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If the light is just right in the Colorado Springs warehouse that hosts Distillery 291’s tasting room, distillery, bottling facility, and barrel room, you might be able to see the clouds—that is, the billowing shapes that are etched into the side of Michael Myers’ 45-gallon copper still. There are other images—a saguaro cactus, the California desert, jagged peaks—each more subtle than the last on the kettle’s rounded belly. And then there’s the spindly, iconic Chrysler Building depiction, which is hidden inside the still’s column.
The fading silhouettes trace Myers’ path from working as one of New York City’s most accomplished fashion and beauty photographers (he shot for Vanity Fair, Elle, and Allure) to his current vocation as founder of Distillery 291. When Myers began distilling in 2011, he had the still constructed using seven photogravure plates (copper sheets with negatives etched into the metal’s surface) he’d made for a show in Tribeca.
Myers first began making whiskey five years ago this month, on September 11. That date has special significance for Myers, as it conjures up the searing memory of walking his son to school five blocks from the World Trade Center. With his child on his shoulders, he watched the tragedy unfold. Myers and his family fled west to his then wife’s hometown of Monument, and Myers commuted back and forth to New York for about four years before moving to Colorado permanently. Along the way, he sought change and ultimately settled on distilling because the process reminds him of the dark room. “It’s chemical reactions, temperature, and time,” Myers says.
Despite not knowing anything about making booze, the first two recipes he came up with are still the basis for his whiskeys, bourbon, and whiskey liqueur. Each is finished on toasted aspen staves, a technique he developed as he was looking for something to define Distillery 291 as distinctly Colorado. The spirits have been so well received—winning top reviews in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible and medals (including gold and people’s choice at Still on the Hill in Breckenridge and bronze from the American Distilling Institute) in nearly every category Myers enters—he can’t keep up with demand.
Myers’ 45-gallon still has been joined by a new 300-gallon one (he currently produces about 12,000 bottles a year) constructed by a company that builds submarines for the U.S. Navy. The two stand side by side like potbellied comrades in front of an arched window. They’re connected by copper piping, and Myers still runs every batch through the original kettle—which means that every drop that lands in a Distillery 291 bottle has passed through the clouds and the Chrysler Building.