The Future of Craft Whiskey

Floor malting at Leopold Bros Distillery in Denver

Floor malting at Leopold Bros Distillery in Denver

“I can’t give this stuff away,” a sales rep for a major distributor told me this week, in reference to one of the more popular American craft whiskies on the market. “I don’t know who they expect to buy it all, but they keep sending us more and now they’re pissed because we can’t move it.”

If you’re wondering which particular craft whiskey he was talking about, take your pick. I’m not going to name names, but I also don’t need to. I’ve spoken to friends and former colleagues at every major distribution company in California over the last month and they all say the same thing: more craft whiskey keeps coming into the warehouse, less of it continues to move out. Choose any craft whiskey off the shelf of your local retailer and I’m willing to bet they’re feeling the pressure. Anyone but Leopold Brothers, that is. While other small American distilleries are getting crushed under debt, forcing them into undesirable corporate partnerships or even bankruptcy, Todd and Scott Leopold are putting the final touches on their malting house, making plans for exciting new whiskey projects in 2019, and looking forward to the future. “We’re in a really good place,” Todd told me last night as we caught up over the phone; “I’m feeling very good about the decisions we’ve made and where we’re headed.”

Why are the Leopold Brothers in great financial shape, while other craft whiskey distillers are getting buried under the weight of their own inventory? They never got caught up in the hysteria of the American whiskey boom. Rather than fly all over the country, spending money on mixology contests and marketing events geared towards believing their own hype, the Leopolds scrimped, saved, and prepared for the future. As Todd told me in his humble manner: “We never believed our own press clippings.”

For all of the million dollar acquisitions we’ve seen over the last few years, all of the hype about new markets opening up overseas, all of the renewed focus on consumer education, and all of the creativity that’s been poured into marketing efforts, there’s no escaping basic economics. If the supply is greater than the demand, you’ve got a problem. I don’t know how else to put it. But that didn’t stop dozens of bright-eyed dreamers from purchasing column stills, increasing their production, filling 500 barrels a month, and preparing for years of unlimited sales growth, bolstered by an insatiable consumer thirst for Bourbon that would remain infinite. “Demand for whiskey is still growing,” these hopeful distillers continue to tell me. But I have to ask: demand for which whiskey? I still see plenty of demand for rare Buffalo Trace editions and Willett single cask collectables, but is that how craft distillers view themselves? As future substitutes for Pappy Van Winkle and George T. Stagg? Not to be mean, but that’s sort of like me flying out to New York and buying a condo because I heard there was a shortage of male models. There may be a need, but it ain’t for guys like me.

Screen Shot 2018-12-01 at 7.58.28 AM.png

Todd and Scott Leopold, on the other hand, have been smart with their investments and practical with their expansion, focusing on whiskies the public actually wants to purchase and consume, while breaking ground on new projects that offer unparalleled quality. They’ve also pooled together an incredible set of family resources to meticulously plan every detail and prepare every purchase. Their father is the landscape architect who helped decorate and design the pristine Leopold Bros campus. Their mother is the textile expert who put together the distillery's stunning interior piece by piece. Scott, a Stanford-trained environmental engineer, constructed one of the greenest, most eco-friendly operations in the country. Todd, who made beer for a living from 1995 to 2008, studied and worked in Germany as well (including a stint at Würzberger Hofbräu), perfecting a number of hefeweizen and pilsner recipes before moving over to distillation. He's so good at malting that a number of breweries are now coming to him for their base malt. As he if he wasn't busy enough, contract malting has now become a side business for the company.

This information is common knowledge to the many people who appreciate the Leopolds and their commitment to quality. They do everything from scratch. 100% of the grains used are floor malted by hand, meaning rye, wheat, and barley. With the exception of their grape-based absinthe and maraska cherry liqueur, all of their base spirits are made in house. Even their silky Silver Tree vodka starts off as a fermented barley, wheat, and potato mash in a Vendome pot still before finishing its distillation on the column. The real secret, however, is that the products that will ultimately come to define the Leopolds and their distillery have yet to be released. They're sitting in wood, racked in a dunnage style warehouse immediately next to the production facility. They are magnificent spirits, steeped in flavor, tradition, and an incredible amount of historical accuracy—painstakingly researched with a level of sophistication usually reserved only for savants. What we think we know of the Leopolds is based on what we’ve tasted thus far. What we will come to know them for, however, has yet to be unveiled. While other craft distilleries have spent millions hoping to convince consumers that young, overpriced whiskies in fancy packages are more desirable than the aged, bargain-priced brands they’ve long enjoyed, the Leopolds have been biding their time in preparation for this moment. And come 2019, we’re all going to find out exactly what we’ve been missing.

