Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Stranahan's Is Back. Let the Disinformation Begin

Earlier this fall, Stranahan's announced that its Colorado Whiskey will be distributed outside of Colorado for the first time in more than four years. This seemingly straightforward announcement has been accompanied by an unusual amount of bullshit. Forbes Life contributor Katie Kelly Bell, for example, writes that "several years ago Stranahan's went national with distribution. It was a raging success, so much so that local fans in Colorado were left out in the cold, unable to find their home state whiskey anywhere. Owner Jess Graber wisely brought distribution to a halt, restored the stock on local shelves and set about ramping up production to meet national demand. Years later, he has produced and aged enough whiskey to go around and make everyone, from the Rocky Mountains to Manhattan, happy."

If that reads more like a press release than a news story, that's because it probably is. And Katie Kelly Bell is the same person who wrote another piece on Forbes Life in which she claims that "The Best New Bourbon Is Actually An Aged Panamanian Rum."

But the fact that this revisionist history most likely comes from Stranahan's itself is disturbing, especially in light of the still-unfolding Balcones situation, because Stranahan's has been one of the leaders in the craft distilling movement and, by and large, they have done things the right way. Now and then, though, they struggle with the truth.

Here's what really happened.

In 2003, Stranahan's was founded by Jess Graber, George Stranahan, and some other people. Graber was always the front man, appearing all over the country in his trademark Western kit. He was at all the shows and meetings, a garrulous spokesperson who in many ways drew the template for micro-distillery owner/ambassadors to follow.

Then, in 2010, rumors began to swirl and were eventually confirmed. Stranahan's had been sold to Proximo Spirits, a New Jersey distilled spirits marketing company owned by Mexico's Beckmann family, which owns Jose Cuervo Tequila. Everything about it was very secretive. I made about a dozen posts back in 2010-11, trying to follow the story. Search "Stranahan's" in the site search box to the right to check them out.

Head Distiller Jake Norris lasted several months, then quit, explaining to an interviewer that, “I am not one to hang around and watch someone bridle a wild pony.” Graber agreed to stay around as a brand ambassador if they wanted him, which they didn't until recently.

No one has ever told the real story of what happened, but Proximo did end all distribution outside of Colorado. It also added equipment and increased production. Although Stranahan's is not age-stated it is believed to be about three years old, so now is when that production increase should be kicking in.

Stranahan's is a good product. It's a malt whiskey, distilled from a wash (like scotch), but it's aged in new, charred oak barrels (like bourbon). The flavor is unique and quite enjoyable, and it's really made in small pot stills in Colorado. It's also really bottled by enthusiastic volunteers in Colorado and not at Proximo's huge bottling plant in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (part of the old Seagram's complex there).

But they want to have it both ways. Graber is great spokesperson and legitimately a company founder, but he was never the sole owner and hasn't owned anything since 2010. He doesn't run the place. Stranahan's likes to call itself "independent and family-owned," but they don't say that the family is the billionaire Beckmanns, who also own the world's number one tequila.

They won't tell you this and neither will a lot of so-called journalists who are more interested in bylines and inches than they are in reporting actual facts.


Anonymous said...

How is Stranahans 3 years old, with no age statement ?

Anonymous said...

I live in NY and have seen Stranahans on shelves all over the state for years. Tasted a couple times. Ok but not as good as Balcones a Single Malt or Zeppelin Bend from New Holland b

Chuck Cowdery said...

Which is why I said it is believed to be about three years old. That is what Graber and other Stranahan folks have said in the past.

Anonymous said...

I work for Proximo and everything Chuck has said is common knowledge in the company and I have never seen anywhere that anyone is trying to hide the expansion of the brand or Jess'a role in marketing under Proximo's ownership.

Anonymous said...

The distilled on date of the youngest barrel is clearly handwritten on every bottle and it is also printed that it is aged a minimum of 2 years. Can't see how there is any question about it. Though they say they "marry" in some older barrels into each batch to round out the flavor.

Anonymous said...

It says the distilled date on the bottle is that not enough of an age statement?

Anonymous said...

Do the Beckmanns own Bushmills now too?

Justin said...

I understood it to be a vatting of various ages, but that the youngest was two years. As the years march on it tastes to me like more and more older whiskey goes into the mix. It's gotten spicier, and the flavor has moved from the front to the mid pallet.

And btw.....it finally hit Oklahoma shelves in July of this year.

Anonymous said...

I have been able to get in wisconsin for the last three years at least (stock it at my bar)...maybe they have had limited distribution?

Standing Applauding said...

Another great example of why Chuck is the best. While nearly everyone else is busy kissing the industries rear-end, Chuck is busy lighting a fire under their ass.

Anonymous said...

Chuck, interesting read about the history of Stranahan's, but I'm struggling to find the disinformation referenced in the headline. Proximo isn't touting Graber as the owner of the brand. The details of acquisitions by private companies are often confidential. Distribution was in fact ended outside of CO. It's really made in small pot stills and bottled by volunteers. The youngest whiskey is stated on the bottle. Proximo is factually independent and family-owned. (Having billions doesn't disqualify the Beckmanns as a family.) Not sure I'm reading Forbes Life for hard-hitting journalism, but the author's reference of Graber as owner seems like a mistake and lack of research on her part (which is fair to criticize), not deception on the part of Proximo.

Anonymous said...

I think that the disinformation that Chuck is pointing out is that the acquisition of Stranahan's lead to some instability within the company (like Master Distiller Norris left).
Hence, it was impossible for the company to cope with national demand anymore. Hence, a nice story ("Colorado costumers are first") has been build up to polish their image.