Leopold Bros. Distillery
Bacteria and the Three Column Still.
Despite having visited every distillery in Scotland, my visit to the Leopold Bros Distillery in Denver provided one of the most insightful for viewing the whiskey making process. Very few distilleries in the world can claim to malt all of their own barley using traditional floor maltings with only Springbank in Scotland, where Todd Leopold visited in 2014, still floor malting 100% of their own barely. The traditional, more labor intensive processes do not stop there however, with the Leopolds also using beautiful, open-top, but shallow Cypress wooden fermenting vats and having very recently taken delivery of a Three Chamber still, based on the pre 1960’s stills and specifically manufactured for them by Vendome. Despite their high production costs and the importance they place on producing high quality spirits, Scott Leopold is keen to stress the importance of pricing their range as affordable as possible and is clearly planning for the long term.
Having obtained a degree in literature and philosophy, Todd decided that a career in either was not for him, and so with an interest in home brewing and a passion for German style beers, decided to attend the Siebel Institute in Chicago in 1995-6 to attain a degree in Malting and Brewing. He then went to Munich to attend the Doemens Academy, following which he travelled through Bavaria, working at breweries and Brandy fruit distilleries for several years. Upon returning to the US, he started a Brewing company with his brother in 1999 with funds they just managed to scrape together by selling off some of their personal possessions. At the time, there were already twelve microbreweries in their home State of Colorado, so settled for Michigan where there was less competition!
With a thriving brewery and bar, it was not long before they started distilling, starting vodka in 2001 and then a gin to satisfy the demand from their bar. This made them only the 35th established distillery in the US and with that, liqueurs soon followed before eventually starting to distill whiskey in 2006. Around that time they relocated to Colorado, becoming the 5th licensed distillery in the State, moving again into the current, more spacious site in 2014.
Their malting floor can accommodate 20,000lbs of barley after it has been steeped for a couple of days in the two steep tanks. Next, The barely is manually spread out across the concrete floor and needs to be regularly turned to encourage even germination. A very laboriously process, abandoned by most US and Scottish distilleries in the 60’s. After about a week, the malted barely is transferred into the ‘Scottish style’ kiln, which is heated by hot air to halt the germination process. Interesting, malted barely is used in most of their 22 spirits, so is vital to their operation.
Malted barley and grain is milled down to flour and is then placed into a 1,200 gallon mash tun to allow the starch to convert to sugar. This mash is then transferred to one of 16 wooden vats where added yeast can go to work converting the sugar to alcohol. According to Todd ‘the longer duration in the open top fermenters contributes to a softer fruity spirit’. The low alcohol liquid is then distilled through a variety of stills depending on the type of spirit they are making. The range of stills includes a 32-plate column still, three small copper pot stills and the worlds only three chamber pot still. Fermented mash (wash) is placed into each of the three vertical chambers, where steam is directly injected at 4 – 5 psig for an hour. As the wash is heated, it turns to vapor and rise up through the wash in the higher chambers, picking up flavor as is passes through the liquid. The result is a more oily, heavy and rich, mouth coating spirit.
The whiskey spirit for rye is diluted to an entry proof of 49% abv (98 proof) before being filled into the new oak casks. This is quite a bit lower than the reduction made at most distilleries but according to Todd is what was normal prior to Prohibition. There is no climate control in the dunnage warehouse, just earth floors that help to some extent to absorb and regulate the heat. Despite their spacious site they are still very much at the ‘craft’ scale, with every batch of bottles being from a single cask rather than the vatting of several casks together. Some of the used casks are then put to work to mature their fruit flavored whiskies, or are sold of to breweries.
Making whiskey the old fashioned way (pre-prohibition) is central to Todd Leopold’s approach, and for him, encouraging natural bacterial activity at every stage of the process is key. There is still much experimenting taking place, including working with new three column still, but for me, it is the (Springbank inspired) malt whiskey currently maturing in Sherry casks, and to be Bottled-in-bond, that should be the most eagerly anticipated.
Silver Tree Vodka
Leopold’s American Small Batch Gin
Leopold Bros. American Small Batch Whiskey