Getting comfortable in the surroundings of a unique whiskey vision
Written by Nico Martini
We’re gonna call it The Slammer.” I had just sat down to have a whiskey, probably something from Texas, with a couple of old friends, when they let me know that they had decided to take over the lease for a building in Buena Vista, Colorado. It was originally built in 1896 and, back in the day, used as the town jail. I’ve spent the last year watching the service industry die, but now my friends have decided to open a bar and they’re going to call it The Slammer. Great.
My dear friends Lucas Ross and Heath Smith wanted to create an intimate space reminiscent of Japanese izakayas, but flavored with the saloon spirit of the American west. They had always been craft beer fans, and they saw an opportunity in this space for a little beer garden-style bar. The place was a good deal when considering Covid requirements – it had two patios – and it was the perfect space for their unique vision.
The original plan was to serve only beer and wine, but, as in most conversations with me, we wound up talking about whiskey. After tossing around ideas, I asked them why they didn’t want to have any spirits. From a business perspective, the margin with spirits is much higher. Suddenly, we found ourselves going down the rabbit hole of Colorado laws and permits to figure out what exactly it would take to open a full bar instead of just beer and wine.
I casually recommended that they make their place a whiskey bar. “Honestly man, we just didn’t wanna deal with it. Once you have whiskey, then you have to have vodka and gin and all these different liqueurs and lime juice and soda… And so many cups. I don’t want to deal with cups,” said Lucas. They weren’t sold yet, but I felt like there was an opportunity to serve their community in a way no one else was doing… but what about all those cups?
“How about this? You don’t… When y’all drink whiskey, it’s neat or on the rocks, and this is your bar, so… just do that. One ounce, two ounces, neat, or on the rocks. That’s it. No mixers, no cocktails, no vodka, and no lime juice. And you can also just have one size of cup,” I suggested, not really thinking they’d buy into the idea – but they did.
The Slammer is no longer a vision, but a whiskey bar in Buena Vista, Colorado that opened on October 5. They have around 100 bottles of whiskey, and about 50 of those are from Colorado.“We’re surrounded by distilleries and we’re whiskey fans, so we thought this would be a great bar concept,” said Heath.
In my initial conversations with Lucas and Heath, we discussed the Colorado whiskey industry, and how impressed I had been with everything from Colorado that I had tried recently. They decided pretty early on that they should lean into the opportunity to turn The Slammer into a de facto Colorado whiskey tasting room. There’s a particular sense of pride on the part of Coloradans and the whiskey from the region is truly spectacular, so selling only American whiskey, and focusing mostly on whiskey from Colorado distilleries, seemed like a no-brainer.
So now, feeling entirely responsible for their decision to open a niche whiskey bar, I did the only thing I could think of to prove this concept: I planned a 12-hour trip to Denver in which we’d visit six distilleries and figure out if the idea had legs or not. I flew in that morning and, after a quick coffee, we headed to Laws Whiskey House for some breakfast whiskey. I was moderately familiar with Laws, but was looking forward to finally having access to its whole line-up of spirits.
First and foremost, Laws is dedicated to the use of heirloom grain, coming from family farms in both the San Luis Valley and Western Colorado. It didn’t even sell any whiskey for its first three years in business, because of the desire to avoid sourced products. “We take a no-shortcuts approach to our whiskey,” said senior distiller Sam Poirier. The highlights were easily the Four Grain Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon and the Straight Wheat Whiskey Finished in Curaçao Casks, which had just a hint of orange, separating itself out from the other experimental batches.
The next stop was about half a mile down the road at Bear Creek Distillery. Lucas casually mentioned that the “cool kids” were into this particular whiskey, which got my attention. Once inside, you can feel the communal vibes, and when we were told that the company was started by four high school friends, it all seemed to make sense. This is the place you’d probably want to end your evening, since Bear Creek has an incredible cocktail program, composed entirely of house-made items. Wheat whiskey isn’t the most popular type, but Bear Creek’s was a joy to experience.
We then made a brief stop at Stranahan’s. We didn’t do a tour (although I have heard great things about it), but we did work our way through the distillery’s entire line-up. When a brewery owner and a moonshiner hooked up in 2004, Stranahan’s became Colorado’s first legal distillery since Prohibition. Stranahan’s made one of the first American single malt whiskies, before there was a category for such things, so the distillery just called it Colorado Whiskey. Anyone working their way through the distilleries of Denver must visit Stranahan’s. If you’re lucky, you might be able to grab a bottle of their single malt finished in Caribbean rums casks, or their Bushmills cask version of the same.
Then it was off to the highlight of the day, Leopold Bros. You will not visit another American distillery that operates in the way Leopold Bros does: the amount of care that the team puts into process, the dedication to historical accuracy, and, frankly, the quality of the products make this an absolutely one-of-a-kind visit. Leopold Bros is zero-waste and the only distillery in Colorado to run a malting floor, where the barley is tricked into thinking it’s in the ground so that it starts to germinate. Once sprouted, the barley is moved into the distillery’s kiln. Throw in some open-air fermentation and a dunnage-style barrel house and you have an experience like no other. If you don’t make it to any other distillery in Denver, this was one of the most fascinating and impactful distillery tours that I’ve ever seen, and Leopold Bros Three Chamber Rye is one of the most spectacular sips I’ve ever had.
I was done. I had enough, but, like whiskey warriors, we forged on a tiny little place called Mythology. I recognized the packaging immediately, because it’s some of the best I’ve ever seen. The lounge itself is quaint and the whiskey, while mostly sourced, is fun – it’s going to be exciting to see the direction it winds up moving towards. Thankfully, the stay was brief because energy was dwindling.
We ended the day at Talnua, just outside of Denver in Arvada. When founders Meagan and Patrick Miller went to Ireland for their honeymoon, they fell so hard in love with pot still whiskey that they decided to start their own distillery upon their return. Talnua now makes traditional Irish single pot still whiskey with a 50/50 blend of unmalted and malted barley from Loveland, Colorado. Talnua’s approach is rooted in Gaelic tradition and incredibly rare to see outside of Ireland. The three-year-old Founder’s Reserve Single Barrel and the two-year-old Olde Saint’s Keep are both remarkable. I probably would have taken a nap at distillery number six, but it was reinvigorating to see how dedicated the Millers were to their craft of Irish-style whiskey.
I was done. I had enough, but, like whiskey warriors, we forged on…
Ultimately, the day did prove the concept. Colorado whiskey is special, and the fact that you’re able to visit so many distilleries in one city in one day is unheard of in America outside of Kentucky.
“After that day, I realized Colorado has a real voice on the American whiskey stage,” said Lucas. “How much fun did we have that day? We got to visit and taste whiskey from six different distilleries… and now, you can do that at our bar,” said Heath. When you walk into The Slammer, it feels different than any other bar you’ll ever visit. The back bar is an homage to Colorado whiskey first and American whiskey next. It’s like visiting your friend who’s far, far too into whiskey, but is more than happy to tell you all the stories you want to hear about any of the bottles they have. The Slammer is a whiskey lover’s paradise and it’s the strength of the Colorado whiskey industry that makes it special.
WHERE TO FIND:
The Slammer, 412 E Main Street, Buena Vista, CO 81211