While Colorado’s craft beer scene certainly gets plenty of attention (especially with GABF drawing near), the swift rise of local spirits crowding liquor store shelves indicates that the Centennial State’s distilleries are also flourishing. Feisty Spirits Distillery‘s co-founder and head distiller David Monahan has definitely noticed the uptick—after all, his craft distillery was the first in Fort Collins when it opened in 2012. Now, he says, there are at least two others, and three in the process of opening. But Monahan’s unique pedigree—he was born in Appalachia, “home of the whiskey rebellion,” and holds a doctorate in engineering—means that he doesn’t have to try too hard to set his black-magic-meets-straight-science approach to distilling apart from the pack. We caught up with the mad scientist on his unique grain-to-glass tipples and how he’s pushing the boundaries on the very definition of what bourbon can—and should—be.

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5280: People pay a premium for long-aged bourbons and whiskeys. As a relatively young distillery, how do you approach the assumption that older whiskies are better?

Some people have always thought older is better, and in some cases, I agree. I was just in Scotland and I bought a 20-year-old Scotch. Some grains and flavors you need to age, and Scotch is aging in a colder environment, so it takes longer. But with rye, you don’t really want older. You lose some of those grain characteristics. The interesting thing about whiskey is that, more than in other spirits, you can really represent the essence of a grain. That’s why the source and growing style for the grain makes the biggest difference in whiskey—even more so than bread or anything, because you’re distilling the essence of those grains out. It all depends on the whiskey, but we respect the grain and create a balance between the flavors of the barrel and the flavors of the grain. In older whiskeys, 70 to 80 percent of the flavor is from the barrel, not the grain. We spend a lot of time educating people on this. They’ll say, “it tastes like too much grain,” and some people do want that 20- to 30-year Pappy flavor. People are just so used to tasting the barrel in whiskey, but we can still give you a smooth product.

We’re looking for a balancing effect, and always experimenting with more grains. As craft distillers, we have to find our roles. For us, that’s “how do we take a great whiskey and make it unique?” So we look to farmers in Weld County growing millet and things like that. We’ve got a quinoa whiskey, and by the year’s end we should have a bourbon out with red corn, triticale, and oat. The red corn contributes a caramel-corn flavor, and the oats give it a really soft mouthfeel. And as long as bourbon is 51 percent corn, it still maintains the legal definition of a bourbon.

Bonus: Alright, back to beer. Feisty Spirits has been partnering with Fort Collins breweries like Black Bottle Brewery, 1933 Brewing Company, and New Belgium Brewing Company to create special-release bottles of distilled beer. The process of distilling beer results in a 120-proof beverage that showcases the brew’s flavors in a super-concentrated format. Seek out the special releases at the Feisty Spirits Taproom in Fort Collins (1708 E. Lincoln Ave., Fort Collins, 970-444-2386).

Callie Sumlin
Callie Sumlin
Callie Sumlin is a writer living in Westminster, and has been covering food and sustainability in the Centennial State for more than five years.