was right there waiting to welcome you home.

-David Driscoll