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.