An unmarked door into the basement of a small commercial building in the Ivywild neighborhood seems more likely to contain dusty storage bins and cobwebbed boxes of forgotten relics than a modern, wildly artistic and growing business.
But somehow, the tiny 340-square-foot basement space is a fitting location for a start-up business with industry roots in basement and backwoods brewing and bootlegging. There’s something exciting about how unpolished Michael Myers’ Distillery 291 space is now.
While it’s full of character, Myers said he’s not eager to share his current operation with visitors.
“I’d rather you not print this location,” he said.
It makes sense. He’d have nowhere to host people if they came by for tastings — since two is a bit of a crowd in the narrow room.
Fortunately, Myers has a new location in sight. He plans to move into Bristol Brewing’s current site at 1647 S. Tejon St. by mid-March when the brewer moves across the street to the old Ivywild School, which is being transformed into a brewery, coffeehouse, bakery and community space.
“I’m going to go from 339 square feet to something like 6,000,” Myers said.
Distillery 291 won’t need all that space, but it will allow for some much-needed growth.
He sold out at Christmas and needs the extra room in order to make enough for the 2013 holiday season. Along with extra distillery space, Myers will have a tasting room where people can try the four varieties of Distillery 291 whiskey and a sampling of mixed drinks. If they like what they taste, they’ll be able to buy a bottle and take it home with them.
Myers made his first batch of whiskey on Sept. 11, 2011. That was an important date in more than one way. He is an accomplished fashion photographer who worked in New York City for glossy magazines like Elle Girl and Allure.
“Our apartment was three blocks from the World Trade Center,” Myers said.
Since they couldn’t go home for several months after the towers fell, they stayed with his wife’s parents in Monument in 2001. After a couple years back in New York, they decided they liked the pace in Colorado, and Myers commuted from Colorado Springs to shoot in New York. That became exhausting, but he couldn’t make the kind of money shooting in this market that he could in New York.
So he had to find a new passion.
He hasn’t forgotten his first passion in his new venture. The distillery is named after both his dorm room at the Savannah College of Art and Design and the first-ever, all-photography gallery in New York — Gallery 291.
He also used old copper photo printing plates to build his still.
Myers sells about 60 gallons of whiskey a month. He bottles four varieties, all of which have received high praise in tastings and reviews. His 291 Colorado Whiskey Aspen Stave Finished is the crown jewel of his lineup. He ages it in large whiskey barrels for six months with toasted aspen staves for added flavor.
“It’s really strong and rugged like Colorado,” Myers said, “but also really beautiful.”
The 291 Colorado Whiskey is a corn whiskey aged three months in small barrels so it absorbs the wood flavors more quickly. It has a smooth, leathery and smoky taste that’s pleasant and easy to sip.
Myers’ 291 Fresh Colorado Whiskey was described as “clean and citrusy” in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. It’s a “young spirit, but the sweetness is provided by superfine sugars dampened with pure lime juice.”
Myers said he developed the spirit with plans to market it for use in mixed drinks. And it’s working. Most distillers don’t start with whiskey, he said. And few focus exclusively on it.
“You have to age whiskey,” he said.
And when operations are just getting started, aging can be tricky. Distillers wouldn’t have anything to sell for months while whiskey is aging. It would be particularly hard for Myers in his confined space if he had to age everything he sold.
Instead of producing vodka, rum or gin, Myers believed he could make a white whiskey good enough to sell. And he was right. His clear spirits sell, especially to bars like the Rabbit Hole, Shuga’s, McCabe’s Tavern and the Green Russell in Denver, where mixed drinks with whiskey are becoming increasingly popular.
Myers also makes 291 Colorado Rye Whiskey White Dog. By law, all rye whiskey has to spend time in a barrel. But the alcohol soaks up the color of the barrel quickly, so Myers only leaves it in the wood for a minute.
There are a lot of unusual laws surrounding distilling in the U.S., and they’re different in every state.
“There’s no such thing as home distilling,” Myers said.
All distillers must have a commercial license to do it, which means the distilling industry won’t be able to grow the same way brewing has with home-brewers honing their craft in bathtubs before breaking into the market with tasting rooms and brewpubs.
Still, American distillers are gaining worldwide recognition with stateside whiskeys beating out old single-malt favorites from Scotland in tasting competitions.
And Colorado’s industry is one of the fastest-growing, with 37 licensed distillers in the state.
“The theme in Colorado has been growth,” said Rob Masters, president of the Colorado Distillers Guild. “There were just two seven years ago.”
He said the laws in Colorado make it a popular state for distillers. They are allowed to self-distribute and they’re allowed to have tasting rooms. That can cut two tiers out of a three-tiered market that usually involves manufacturing, wholesale distribution and retail, Masters said.
“Of course, it gets to be a lot of work if you’re making it, selling it and running a tasting room,” Masters said.
For most, it’s a labor of love. And that’s certainly true for Myers.
“I never thought I’d be as passionate about anything as I am about photography,” he said.
“I’m passionate about this.”