Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Photographer-turned-distiller Michael Myers is crafting distinctive whiskeys that balance tradition and experimentation.
The founder of Distillery 291 grew up on a farm in Tennessee, then worked as a fashion photographer. In the wake of 9/11, Myers decided to leave New York, and switched from studio shoots to craft spirits after he settled in Colorado Springs. 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.
Myers' pivot hasn't gone unnoticed. Distillery 291 has won numerous awards for its whiskeys since it launched in 2011. That trend continues: The 2018 edition of Jim Murray's Whisky Bible named 291 E Colorado Aged 333 Days Bourbon as the runner-up U.S. Micro Whiskey of the Year. Distillery 291 has also won numerous awards at the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival and other competitions.
The year-round catalog now includes five whiskeys and a citrus-clove whiskey liqueur in the catalog, and sales continue to increase. "Our sales last year  were about 1,600 nine-liter cases," Myers says. "We're looking to be around 2,000 nine-liter cases this year ." He expects the distillery to sell about 3,000 cases in 2018.
That increased production has led to Distillery 291 adding five employees since 2014, as well as other changes at the distillery, the home of Bristol Brewing until 2013. "Over the last year we've upgraded all of our equipment," Myers says. "I have an amazing team that works as hard as I do and helps make the best whiskey we can make daily."
Distillery 291 also hosts bottling parties where volunteers come in and help label the bottles. "Volunteers come in and they get pizza and a bottle of whiskey for their work," Myers says.
Myers finishes his aged whiskeys with charred aspen staves. "I was thinking about tradition in whiskey. Tennessee whiskeys are all charcoal mellowed and I thought I could do that," Myers says.
He wanted something very Colorado so he tried aspen, and liked the results. "It all goes in an American white oak charred barrel for a year or so, and then, when it's done in that barrel, we pop the bung and take toasted pieces of aspen and put them in the barrel for three to four weeks," Myers says. "It adds a little more spice to the whiskey . . . gives a little smokiness to it and shifts some of the caramel notes to more maple."
If Distillery 291 can get such good results with a relatively young whiskey, one can't help but wonder if there are plans to produce whiskeys that have been in the barrel a little longer. "Eventually," Myers says. "We just keep selling what we make. We can't make enough."
In addition to the six main products, there is the 291 E label, for experimental batches. "So far we've had three batches," Myers says. "The first batch was a rye whiskey, the second batch was a bourbon whiskey, and the third was another 100 percent malt rye whiskey." All three of those products have earned liquid gold from Jim Murray's Whisky Bible.
What's Myers' favorite 291 product? "Colorado Barrel Proof," he answers. "That's the whiskey I set out to make."
Beyond his bottles, Myers prefers Thomas H. Handy rye whiskey from Buffalo Trace. "That's what my whiskey's modeled after," Myers says. "All the antique collection of Buffalo Trace are really nice whiskeys."
The tasting room at 1647 S. Tejon St. in Colorado Springs is open Wednesday through Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. "It was designed as a traditional Western bar," Myers said. "This is really an education room for me, about our whiskey." Distillery 291 also does tours on Saturdays at 2 and 3 p.m. Registration is available online. Guests can see how the whiskey is made and get a tasting flight.
Eagle-eyed viewers of the Netflix series, The Ranch, may have noticed the characters drinking Distillery 291 whiskey. "Sam [Elliot] is an old friend. He only did it because he likes the whiskey," Myers says. "He wouldn't have done it if he didn't like it. It's a very nice gesture."
Myers himself will appear in a new documentary called The Whiskey Film by Tom Kolicko, coming out on Netflix and iTunes in 2018. It tells the story of distillers and the farmers who provide the raw ingredients for the spirits.
Challenges: The usual growing pains. "Not anything daunting," Myers says. "A lot of small things, and, just as we grow production, making sure we're producing the same quality whiskey that we always produce -- and we are."
Opportunities: Increased distribution. Distillery 291 began distribution in California in March 2017 and Myers plans get into other states eventually. "We still have a lot of room in Colorado," he notes.
Needs: Capital. "The whiskey business is capital-intensive," Myers says.