By Gregory Daurer | Mar 21, 2016
Dietrich (who wears mutton chops sideburns that often leave little kids mistaking him for the X-Men character Wolverine) also calls his spirit "original" and "a little bit outlaw" -- displaying depth and embodying Colorado, he says.
Stranahan's has a storied lineage: It's Colorado's first modern distillery, the maker of the state's first whiskey -- a product which has earned the company awards, recognition, and accolades over the years.
Holding a tasting glass close to his nose, Dietrich notes, in turn, aromas of cinnamon-butter, orange marmalade, marshmallow cream, and milk chocolate. "Half the enjoyment for me is sitting there 'nosing' a great whiskey," he says. And, then, with mighty Colorado whiskey warming his tongue, he describes its flavors of citrus, white pepper, and caramel like a Werther's Original candy.
Dietrich joined Stranahan's in December of 2006. He's the third master distiller in the company's history, having assumed that title in 2011. (Founder Jess Graber went on to start Tincup Whiskey. Jake Norris is now at Laws Whiskey House.)
Before joining Stranahan's, Dietrich, 44, served three combat tours with the 10th Mountain Division of the United States Army. Then he worked in music production for a decade, once going on tour with soul legend James Brown. And Dietrich managed Orvis Hot Springs in Ridgway, not far from where he grew up on Colorado's Western Slope, often taking a pre-sunrise soak while plotting out his day's maintenance chores over a cup of coffee.
Dietrich says that many of the skills he acquired from previous jobs relate to his present one: "I know what it's like to sleep when you can, and be awake for many hours at a time, [in order to] get the job done. . . . I've got this still running over here, I'm filling barrels over here, I'm doing inventory over here -- you know, all these things, at the same time."
Stranahan's was acquired in December 2010 by Proximo Spirits (owner of 1800 Tequila, Boodles British Gin, and Hangar 1 Vodka; distributor of Jose Cuervo). Dietrich sees the acquisition as positive. Not only has Stranahan's been able to stay true to its original recipe, Dietrich says, it suddenly had the budget to add more stills and fermenters. While at one time, Stranahan's had to pull back and limit sales strictly to Colorado accounts, now it can be found in all 50 states. Dietrich, presently the face of the company, travels across the U.S.A. for account visits, letting clients know that Stranahan's is here to stay.
Stranahan's whiskey incorporates four ingredients: a mixture of four malted barleys (mostly grown in Colorado), ranging from pale to dark; award-winning Eldorado Natural Spring Water, trucked in from Boulder; a proprietary yeast strain that's commonly used in brewing rather than distilling ("It gives it some very buttery notes. It just has this really rich flavor to it"); and, lastly, "time in the barrel."
Thousands of virgin oak barrels, that is, housed in a massive, climate-controlled warehouse. (Dietrich now wages "combat" against evaporation.) The company orders specially-made pallets, designed to hold four upright barrels, each weighing in excess of 520 pounds when full. The barrel-laden pallets are then stacked six high. (The wood of the pallets is left untreated so no chemicals leach into the barrels.) With rows and rows of hundreds of barrels rising up to the heavens, it's an awesome sight, like looking skywards at a multitude of stars in the pre-sunrise morning over a cup of coffee in a Rocky Mountain hot spring.
Each barrel is charred on the inside, and used only once. "I equate it to a fresh cup of tea," Dietrich says. "You get a really nice, strong cup of tea the very first time you use [a tea bag]. If you try to reuse that bag of tea, you're going to get a lot weaker cup or it's going to take a lot longer to be able to pull color and flavor out." Once used, the barrels are sold to breweries for use in barrel-aging programs.
Dietrich "marries" two, three, four, and five-year-old spirits into each bottle of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey. The company also sells a four year old whiskey called Diamond Peak. And a special release called Snowflake, a blend of Stranahan's whiskey aged in barrels previously holding, for instance, Madira, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Sherry Oloroso, or cognac. Sold twice per year only at the distillery, the line of hundreds of customers waiting to purchase Snowflake wraps around the building like people waiting to see and hear James Brown performing live at the Apollo.
When he's not working with spirit stills housed in an explosion-proof room that seals off in the event of fire, Dietrich occasionally takes off on various treks. On a recent motorcycle ride across Baja California, Dietrich's Kawasaki ran into a ditch and the tank caught on fire -- burning through the bike's throttle cable. He and a friend fashioned a sardine can, found on the beach, into a connective repair.
Wearing a medical boot on his recovering right leg, Dietrich says adventures like that are integral to his work. If it makes him happy, he says with a smile, "It's going to make the whiskey happy."
Favorite spirits: "Glenmorangie," says Dietrich. "They make a great scotch. Balvenie -- I'm a huge fan of Balvenie. On a smaller scale, Westland is a great distillery; they're up and coming, they make a single malt. Balcones has got some interesting stuff. I'm a huge fan of Leopold Brothers; Todd Leopold is a great friend and I really respect his skills. Rob Masters [of Spring 44] is another; he's a great distiller.
"It makes such a huge difference: We're such a small community of master distillers and head distillers that we're always calling upon each other to say, 'Hey, I've got a question about this' or 'I've got a question about that.' 'What did you do? My pH is too high in this, and what did you use?' Some things we can answer, and others we'll just give each other the look, and we're like, 'Okay, okay! You can't talk about it.' So that's always fun."
Challenges: With thousands of barrels of whiskey to track, an RFID computer system may be on the horizon, Dietrich says. "I'd say [having] one space for barrel storage is constantly a challenge -- maintaining the organization of those barrels. If you're just releasing strictly four year old whiskey, it'd be easy: Okay, we're just pulling this bank of barrels out and it goes in, this bank of barrels and it goes in. But we have a variety of numbers: two, three, four, and five [years aged] that we have to maintain."
Living in the past, present, and future: "The other hard part is really trying to estimate what people are going to be drinking five years from now. I always tell people I'm living in the past, present and future: What we made in the past affects the present, what we make now affects the future, and what we put into the bottle today is a direct reflection of that. We have to be forward-thinking."
Opportunities: Dietrich calls the chance to innovate a big one. "I've got a 120-gallon pilot still in here that I can [use to] start messing around with different recipes -- and I have messed around with a few things. And, for me, that sort of gets exciting. We've got our workhorses [Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey and Diamond Peak]: That solves a lot of logistics problems. Now it's like, let's make something else. Let's make another whiskey, and test it out, and try it out, and see what that does, and then put it in the barrel. And if it tastes great, let's start working on another little sideline. And it takes a lot of work to build to that. We're [operating] 24 hours a day, six days a week, right now, just making Stranahan's. It would be very difficult for us to add anything else to that lineup. So, we'd almost have to make another system and lineup of stills and fermentation and that sort of thing."
Needs: Room to grow -- once more. "We're going to need more space eventually," says Dietrich. "We just built a new barrelhouse, and I know I'll fill that up quickly. So, again, I think it's that real estate that we're going to need."