Deerhammer Distilling Co
The Small Distillery Producing Big Flavors.
Despite working in a creative field as a Graphic Designer for 20 years, Co Founder Lenny Eckstein describes his job as “creating annoyances” and felt his career was not providing him with the form of expression he wanted.
In looking for something else, he almost took a job in a brewery and conversations with the brewer about the process of distillation soon had him intrigued. Having already been a home brewer and understanding the fermentation side of the process, it was surprising for him to learn that 70-75% of the process in beer making is the same for distilling.
This got Lenny “messing around” with home distilling, “simply for process discovery by diverting some of my home brewed beer for distilling. yielding maybe a bottle or two at a time. He has is Co Founder wife, Amy, were living in Golden at the time and she was ready to move to the mountains, and after considering their options felt it made sense to say “lets just do this”, setting on Buena Vista, a remove community about two hours west of Colorado Springs.
The idea was to start out with 500sq/ft. but they ended up with their present location at over 2000sq/ft. of space, which is just as well in hind sight and was an indication of how quick things were to grow.
To start with, “almost all the equipment started miniscule including the 300 gallon mash tun that me and a plumber friend built”. With this humble start they were making about a quarter barrel of spirit a month. Fortunately, the copper pot still they purchased did have extra capacity, although was still small 140 gallons. Current output now is at 3-4 52-gallon barrels a week, and with little additional investment beyond the cost of larger premises, capacity could be doubled or trebled, which I suspect will be the case by this time next year. The goal for the business is simply to be at an economically viable size while remaining a “lifestyle” size.
Lenny’s beer background and familiarity with mated barley lead to the decision to focus on distilling single malt whiskey rather than bourbon or rye. With considerable scope to experiment with different varieties of barley, Lenny notes “a big part of craft distilling is recognizing what has been done and looking at what can be done differently… to push flavor profiles within tradition”. “We still use 100% malted barely, but also use specialty malts that are kilned or roasted to a darker level that would usually go into making beers”. “Its still malt, we are just doing some different things prior to that process”.
“Our grain bill is roughly equivalent to that used for a beer like a stout or porter. It 85% two-row pale malt, with 15% specialty malt. The specialty malts are 5% Chocolate malt, 5% Crystal 45 and 5% Crystal 140.” These specialty malts contribute noticeable coffee, chocolate, and tobacco flavors as well as subtle raisin and honey notes to the sweet cereal notes from traditionally used two-row barley.
Deehammer do also make a Bourbon, a rye and a corn whiskey (for the bar) for which the mash bill is also unusual. While the four-grain Bourbon uses slightly smoked oats instead of rye, together with a chocolate malt, the Rye uses the smoked oats instead of corn, along with the chocolate malted barely.
A clear theme is emerging and as Lenny staunchly proclaims “Delicate is not what we do… I like big flavors and that’s what we produce.”
Another relatively unique aspect to Deerhammer’s operation is their direct fired heated spirit still which rather than using steam heated coil, is heated by open flame directly to the base of the still. “Direct fire heating causes hot spots on the base of the still and caramelisation which contributes to the overall flavor profile”.
Following maturation, barrels are selected and blended together to be bottled in batches. “While there are some awesome stand alone barrels, I don’t want to rob them from the batches by bottling as single casks.” As a very small operation, we can never get true consistency, but what to make every batch as good as it can be.”
Plenty of experimentation is still taking place, including with smaller casks, port cask finishing and longer aging in used barrels. Much of these will only be available for sampling in the distilleries tasting room, so a trip to tinny Buena Vista is always going to be worthwhile for those who enjoy experimenting.
Having made the journey, I was privileged to sample some experimental whiskies in addition to some of the standard bottling. First comparing whiskies from a No2 and No3 charred casks, the character of the spirit was clearly more evident in the whiskey from the lighter charred cask, allowing the rich coffee and chocolate house style to shine through.
I also sampled a sage-smoked corn whiskey! Wearily I was pleased to discover that the sage was not particularly noticeable, however, what was very evident was a medicinal, phenolic note, which, to me, was reminiscent of a Scotch Laphroaig!
The highlight however was a rich dark whiskey that was in the process of being finished in a reused port cask. Having already been matured for 2 years in new oak, the spirit had been transferred to the port casks and was to stay there for 8-9 months. My early sample had just been in the additional cask for two months but was already taking on a different character. Similar to a heavy Scotch whisky on the nose, the pallet had a strong chocolate taste with raisin and some raspberry!
Deerhammer should be commended for going their own route and for their willingness to experiment with new flavors rather than simply producing a product that will appeal to the widest market. I have little doubt that there will be many interesting and exceptional whiskies coming from their warehouse in the future and definitely a distillery to watch.
Deerhammer American Single Malt Whiskey – aged no less than two years.
Deerhammer Whitewater Whiskey – an unaged inspired from Lenny’s days of whitewater kayaking.
Deerhammer Dutch Style Gin