If you went back in time to the Revolutionary War and sat down for a stiff drink with General George Washington, you’d probably be sipping a rye whiskey with the future president. Not only did Washington grow rye at Mount Vernon, it was also the most popular grain for distilling in the United States until Prohibition.
During the 1920s, the palates of Americans softened on bootleg Canadian whiskeys, most of which were lighter and corn-based. For 100 years, rye whiskey languished at the back of the bar until craft distillers began popularizing it again while experimenting with different kinds of malt.
If you search for rye whiskey around Durango’s bars and liquor stores, you’re likely to run into Laws Whiskey House, one of the best rye whiskey distillers in the world, at least according to Whiskey Magazine, which gave it gold medals in three of the last four years.
The Denver-based distillery began whiskey production in 2011, first hitting shelves in 2014. Its founder and namesake, Al Laws, was an oil and gas analyst from Edmonton, Canada, who was obsessed with whiskey from an early age. Today, his distillery produces a variety of whiskeys – not just rye. But making rye seems to occupy a special place in Laws’ heart.
“It’s not like bourbon. All those rich peppery notes become something quite different. Ours radiates a vegetative heat like a Serrano pepper. It warms you up if you’re cold or you’re wet,” he said. “It gets right into your bloodstream like the symbiote in Spider-Man. It gets stuck to you and soon it’s in your every heartbeat. It’s an amazing whiskey.”
Laws’ analytical nature and passion for whiskey aren’t the only reasons his distillery keeps winning awards. He gets by with a little help from his friends.
Law considers his Yoda to be Bill Friel, the former master distiller at Barton 1792 Distillery and a 2006 inductee into the Whiskey Hall of Fame in Kentucky.
Laws met Friel while touring Kentucky, learning about the workings behind large-scale whiskey operations. The person running the bed and breakfast Laws and his wife were staying at insisted that he needed to take a tour of Barton’s facilities, and the PR person at Barton insisted he needed to talk to Friel. After three hours of talking about the technical aspects of whiskey distilling, a friendship – and mentorship – was born.
The birthplace of the grain that goes into the whiskey is also very important to the folks at Laws Whiskey House. To that end they’ve teamed up with the Cody family at Colorado Malting Co., a farm south of Alamosa, where Laws sources the vast majority of its grains. For instance, Laws buys 95% of the rye that the farm produces, said Steve Kurowski, Laws’ marketing director. That close relationship allows the distillery to custom order malts with very specific characteristics. The distillers also enjoy capturing the terroir of the region.
Josh Cody credits the relationship with saving the family farm. Third- and fourth-generation homesteaders, the Codys began growing barley in 2008 in hopes that local breweries could use it, and they found a number of customers, including New Belgium, Left Hand, Avery, Dogfish Head, and Sierra Nevada.
“And then Al Laws called my brother (Jason) because he saw our bag at a homebrew supply store. He was looking for some white wheat,” Cody says. “He called my brother and said, ‘Hey, would you guys be interested in working with a distillery?’ ... That changed everybody’s life.”
The Codys are now the world’s largest producer of craft malts. In 2018, they produced 1.5 million pounds of malt and sold it on every continent except Antarctica. (Get with the program, penguins!)
In addition to Laws Whiskey House’s products, local drinkers can get a taste of Colorado Malting Co. grains at Durango Craft Spirits. The Cody farm is where DCS owner Michael McCardell gets the wheat, rye, and barley that goes into his bourbon. The malt also makes guest appearances in Ska Brewing Co. beers every once in a while.
Perhaps the coolest way to consume the farm’s fermented grains is on the farm itself. In 2018, the Codys opened up the Colorado Farm Brewery, a truly unique location where visitors to the taproom can sample beers where all of the ingredients – malt, hops, water, and even yeast – are produced on site. The taproom is open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.
George Washington never visited Colorado, but if he could visit it today, he’d probably be proud, not just of the rye whiskey but also the beer its denizens are creating (he was also a big beer drinker, especially porters). Something to think about next time you pour yourself a locally-sourced drink.