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Profiles

Distillery 291

By Eric Peterson | Apr 04, 2022

Brewing & Distilling Colorado

Company Details

Location

Colorado Springs, Colorado

Founded

2011

Ownership Type

Private

Employees

30

Products

Bourbon and whiskey

Founder Michael Myers is racking up awards for his distinctive craft whiskeys as his distillery continues to expand.

Photos Jonathan Castner

A Georgia native, Myers grew up on a family farm in Tennessee, not far from George Dickel Distillery.

Against this backdrop, you might think he got into distilling earlier, but he first had a thriving career as a fashion photographer in New York.

After 9/11, he moved his family from an apartment three blocks from Ground Zero to Colorado Springs and pivoted from darkrooms to distilling with Distillery 291. His distillery's numeric brand is a nod to his previous career: It's named for iconic photographer Alfred Stieglitz's gallery in Manhattan in the early 1900s.

A mere decade after its birth in a 300-square-foot basement, Distillery 291 expanded to 12,000 square feet in early 2021 and production more than doubled production to about 600 gallons a week by the end of the year.

"We're making that because we're selling it," says Myers. "We've a little more than doubled sales from 2020 to 2021, and we're looking to do about the same percentage from 2021 to 2022."

The distillery more than doubled its footprint to 26,000 square feet in early 2022, primarily for barrel storage and office space.

Soon to be distributed in 20 states, the distillery is gaining traction in the nation's true bastions of bourbon. "We're doing well in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee," says Myers. "It's just booming."

Las Vegas has also proven a fertile market. "It's a really great billboard," says Myers. "[Tourists] drink it there, they have a memory, they go home, and now they're asking for it at local liquor store, which to me is amazing."

The Single Barrel Barrel Proof 291 Colorado Whiskey is the flagship. "That's the whiskey that I say I set out to make," says Myers. "That whiskey and the bourbon, those two whiskeys have a barrel proof and a bottle proof, and those four are our core four and they are roughly equal in the amount that sells."

Beyond the core quartet, Distillery 291 has a regular schedule of small-batch releases. "The newest SKU is 291 M," says Myers. "When we harvest our barrels, we send our barrelys to a maple syrup guy [Lincoln County Reserve] -- he buys them from us and then he fills them with maple syrup, harvests it, and then we buy some of them back and we take rye whiskey and put it in there. It's maple syrup barrel-finished. It's so good, and it's booming. We can't make enough of that at the moment."

"It's a phenomenal seller -- and it's a phenomenal whiskey. It's usually around 128 proof and it doesn't taste that way because of the little bit of maple flavor that comes through from the barrel just softens that proof even more."

The E Series (E is for experimental) is on its ninth release in partnership with Marianne Eaves, the first woman distiller in Kentucky since Prohibition. "Every batch is completely different," says Myers. "She picked barrels of our bourbon and we married the barrels together in the way that she wanted them."

Myers says whiskey aficionados get obsessed with aging times, so he's hesitant to discuss without some context. "Normally, if someone hasn't tasted my whiskey, I don't like to tell them how long it's aged -- because they have a preconceived notion of what it's going to taste like," he explains. "We taste every barrel, and if it's not ready, it's not ready. We just put the bung back in it."

That said, 291's whiskeys typically spend 12 to 18 months in a 10-gallon barrel, and are finished with charred aspen staves. "We use small barrels . . . mainly because I started in 300 square feet and that's what I started with. I won big awards with the whiskey then, so why fix something that's not broken?" says Myers. "We're putting up some 53s now, and we've always put up some 30s and 15s."

The aspen staves get a lot of attention, but Myers says they only subtly affect the flavor. "It definitely changes my whiskey, but it's very slight," he says. "For me, it adds a little smoke, it adds a little spice, and it shifts the caramel notes into maple."

The big differentiators, he says, are "the shape of my stills, how I built my stills, the yeast we use, and then the grains we use."

Distillery 291's stills feature a swan's neck and a thump keg -- and plenty of stainless steel. "That's where a lot of the flavor comes from," says Myers. "I researched that when I was teaching myself how to make whiskey."

He found a study on the subject and honed in on a specific flavor. "The one note that stood out that I wanted to replicate was kind of a salty meatiness, and I really liked that. I thought that it came from stainless, so my stripping still has always had a stainless tank to it with a copper column and then a copper condenser."

Using only copper stills for a test batch, he adds, "That note kind of disappeared."

Myers designed the first 45-gallon still for the basement himself, then turned to Colorado Springs contract manufacturer Cogitic to make a number of successors, including the 1,500-gallon stripping stills and 300-gallon finishing still in use today. "They're a DoD contractor with this incredible machine shop," says Myers. "They just took the plans of my original still and enlarged it."

Distillery 291 sources corn and malt barley from Root Shoot Malting in Loveland and malt rye largely from German suppliers. "We've experimented with [Colorado-grown rye], we like it, but it would be a big shift in the flavor of our whiskeys so we're not ready to do that yet," says Myers.

"Malt rye, when I started, wasn't usually used as a grain," says Myers. "Rye was, but it was usually raw, not malt. Malt rye wasn't used a lot. I really think that also contributes to the flavor of my whiskey."

The aspen staves come from a friend's farm on Monarch Pass in Colorado, and barrels are from The Barrel Mill in Minnesota. Myers says he's working with The Barrel Mill to mass-produce the staves for the distillery.

The end result is a growing stock of filled barrels and a bevy of awards -- including the 2019 Colorado Manufacturing Award for Distillery of the Year. Whisky Magazine named it the U.S. Craft Distiller of the Year for 2022, as Philip Raleigh was named the country's top brand ambassador, the first winner from a craft operation.

Challenges: Shipping costs are increasing, an impediment to expansion to new states, as is hiring brand advocates in those new states. "The expense of transportation is changing, and on top of it, as we're trying to grow out of Colorado in all of those other states, we're looking to hire people in those states to represent 291," says Myers. "We've got a nice program where we hire freelancers or we hire full-time -- it just depends on the person -- but finding the people who fit really well and are driven and all that, it's a challenge."

Opportunities: Myers is exploring exports, but not until he saturates the U.S. "We'll get a lot of growth out of the South," he says. "Nevada will be interesting, and California has been great for us, but the South are drinkers, and they drink whiskey. I mean, I'm from Georgia -- everybody likes a cocktail down there."

Needs: "Capital. Cash," laughs Myers. "Whiskey-making is capital-intensive. You put whiskey in the barrel and you sit on it, but you need cash to put it in the barrel. It's like putting it in the bank."

Also on his wish list: more employees and bottling automation. "We still do labeling parties," says Myers. "My team filled 66,000 bottles last year on a six-head bottle filler -- and we're trying to do double that amount this year."

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