One of the primary things that draws people to barrel-aged spirits like whiskey is the fact that you can’t create a whiskey in the moment. A marketing agency can feasibly dream up and bring to market a wholly new rosé expression or unaged tequila in less than a year. An industrious entrepreneur with enough money and know-how can launch a brand new gin, complete with celebrity backer and social media marketing campaign in a matter of months.
But with aged spirits there’s simply no substitute for the passage of time. A 15-year-old whiskey reflects decisions made 15 years before it was bottled, and while many decisions were made along the way—blending, for instance, has a heavy influence on the final product—whiskey is by its nature not of-the-moment. In this sense, all whiskeys are managed experiments that evolve over time, each with an expected outcome but also subject to unexpected results.
This is especially true for most American single malts, and it’s one reason bottles like Stranahan’s 10-year-old Mountain Angel are so interesting right now. Here we have a whiskey distilled from 100% malted barley and local Rocky Mountain spring water in Denver, CO, where Stranahan’s was founded just 16 years ago. The relative youth of the distillery makes Mountain Angel the first 10-year-old single malt Stranahan’s has ever released as well as its oldest age-statement whiskey ever. In other words, we didn’t really know what a 10-year-old single malt from Denver was capable of, and now we know that it’s delicious.
Contrast that with the universe of Scotch whisky, wherein a consumer that wants to know what a 30-year-old Glenfiddich (or even a 50-year-old Glenfiddich) tastes like can drop some money and find out. So many American single malt producers haven’t even been making whiskey for 15 years yet, leaving so much room for exploration and so much for consumers to look forward to. All that is to say that sipping a dram of something like Mountain Angel isn’t just drinking but discovery, and releases like this give us both a moment to savor the present as well as a glimpse of what’s coming.
For Mountain Angel, Stranahan’s chose to deliver a pure expression of American single malt. “We lean pretty heavily on the cask finishing, and that’s traditionally how we’ve done R&D around here as well, using wine barrels or rum barrels and then blending things to achieve flavor profiles,” says Stranahan’s Head Distiller Owen Martin. But rather than maturing Mountain Angel in used bourbon barrels and/or finishing the liquid in another type of used cask, the Stranahan’s team chose to age the whiskey solely in new American white oak barrels, making it the first and only American single malt to spend a full decade in (and only in) new oak.
“It’s kind of a hallmark American whiskey,” Martin says of Mountain Angel’s construction— American barley, Rocky Mountain water, brewer’s yeast, and new American white oak. The resulting liquid isn’t as spicy on the nose as one might expect from one that’s spent a decade in new oak, but rather quite mellow and malty beneath a surprisingly bright whiff of fresh cut apples. The oak comes through more prominently on the palate, with a hit of vanilla and barrel spice up front mingling with maltier dark chocolate and caramel giving way to a peppery, oaky finish pleasantly tinged with spearmint. The longer it sits in the glass, the more the malt shines through, moderating the barrel spice and mellowing the whisky overall.
Mountain Angel is available in limited quantities (SRP: $130) and therefore for a limited time, but don’t expect the hits from Stranahan’s to stop anytime soon. Mountain Angel marks the first of what will be a new special release bottling every year going forward, Martin says. “I’m really happy with where the 10-year-old is at right now, and I think the next interesting step is going to be seeing where we want to take a 14-year-old or some of these others,” Martin says, referring to the range of aged whiskeys and cask experiments resting in Stranahan’s warehouse. “I think some cask finishing can come into play with that potentially.”
With U.S. regulations opening up to allow age statements to reflect the total time a whiskey has been in any barrel or barrels (rather than accounting for the time spent in its initial barrel only), American single malts have a lot more leeway to experiment, pioneer, and surprise consumers as the nascent category continues to evolve and mature. “We’ve just had a ton more options opened up to us,” Martin says, “and that’s been really good to see.”