Leopold Bros Goes Old School In Quest To Make Better American Whiskey - The Whiskey Wash

Leopold Bros Goes Old School In Quest To Make Better American Whiskey

Leopold Brothers Distillery in Denver, Colorado, has an interesting history. The brothers Leopold, Todd and Scott, first started a brewery in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1999. In 2001 they added a pizza oven and started making spirits to attract additional business.

Scott Leopold, an environmental engineer, was instrumental to making the brewery as near as possible to a zero pollution facility. Todd Leopold, for his part, graduated from the Siebel Institute of Chicago and apprenticed at various breweries in Germany. He also went to distilling school in Lexington Kentucky. Things were going well until their landlord in Ann Arbor decided he wanted to cash in on the property by erecting a hotel on the site.

Having roots in Colorado, they relocated to Denver in 2008 and decided to focus on spirits distillation only. Today they have a state of the art, fully sustainable eco-distillery where they make an array of fine spirits and liqueurs. Located in the heart of an industrial part of north east Denver the facility, which I got to do a tour of, is amazing – especially because of its rather unique use of the old school tradition of a malting floor in its whiskey making operations.

Todd Leopold, this past September, pulled samples of the 2014 Maryland Rye whiskey a few weeks prior to bottling. (image via Leopold Bros.)

Todd Leopold, this past September, pulled samples of his distillery’s 2014 Maryland Rye whiskey a few weeks prior to bottling (image via Leopold Bros.)

Todd and Scott Leopold designed the building themselves and the attention to detail within it is evident. The tasting room is spacious and rustic, with a large reclaimed mahogany bar. The floors were made with planks from an Ohio sawmill and the high ceilings are finished with Oregon pine. The overall effect is stunning.

Their warehouse covers 3,000 square feet and the distillation floor is bright with lots of natural light from the many windows. Everything has been done with an eye toward the practical and the sun hits the stills in the afternoon to facilitate additional light for the cleaning of them. The warehouse is of a passive solar design. There is a giant fan hanging from the ceiling that helps control the temperature in the room all year.

Some of the Leopold Bros. distillery equipment. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Lisa Graziano)

Some of the Leopold Bros. distillery equipment (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Lisa Graziano)

The Leopold distillery uses open fermentation and Oregon pine for the fermentation tanks. There is a garden where they grow many of the herbs used in their popular gin and liqueurs just outside of the fermentation tank area. In the spring and summer the windows are opened so that wild yeasts from the garden can come in and inoculate the tanks. Genius! Pine fermentation tanks are used for flavor and easy cleaning – by comparison it takes a lot more water to clean stainless steel tanks usually found in distilleries and the aim at Leopold Brothers is to have a waste free facility.

The most unique feature of the place is the “operational” malting floor, which recently saw its first use. It is the largest hands on malting floor of its kind in a distillery in North America, and a rarity in general for such a facility, given that there are just a few to date of this style of malting floor in the U.S. and, despite a once rich history of this tradition, just a handful in Scotland as well.

The main reason to do malting by hand and in house, versus outsourcing it like so many others do, is to cultivate flavor. To malt a grain is to first steep it in water to trigger germination and thus develop the enzymes required to modify the grain’s starches into sugars. (Sugars being the main event for fermentation. The yeast eating the sugars and producing CO2 and alcohol.) Once germination has occurred the grain needs to be cooled down and dried to halt the process and prevent it from actually growing into plant form.

The malt floor at the Leopold Bros. distillery. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Lisa Graziano)

The malt floor at the Leopold Bros. distillery (image copyright The Whiskey Wash/Lisa Graziano)

This is where the malting floor comes in: the room is kept at about 55 to 58 degrees and the grain is put on the floor and shoveled about to dry and cool it. The grain will spend about three to four days on the malting floor before going into the malt kiln to fully dry and cure to a moisture level of about 3%. The kiln heats from about 190-220 degrees to cure the grain. And I can’t even tell you how good it smells in that kiln! The aromas of sweet grain and spice make you want to eat some. The result is a pale export malt authentic to the Scottish style of malting. Leopold uses two and six row barley that come from the San Luis Valley in Colorado and eventually hope to produce enough to sell their malted barley to local brewers and distillers as well.

The Leopold distillery employs nine people total, four of which are family members (Todd, Scott and their parents Bob and Joanne). Here is the current lineup of whiskey from this extraordinary family, all of which you can find at a range of retailers online as well as various whiskey shops around the country.

  • Small Batch American Whiskey – a sour mash whiskey made with corn and rye. Bottled at 86 proof it has flavors of vanilla and marzipan with hints of raspberry on the finish.
  • Maryland Rye – 60% rye, 20% corn and 20% barley this whiskey is aged over three years in barrel. It uses less rye than the original Pennsylvania style ryes and has more fruit and floral aspects as a result. It is a seasonal allocated item released on November 1st and exhibits aromas and flavors of white pepper, lavender and spice.
  • Rocky Mountain Peach Whiskey – small batch American whiskey is used as a base and smashed fruit is added and it is re-aged for an additional four to six months with the fruit. Great peach flavors with a kick.
  • New York Apple Whiskey – crisp apple flavors with caramel on the finish. Tastes like apple pie!
  • Michigan Cherry Whiskey – made with Montmorecy tart cherries. Great tart cherry flavors with hints of marzipan on the finish.
  • Georgia Peach Whiskey – flavors of fresh peaches with vanilla on the finish.
  • Rocky Mountain Blackberry Whiskey – fresh sweet blackberry and vanilla flavors.