In addition to sitting at the forefront of American Single Malt, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey has long endeared itself to the state’s liquor connoisseurs by establishing and maintaining a nearly mythological reputation steeped in the imagery and tales of the frontier. The iconoclastic George Stranahan’s friendship with Hunter S. Thompson is well-documented, as is the famed barn fire on Stranahan’s Woody Creek property that ignited the relationship between him and founding partner Jess Graber. From the outset, the brand has been portrayed as rugged, with its cast of characters frequently taking on a larger-than-life veneer.
While the unmistakable personalities of previous head distillers Jake Norris and Rob Dietrich didn’t outshine their obvious talents, the two characters became inextricably intertwined with the brand’s ardent identity. In summer 2019, Dietrich left Stranahan’s to take command of Metallica’s Blackened Whiskey, with Owen Martin — a Kansas City native who had been with the company since 2016 — inheriting both the throne and the rather large boots left by the revered distiller.
Since being founded in 2004, Stranahan’s has grown from relatively modest beginnings to its current setup — producing roughly 60 barrels of whiskey a week. Spread across two ambient and two climate-controlled rack houses on South Kalamath, the majority of the hooch is aged in barrels from the Ozark-based Independent Stave Company. As the flagship spirit has carried the brand, Stranahan’s has gained popularity for its seasonal releases, including the limited-edition offerings at the annual Cask Thief festival and the even more coveted yearly concoction Snowflake. Martin recently introduced Blue Peak — a Solera-finished variation that matures in massive oak foeders for a more accessible, lower-proof expression.
Martin graduated from the University of Kansas in Lawrence with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After returning to Kansas City to work for an engineering firm, his attention quickly turned away from the organization’s daily drudgery towards brewing. Finding he had a knack, he interned at Boulevard Brewing before diving headlong into the craft, moving to Edinburgh to attend Heriot-Watt University. The school is internationally known as one of the premier institutions for the study of all aspects of alcohol production. He graduated in 2014 with a master’s in Brewing and Distilling Science after partnering with a notable lowland Scotch distillery to compose his thesis. “Living in Scotland, it didn’t take long to switch to liquor,” he said. After returning stateside he spent two years with Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock before moving to Colorado to act as a shift-brewer distiller for Stranahan’s. He was promoted to lead distiller in June 2018 before accepting the position as head distiller in August of the following year.
Despite the preeminence of his predecessors, Martin seems undaunted. Blue Peak has been produced entirely under his stewardship, with the Mountain Angel 10 Year — an on-site tasting exclusive after its limited 500-bottle supply sold out in minutes — coming to fruition during his tenure. “I’m lucky to be in the position I’m in but whiskey is not a one-man thing,” said Martin. While Dietrich plainly established something of a cult following, Martin seems well situated to assert his own vision without altogether reshaping the institution’s well-loved course. “I’m not trying to flip anything on its head. I love Stranahan’s because I love Stranahan’s,” said Martin.
Even as the standard expression will continue to be iconic, Martin expects Blue Peak to become the company’s biggest seller. “I’m trying to get people to rethink some of the conceptions that Stranahan’s was overpriced or too fiery. I’m hoping Blue Peak will open the door not just for Stranahan’s but for American Single Malts in general,” said the distiller.
Beyond the responsibilities of keeping the wheels turning, much of the head distiller’s reputation rests on their ability to concoct original spirits par excellence. This year will mark the 23rd Snowflake release and Martin’s second go. The distiller said he learned plenty from his time working under Dietrich, but the blending process — one the former head likened to preparing a good batch of chili — was not covered. “If it’s that personal, I don’t blame anybody for keeping it close to their chest,” said Martin. While the details of this year’s release are still under wraps, Martin was able to hint that apple brandy barrels will play a big role, with the flavor profile being a decidedly bright foil to 2020’s general unease. Sadly, the release has been postponed until February.
He clearly respects the brand’s heritage — often cheerfully alluding to connecting strands of “Stranahan’s DNA” — though it’s significant that the most consequential and exciting aspects of the role are amongst the few that don’t fall under learned practices. Based on the offerings at last month’s Cask Thief — including an expression aged in Centenario reposado barrels — there’s a lot to be thrilled about as Martin’s particular vision is layered into the brand’s totem-pole-esque development.
With Blue Peak and Mountain Angel already under his belt, Martin is hoping 2021 will provide more fertile ground for him to continue to leave his mark. “My goal is to hopefully have this next year be stepping into the new era,” said Martin. Additional plans include an in-house exclusive expression and a set of affiliated cocktails being made solely at the tasting room.
All photography by Adrienne Thomas.