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A Week for the Ages: Distilleries Leopold Bros. and Laws Whiskey House Open Doors in Denver

Scott and Todd, the Leopold brothers.

Leopold Bros. tripled its capacity with the new distillery.

Todd Leopold casts a watchful eye on his mash.

The gardens at Leopold Bros. breed bacteria -- and that's a good thing.

Every bottle of Leopold Bros. spirits is hand-numbered.

Batch 1 is a thing of the past at Laws Whiskey House.

...and Barrel 666 is on its way.

No matter the batch, a trough of whiskey can be a dangerous thing.

In the span of five days, Leopold Bros. and Laws Whiskey House christened the tasting rooms at two of the most eagerly awaited new distilleries in Denver. The entrepreneurs behind them are taking craft spirits in the city to entirely new level.
When the book on distilling in Denver is written, last week will probably be the beginning of chapter two -- and marked with plenty of bright yellow highlighter.

Leopold Bros. and Laws Whiskey House both opened their doors and started pouring their superlative spirits in a pair of slick tasting rooms.

These are easily two of the biggest stories in the entire universe of craft spirits right now, and they're just 10 miles apart in Denver city limits.

Leopold Bros. looks back and moves ahead

In a nondescript industrial block near I-70 and Havana Street, Leopold Bros. has been operating for a few months, but their official grand opening cocktails weren't mixed until last week.

Scott and Todd, the Leopold brothers.Leopold Bros. -- owned and operated by the Leopold brothers, Todd (the distiller) and Scott (the business guy) -- started distilling in Denver in 2008. The brothers set up shop in the city after running a brewpub of the same name in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where state law dictated that everything sold by the bar must be made in-house.

Educated in both brewing and distilling, Todd distilled everything from gin to triple sec at the brewpub. He loved making spirits so much that it led him and Scott to shutter the brewpub in favor of a mile-high distillery in their home state of Colorado.

That was 2008, and the brand has skyrocketed in the years since, with about 40 percent annual growth, even though it's still available in Colorado and seven other states. "Our demand has increased at a pace we couldn't keep up with," says Scott.

It follows that the new facility triples the production capacity, but it's not only about scale. The malting floor -- the only malting floor at a distillery outside of Scotland -- will provide all of the Colorado-grown barley and rye it needs for its spirits, and Leopold Bros. will sell the remainder -- about 200 tons a year -- to local breweries.

The distillery is also more water-efficient than the industry standard, and it's not even close. Most distillers use 15 liters of water to produce a liter of spirits; Leopold Bros. uses about 10 percent of that.

The fermenters are conveniently located next to the windows, so that all sorts of wild microorganisms take up residence in the wood and give the finished spirits different notes. "This is designed to take air out of the garden," says Todd, explaining that the lavender and cherry trees were chosen because they're favored by the strains of bacteria they'd like to see help ferment their mash.

The tasting room is decked out with old naval lights, upcycled wooden floorboards, and a mahogany back bar that was once  part of a boxcar -- in fact, one of the last remaining boxcar floors made of mahogany.

Then there's a long line of bottles lining that back bar. Leopold Bros. is known for its breadth, with a catalog that spans vodka, gin, six whiskeys, seven liqueurs and of course absinthe. The tasting room will be open on Saturdays; tours will be available for $8 to $50.

No shortcuts at Laws Whiskey House

Operating out of the Overland neighborhood just southwest of I-25 and Broadway, Laws just released one label to start: a eminently drinkable but notably complex four-grain bourbon. The distillery will start bottling its rye whiskey in mid-2016.

Formerly head distiller at Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, Jake Norris joined forces with Al Laws in early 2012. It was nearly two years after Stranahan's sold to out-of-state interests and six months after Laws commenced distilling.

"We met through whiskey circles," says Norris of Laws. "He likes making whiskey. I like making whiskey. We decided to make whiskey together."

Batch 1 is a thing of the past at Laws Whiskey House.Laws has an oil and gas background, but jumped career tracks because he likes whiskey much more than he likes petroleum. He's got a stash of 600 different whiskeys at home, but doesn't hesitate to break a seal. And he's no whiskey snob. "I've drank tons of Jack Daniel's," he boasts.

Retailing for about $60 a bottle, the A.D. Laws Four Grain Straight Bourbon is made with 60 percent corn, 20 percent wheat, 10 percent barley and 10 percent rye, all of it sourced from small family farms in Colorado and the Midwest.

There's no garden at Laws Whiskey House, a squat bunker-like building a block off Broadway on the south side of Denver, just 1,000 barrels aging for the requisite two or three years before bottling.

Laws and Norris refused to buy pre-aged whiskey to stock the shelves -- they waited and waited, and distilled and distilled. Now their whiskey is ready and the nature of the operation has changed from stealth mode to sales-hungry startup.

Laws says the recruitment of Norris was serendipitous. "It was really lucky, him leaving Stranahan's," he notes.

Nearly two years later, the match looks like a good one. Norris calls Laws "the spirit of the company."

The tasting room at Laws Whiskey House will be open Thursday to Saturday from 2 to 7 p.m., with tours available by reservation.

And the Laws empire might soon include an expanded tasting room and restaurant -- Laws owns a building on Broadway that's a literal stone's throw away from the distillery's back door -- and another warehouse for additional barrel storage.

The common thread between the Leopolds and Laws, Norris and company, besides their Denver base, is a steadfast dedication to the craft of distilling.

When Al talks about his favorite whiskeys, his enthusiasm is unmistakable -- and contagious. Ditto for Todd when he spins yarns about the science and magic of distilling. Jake and Scott are tougher nuts to crack, but their dedication to the craft is also obvious.

With passionate entrepreneurs like this leading the ascent, the sky's the limit for craft spirits in Denver.

Just be careful when these guys tap into a barrel. A trough of whiskey can be a dangerous thing.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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