When tasked with writing about the current state of American whiskey, some might take the opportunity to visit Kentucky. I fly to Denver.
It’s November; I crack the window of my rented Toyota Highlander and drink in the young winter’s air while admiring the perfectly symmetrical cumulus clouds set against a gunmetal blue sky.
I’m en route to visit Todd Leopold, a bearded, strawberry blond bear of a man, who, to me, is giving American whiskey its best chance at redemption. From malting his own heirloom distillers’ grains to his pursuit of spontaneous fermentation to his refusal to chill filter, Leopold’s quest is to bring the flavor of both place and raw material, like the ancestral strain of Maryland rye he works with, back to whiskey.
As I exit I-70 and approach the distillery through its now-familiar industrial neighborhood, I start to think, perhaps strangely, about vodka. To understand why American whiskey needs a savior like Leopold at all, I believe you first have to understand vodka.
Vodka’s dominion over the realm of distilled spirits was bookended by two distinct cultural moments. The first, heralding the spirit’s arrival here in the United States, was between World Wars I and II, when a small spirits importer and producer called Heublein, owned by English businessman John Gilbert Martin, introduced Smirnoff vodka to its customers as “Smirnoff White Whiskey – No Smell, No Taste.”
Though it might seem like a lackluster campaign by today’s standards, the post-Prohibition marketplace had been primed for this kind of spirit: The Volstead Act had ghettoized liquor, driving it underground where its variety was often limited to inferior medicinal or illicitly made versions that were best served as highballs, or mixed with obfuscating ingredients like ginger beer. (Not coincidentally, Martin was also responsible for popularizing the Moscow Mule in the early 1940s.) What better solution for a public that had grown wary of the flavor of spirits than a virtually odorless, flavorless distillate?
Over time, the notion of vodka as a “whiskey” wore off, as vodka-based cocktails embarked on a 75-year reign, culminating with the epoch of the Cosmopolitan—during which I did much of my formative bartending. But vodka would have to kiss the ring of American whiskey again at the other end of its incumbency. This brings us to our other bookend: the 2015 release of Absolut Oak. Having arrived with the tagline, “Vodka rested on oak. Forget what you know about vodka,” it begged the question: Why would Absolut, once pitched by the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Damien Hirst, need to reinvent itself?
One answer is that vodka lost some momentum, and the popularity of oak-aged spirits grew, though that wasn’t a reflection of quality. Where neutral spirits that could be mixed with anything were once enough, now relatively bland spirits hammered with wood have a growing appeal. The humorous or sad truth is that Absolut Oak and a whole lot of American whiskey are essentially interchangeable.
Distilled to higher levels of alcohol by volume—which makes spirits taste more like alcohol and less like their base material—and made from blander grain with greater amounts of starch, many of today’s whiskeys do not prioritize the flavors of the grain from which they are made. Instead, they aspire mainly to the prestigious, mahogany-colored richness imparted by the sugars of burnt oak. And virtually all the bourbon and rye in the world are made by six distilleries whose distillate can be used interchangeably, bought and sold like the commoditized grain from which they are made.
So, yes, with Smirnoff, vodka was the new bourbon; then bland, column-distilled bourbon produced on a giant scale was the new vodka; and now, with Absolut Oak, vodka is again the new bourbon.
If it’s not yet obvious, I’ve been underwhelmed by the modern trajectory of American whiskey. My disinterest is only compounded by the connoisseurship that has grown up around it, causing people to pay thousands of dollars for bourbon advertised as having been made by a distillery that literally does not exist, when the best grower-producer spirits known to humanity are available for a tenth of the price.
I have not given up on American whiskey, though. It was, after all, my first love. You could always find a bottle of Jim Beam, Old Crow, Wild Turkey or Rebel Yell on my shelf in the early ‘90s. And today, as on other visits with Leopold, I feel optimism as I guide the Highlander into the distillery’s parking lot and catch my first glimpse of the pagoda-shaped roof and chimney that shelter and ventilate the malting floor. Chimneys like these adorn a majority of the distilleries in Scotland; virtually all of them lay dormant now. As malting became centralized in Scotland, many of the regional characteristics that once distinguished Scotch whisky were erased. This industrialization resembles our own, but not here in Colorado, where Leopold’s functioning chimney represents a return to the old way of making spirits.
He is ready for me, sitting peacefully in his high-ceilinged tasting room appointed with rough-hewn surfaces. Before him, on a long plank table, rest several barrel samples. We taste his straight bourbon, which he will soon be releasing in good quantity. At four years in new oak, it has that sweet richness people associate with domestic whiskeys but retains the trademark, bracing cereal qualities of his distillate. It’s a crowd-pleaser but pushes the needle distinctly.
We then explore two versions of his whiskey made from Abruzzi rye, an ancestral strain of Maryland rye that Leopold has helped resuscitate. Where once several strains of rye were cultivated for a greater diversity of styles of whiskey, by the end of the 20th century, pretty much all the eponymous whiskey was being made from a single strain from Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania rye is sturdier and offers greater yields with arguably a simpler, brinier flavor than the floral, delicate Maryland rye Leopold has reanimated.
“With the Abruzzi, I have to use 400 pounds more of the rye to achieve the same starch,” says Leopold. He pauses, like a good teacher, giving me a moment to try to fill in the blanks myself. “This means more flavor. With the starchy varieties, you use less grain to get the same amount of sugar, the same amount of alcohol… so, less flavor, just starch.”
While I could listen to him forever, we both know why I’m here. He leads me, like an expectant lover, from the tasting room, across a small road to the rickhouse, which reeks of potential with its silent barrels reposed in symmetrical rows. He draws from a barrel an ounce or two of his “three-chamber rye,” a spirit that is not yet released but looms prominently over the future of American whiskey. This will be the second time I’ve tasted it; the first was while it was still a clear, new-make spirit. Over a year old now, it is straw-colored and redolent of lavender and cardamom. While the pleasing qualities of American oak are beginning to inform the liquid, it is the aroma and flavor of the grain that make me confident that once it is mature, this rye will likely be the best I’ve ever tasted.
The still for which it is named was made by Leopold and the legendary Vendome Copper & Brass Works from blueprints Leopold unearthed in his research of 19th-century distilling, a time before production had been so industrialized. The shortest way to say it is that this copper beauty, which looks like something out of Jules Verne, extracts essences from the heirloom rye in several different ways—more ways than the column stills that most producers are using today. The consequence is extra dimensions of flavor, giving the whiskey significant aspect. To taste it when accustomed to the chill-filtered, column distilled standard of the day is not unlike the difference between the colorful world of Oz and the drab black and white that Dorothy inhabited back in Kansas.
Standing in the silence of the rickhouse with this short glass of unfinished whiskey, all my senses are satisfied; for a moment, I let myself dream of a future when we are all drinking in vivid color, and when Leopold’s three-chamber Abruzzi rye is the new vodka.