The Deerhammer Distilling Company, situated in Buena Vista, Colorado, is one of our customers. They make some amazing producs. Lenny and Amy Eckstein are the driving powers behind Deerhammer Distillery. They decided to leave the rat race and to start living their dream. Time to dive in deeper? Yes, it is! Let’s find out more in an interview with Deerhammer’s Master Distiller Lenny Eckstein.
How did you get in touch with distilling, Lenny?
I had a mean homebrewing habit that went on for a good 10-15 years. Colorado is a big state for homebrewing and beer in general. While our state laws do not allow for home distilling, they are rather friendly to commercial distilleries. As micro-distilleries such as Stranahans, Downslope and Montanya started establishing themselves, I started to pay more attention to what was going on in both the micro-distilling world and beyond. My interest was more centered around the distilling processes, what they shared with beer production on the small scale, and what could be done differently that most typical spirit offerings on the liquor store shelves. During a winter spent recovering from bi-latteral knee surgery (jiujitsu training gone wrong), I decided to engage in some very small scale home-distilling experiments. Everything sort of spiraled out of control from there.
When did you decide to go pro?
Honestly, I don’t remember ever making a solid decision to take what was a hobby to a full blown profession. It was more of a slow culmination of events — complete burn out as a graphic designer, my wife and I wanting to relocate from the city to a small mountain town, and a huge desire to just make something real.
Lenny, could you tell some more on you and your wife’s background and hobbies?
My wife Amy and I are big into the outdoors and the town of Buena Vista, where we live, is very conducive for that sort of thing. We both spend our free time whitewater kayaking, mountain biking, skiing/snowboarding, etc. Lately, I’ve been skipping out of the distillery between mashes to go surf the standing waves on a 6’11” standup paddle board.
What kind of equipment does Deerhammer have?
I’m going to have to answer that in two parts. First part is what we started with and currently have in place and the second part would be what is showing up over the next few weeks.
1. We started our distillery on a tight shoe string. Our mashtun and two open fermenters are modified 300 gallon stainless steel process tanks. Water for mashing and cleaning is brought to mash temp with an on-demand water heater that gets up to 180f. Our whiskey still is a 140 direct fire copper potstill that was custom built for us — loosely in the manner of a traditional Scotch style still. Our gin still is sort of a frankenstein project. It’s a 55g stainless steel drum that’s been modified to accommodate a 2″ column, and heated with 5,500 watt electric elements.
2. After a year and a half of operation, we’ve made the decision to jump in a bit deeper. We’ve got a 600g potstill showing up on Monday to augment our current still. A 30bbl steam jacketed mashtun with agitator, three 700g single wall open fermenters, 600g hot liquor tank, and a malt silo will be in place in the next few weeks. All of this will hopefully allow us to supply all of Colorado and ideally beyond.
Did you build the fermentation and/or distillation equipment yourself?
The mashtun was build in-house. We chopped down a bit of height on one of our process tanks and built a slotted copper manifold for lautering our mashes. Also, the gin still was built in house along with some modular components from Still Dragon. There was also a lot of hands on work for other aspects of the distillery, such as installing the floor drain, building out the tasting room, and rigging low-cost solutions for moving liquid around, but I wasn’t all that inclined to build up a big copper still on my own.
Where you didn’t build equipment yourself, who helped you out?
Our current potstill was built by Colonel Willson in Arkansas – he’s builds traditional American moonshine style stills, along with a few other designs. Our new still comes from Trident Stills, and the other new tanks were fabricated in China.
What products do you currently make?
We currently offer Whitewater Whiskey (un-aged malt based whiskey), DownTime Single Malt (mature version of the whitewater aged in 30g new american white oak casks), Bullwheel Gin (a malt based distilled gin), and a summer wheat whiskey.
Could you give a characterization of your drinks?
Everything we make at Deerhammer is made with intention of being different than other offerings out there. The big guys in distilling make some amazing stuff. We try to make spirits that fit within their respective categories but challenge peoples notions of what that spirit might typically taste like. Our white whiskey has a strong chocolate/earthy/tobacco note. Downtime has a sweet coffee and toasted nut flavor to it, and our gin is somewhat of a hybrid between an American gin and a genever.
On the whitewater whiskey: an unaged whiskey … how difficult was it to be allowed to call it “whiskey”
In the U.S., it’s not terribly difficult to bring an unaged whiskey to market. Our laws stipulate that a whiskey must be distilled from grain, and in contact with an oak barrel for some amount of time. We employ a well-used barrel to let our whiskey rest in while we dilute it down to 90proof. The whitewater whiskey release is not being effected at all by the oak, and is for all purposes, unaged.
What are your plans for the future with Deerhammer? What new products do you plan to launch?
Growth is an interesting thing. We’re really small right now and need to grow a bit more. I’ve joked around with folks that we don’t want to grow too big that I don’t still hand number each bottle myself. We’ll see.
We’re working towards laying down more barrels of our malt whiskey to be released as Downtime. The new equipment that we’re bringing in is intended to allow this to happen. Additionally, with our new steam jacketed mashtun, we’ll be able to work more easily with other grains like rye, wheat, corn, etc. We’ll definitely be working on a non-traditional bourbon in the near future. It’s very important to us that EVERYTHING we produce is made from scratch at our distillery, so it’s been enjoyable to offer a malt based gin that stems from our whiskey. The gin is going to start hitting the shelves this fall.
Any distilling wisdom you can share with us? What is the most important thing you learned?
Wow. Big question. I don’t typically fancy myself as all that wise of an individual. A few things that I feel have worked out for us… The approach of trying to do things differently has been really well received. Making a good product is not enough. Locating in a region that is very receptive to craft spirits was huge for us. For a small distillery getting off the ground, having a tasting room that allows us to sell bottles and make cocktails has really helped out a lot. In our first year, we did 80% of our sales through the tasting room. Not making an overly large initial investment in the fanciest stills out there was pretty huge – great spirits can be made on some really ugly equipment.
Deerhammer also offers the opportunity to visit the distillery and have a drink, right? How do visitors like the experience?
I sort of touched on this a bit in the previous question I guess. Yes… Deerhammer is located along the main street of Buena Vista, Colorado, and we see a good bit of tourist traffic. We do give tours of our little distillery. We can also pour free 1/4oz samples of our products, sell cocktails with any spirits that we create, and sell bottles. Folks really seem to enjoy seeing how simply whiskey can be made, and more often than not they are going to see me carrying around grain bags or tasting runnings off the still as cuts are being decided.
Micro distilling seems to be booming. Do you meet up with colleagues?
Oh, for sure. Craft distilling around the U.S. is blowing up right now, and Colorado in particular is a hot bed for distilling. The U.S. market is very hungry for both locally produced and unique sprits. I’m really good friends with a number of distillers around the state/country. It’s an extremely fun and friendly industry. I love talking shop with everyone and sampling each other’s spirits. There are some amazing things happening in craft distilling right now and I feel extremely lucky to see it playing out with the distillers that I have good relations with.
Would you be willing to answer questions some of the followers of the iStill Blog have?
Sure, no problem. I will try to answer any questions.
Thanks, Lenny, for all the answers! Folks interested to learn more about the Deerhammer Distilling Company, please visit http://www.deerhammer.com