I am pleased and relieved to report that things seem be settling down and returning to normal at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey.
Even though it’s a new normal, that’s good news for everybody.
Proximo (the new owner) is now talking and so is Jess Graber, Stranahan’s founder and chief brand ambassador. Graber was willing to share a little more than the ‘nothing will change’ mantra that has been the answer to every question for the past year.
This follows the departure of Jake Norris in August and his replacement as distiller by Rob Dietrich, who had been assistant distiller for the past five years. Pete Macca is the new general manager. Graber will continue as brand ambassador but won’t be directly involved in day-to-day operations or sales.
Asked by Sean Kenyon on Westword why he left, Norris replied, “I am not one to hang around and watch someone bridle a wild pony.”
Kenyon’s interview with Norris is a good capsule of the whole Stranahan’s saga.
Here is the even shorter version. Stranahan’s, located in Denver, Colorado, is one of the pioneers of American micro-distilling, especially micro whiskey-making; and one of the early success stories. Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey is unique, distinctive, and very drinkable. It is malt whiskey aged for at least two years in new, charred, standard-size (53 gallon), white oak barrels.
Just about a year ago, the grapevine began to buzz with rumors about a sale, either impending or consummated, of Stranahan’s to Proximo, a small company itself but a much bigger one than Stranahan’s. By the end of 2010 the sale was confirmed through evidence in the public record, such as the transfer of intellectual property. Neither party had said a word.
Eventually an anonymous Proximo executive and an uncharacteristically terse Jess Graber made statements. Then silence. Word came from retailers that Stranahan’s whiskey was becoming scarce in Colorado, and impossible to get elsewhere. In June, Macca announced that Kalamath Street would triple its capacity by the end of the year.
Last Wednesday, Elwyn Gladstone, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Proximo, introduced himself. “We're doing great things with Stranahan's,” he wrote. “Major investment in new stills, more barrels and in the infrastructure of the building.”
Asked why the sale, a year-old at this point, went down the way it did, he replied, “We are a (very) privately held company and as such, we never discuss any of our acquisitions or other business transactions. It’s just our policy – nothing sinister.”
So no harm done? That, apparently, is a matter of opinion.
Sensing my dissatisfaction, Gladstone suggested an interview with Graber.
I have known Jess Graber for a few years, not well but we have talked whiskey a few times. He says the sale will enable Stranahan’s to implement his 10-year plan in about a year. He says both sides wanted secrecy and a formal announcement just never got made.
You still won’t find anything about it on the Stranahan’s web site.
Graber believes the tight supply is because Proximo wants to build up a finished goods inventory so they can deliver a more steady and reliable supply going forward. He concedes that when he was running things, he sold whatever they could put into bottles, as fast as he could, until it ran out.
By the end he was selling it in 36 states. Proximo has retrenched into Colorado, Chicago, and New York City.
On the barrel goods side, they are trying to build up inventory of older whiskey so they can increase production without changing the product. The Stranahan’s we know and love contains whiskey that is three, four and five years old, in very particular proportions. Graber says that mix won’t change and every drop will be made at Kalamath Street so long as he is on the payroll.
When Proximo feels they have enough product to sell that they need to promote it, Graber will go back out as brand ambassador. “For now I’m happy not being on the road 200 days a year,” he says.