leopoldsmains9+1+of+1.jpg

Inside the dunnage warehouse—an exposed floor building with no electricity and all natural lighting—the temperatures fluctuate greatly between the hot Colorado summers and frigid Denver winters, creating the perfect environment for whiskey maturation. It’s there that you’ll find Leopold Bros single malt, Tennessee style whiskey, Maryland style rye whiskey, Bottled in Bond Bourbon, and the coveted Leopold three chamber rye still whiskey still in its infancy. All five whiskies are beyond anything Leopold has brought to the general market thus far, and—with the exception of the Maryland rye—four of them have never been released whatsoever. But it’s not just the fact that Todd Leopold is making Bourbon, or Tennessee whiskey, or three chamber still rye that should have you excited. It’s that Todd Leopold is going back into historical manuals, doing his homework, researching even the filling proofs of these former whiskey styles, and incorporating a number of traditional and overlooked techniques long forgotten by the current generation of distillers in order to do so.

Todd is a dedicated researcher and reader of old documents. He spends his free time digging out the recorded minutes from forgotten community farmer meetings, or various malting essays written by brewers in the 1920s. Even Vendome, the heralded American still company that made the three chamber still for him, doesn't really understand how it works—and that's exactly how Todd likes it. It’s his reenactment, and it’s that dedication to detail that sets Leopold Bros apart from the general market in a major way. Working from a design he located in an old diagram of Hiram Walker's former plant in Peoria, Illinois back in 1910, Todd helped to create this three column monster that—despite its look—distills in batches rather than continuously. I don't want to give away too many of Todd's secrets, but lets just say that there is mash loaded into each level and as the liquid vaporizes it passes through the mash as it moves up through the chamber. Think of gin vapor moving through a botanical basket, but instead it's actual whiskey vapor moving the same flavorful whiskey mash from which it was originally boiled. Todd has been distilling rye on this beast for the last few years and the result is pretty ungodly. We're still a ways away from a release to market, but expect heads to explode once Todd finally decides to share it. The resulting spirit is far more flavorful and oily than any rye whiskey I've ever tasted. I can't even imagine what it will taste like after four years in wood.

Screen Shot 2018-12-01 at 8.44.12 AM.png

From the particular strain of the barley and rye, to the hands on specifics of floor malting, to the kilning and the milling of the grain, to the cultivation of yeast, to the time and temperature of fermentation, to the type of still, to the charring of the barrel, to the natural conditions of the warehouse, Todd Leopold has geeked out about the minute details of whiskey production to a level perhaps unseen in this business. He’s not only the co-owner of his company, never having taken investment from any outside corporate interest, he’s the bonafide expert of every single process of its production from front to back. In the process, he’s become a beacon of American distillation knowledge; a veritable sponge of semantics. But does that maniacal level of dedication make the whiskey taste better, you ask? I don’t want to ruin the ending of such a great story so far in advance, but you’ll know more very soon—right about the time the Leopold brothers take over the world.

As we finished our phone conversation, Todd ran through a list of new projects he had on the books for 2019, details that I wouldn’t dare give away, but completely blew my mind. What you should be most excited about is this: everything that American farmers, maltsters, brewers, and distillers have discarded and removed from whiskey production over the last century in the name of efficiency and economics has been painstakingly researched, rediscovered, and reinserted back into the process by Todd Leopold, planned and forecasted by his brother Scott to be reasonably-priced and available to the market only when the whiskey itself is at peak deliciousness. While other craft distillers have scrambled to bring their whiskies to the market as fast as possible (only to have sales reps scratching their heads), the Leopolds have remained patient and prepared for the future. A future based on the reality of supply and demand. A future based on quality over quantity. A future where consumers spend an appropriate amount of money on whiskey that is well-made, sustainable, interesting, and enjoyable.

I’m happy as hell to report: that future is now.

-David Driscoll