I love the whiskey scene in Denver (and the city of Denver in general). It’s feels very much like my home in Austin, but just… you know… minus 100-degree summers and with more snow. But the distilleries there tend to be younger and more creative, just like Austin, and Molly Brown is one of those such brands. Despite being hit hard by the pandemic, it looks like this brand (like its namesake) might just be unsinkable.
Justin Lee is the kind of guy that likes to do things himself. So when he started drinking bourbon, he decided to put his chemical engineering education (he’s got a doctorate in that, by the way) to work and make his own version. After a while, he realized that some of the stuff he was tinkering with in his basement still were already more advanced than processes that commercial distilleries were using and figured that it was time to strike out on his own, mixing his engineering background and love of bourbon to create something unique.
This isn’t Lee’s first rodeo when it comes to commercial distilling, either. He originally quit his job in 2011 to start J&L Distilling, another distillery with a different partner that didn’t quite work out. He parted ways with that brand and in 2015 launched Molly Brown Spirits together with partner Stephen DeGruccuo.
The pair chose the name of the famous survivor of the Titanic disaster because they wanted their spirit to have the same bold and unsinkable character as that famous Denver resident.
Construction on the new facility started in 2017, with the first barrels of whiskey rolling into the rickhouse in April of 2019. They had been targeting an April 2020 date to start selling bottles, specifically focusing on restaurants and bars as prime customers who would buy their spirits — but the COVID-19 pandemic quickly changed those plans as their facility and their intended customer base was forced to close to the public. Thankfully, they have been able to survive the pandemic so far, pivoting to attending whiskey festivals and getting their name out in the public to drive individual sales of bottles of their whiskey.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
This whiskey is marketed as a true “grain to glass” bourbon, with all of the raw materials sourced from Root Shoot Malting in Loveland, Colorado. For their standard bourbon, Molly Brown uses a mixture of 75% corn, 18% rye, and 7% malted barley. Those grains are milled on-site in their Denver facility before being cooked and fermented in a closed fermentation tank (to ensure only their intended strain of yeast, and no unwanted bacteria, contribute to the flavor profile).
The folks at Molly Brown make a point to highlight that they choose to distill their spirits “on the grain”. This is unlike the Scottish tradition, in which distillers will typically separate the solid plant matter from the liquid once the fermentation process is complete. This means they are only distilling the liquid components, leading to a lighter and cleaner raw whiskey. Leaving cooked grain plant matter in the mixture during distillation can cause it to cook. Done right, this makes for Maillard reactions that can create some amazing flavors. But done wrong, it can scorch and burn leading to an unpleasant taste.
Distilling “on the grain” is actually a pretty common practice in the United States, though, especially for the bold and beautiful bourbons.
For Molly Brown, they use a two step distillation process. First, they start with a 6,000 gallon steam heated hybrid pot still in which they batch distill their fermented mash into a low proof whiskey. From there, they run that product through a pair of twenty foot column stills to produce their new make whiskey. All of the equipment at the facility, including these stills, are handmade from their own designs.
As a bourbon, the whiskey comes off the still at no more than 160 proof (80% ABV). Unlike some other bourbons where there really aren’t any “cuts” being made (discarding the solvent-y “heads” and the sometimes unpleasant plastic-y “tails”), Molly Brown takes the “hearts” cut of their distillation run and then stores it in new 53 gallon charred oak barrels, adding some water to reduce the strength to 125 proof before entering the barrel.
Those barrels then sit on-site at their Denver based distillery for a full 12 months before the spirit is proofed down to bottling strength with Rocky Mountain water.
This is legitimately great.
I love the square construction of the bottles here. It’s a simple design, but I think with the style and the branding they’re striving for (that 1920’s prohibition era art deco feel), it really hits the mark well, without feeling too forced or over-engineered. I think I’ve seen this bottle design before, so it’s probably a mass produced design that they slapped a unique label on, but it’s still a smart choice that fits with their brand.
Speaking of fitting with their brand, the simple yet classy cummerbund of a label is exactly what this bottle needed. It conveys just the right level of information without overloading the reader, it’s just large enough to be noticeable without obscuring the deliciously dark spirit inside, and overall it makes this bottle look like all it is missing is the top hat for a night out in a tux. I especially like that there’s just a little bit of texture on the label, making it visually and tactilely appealing.
There are other companies that have done a prohibition-era style bottle before, but this is a great, well-executed example of it.
You’ve got a very dark liquid in this glass — almost as dark as a pot of black coffee. (But probably closer to an Earl Grey you left to steep overnight.) There’s just a faint hint of orange amber in there but otherwise it’s straight up brown.
Taking a sniff, the aroma is surprisingly not as overpowering as I expected. It’s got some good saturation in the notes, but it’s not jumping out of the glass to assault your nose. Instead, what you get is some mellow dark chocolate, toffee, caramel, and some bitter coffee notes in there along with some tobacco and raw corn. All relatively chill aromas that blend together into the rough equivalent of a comfortable old musky leather chair.
At first sip, things are pretty similar to the aromas: there’s the dark chocolate and the coffee up front, laying the ground work, supported by some caramel sweetness and a touch of vanilla that we didn’t see at first. But as the flavors develop, there are some additional items in there that start to pop out. Specifically, near the finish you start to get some fruits — cherry, orange, a little hint of lemon — which is probably the rye content starting to kick in. And then at the end, there’s finally the black pepper spice that you usually see with some added rye that gives this spirit just a little bit of a kick.
This is on the darker and richer side of the bourbon spectrum, so you’d normally except a bit of added ice to have a minimal impact on the flavor profile. But in fact, the changes here are pretty dramatic.
I’d almost call this an old fashioned in a glass now. The addition of a bit of ice has taken all of the bite out of the coffee and dark chocolate flavors, leaving behind just a pleasant chocolate note amongst some cherry and orange flavors swirling in the background. There’s significantly less from the supporting cast to be sure — the vanilla and other notes are turned way down, just barely making a peep from behind that large chocolate flavor. But there’s an herbal aspect that I’d usually only expect once the bitters are added that’s already here, and that keeps it interesting and complex.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Even before added bitters, this tasted like an old fashioned just on ice. But adding the bitters to the mix still makes a big difference.
I like bold and dark bourbons for my old fashioned cocktails. I find that the flavor profiles just mesh very well, with the bitters adding some much needed levity to an otherwise dour drink. In this case, there’s already some complexity and interesting flavors there, but the bitters really highlight the fruitier aspects. It’s very close to a mid-century version of an old fashioned — pretty much just a bucket of muddled fruit with some bourbon splashed in. I get the orange, some lime, and that little bit of zest from the bitters takes the place of the citric acid to really sell the illusion.
It’s interesting, complex, and fruity without going over the top.
What I’m looking for in a bourbon-based mule is something unique that you wouldn’t see with a standard vodka-based mule — specifically, a nice interaction with the flavors in the ginger beer and an interesting texture or flourish near the finish.
I think you get the interesting interaction right up front, but it might be a little… off. The richer and darker flavors definitely keep their composure and shine through, holding up well against the sometimes overpowering ginger beer… but the combination isn’t exactly the most delicious thing I’ve ever had. The chocolate and coffee flavors are coming through too clearly and that just sets things down a strange road for me.
As for the interaction on the finish, I don’t actually think I can see the black pepper spice from the rye content here. It seems to be covered up by the ginger beer and unable to make an appearance, which is unfortunate.
There is some truly great stuff going on here. The deep and rich flavors are something I love seeing in a bourbon, and it absolutely makes for interesting cocktails. The problem for me is that those cocktails are just a bit hit-or-miss. The bold flavors are rather picky about who they play nicely with, and the results can be unpredictable.
It’s something you need to be in the mood for. This probably isn’t something you would sip on the back porch all day long, but it might be a perfect after-dinner sip. There’s enough flavor here to power through even a chicken vindaloo and still deliver a great experience.
|Molly Brown Spirits Bourbon Whiskey|
Produced By: Molly Brown SpiritsProduction Location: Colorado, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: 1.6 Years
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $54.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
Dark, with chocolate and coffee flavors. Might not be for the faint of heart or palate, but delicious in its own right.