Head Distiller: Owen Martin

As Stranahan’s head distiller, Owen Martin knows the importance of keeping it local.

Photo by Jeff Nelson

Colorado is America’s craft beer mecca, and from day one, Stranahan’s Whiskey Distillery & Cocktail Bar has been utilizing local Denver beer to distill its whiskey. With head distiller Owen Martin’s help, we delve into why Stranahan’s distillery is the home and wellspring of craft and innovation. Hint: A pivotal part of the distilling process is utilizing the Colorado’s finest resources: 100% malted barley, yeast, Rocky Mountain water, and the perfect amount of time in the barrel.

Are you a Colorado native?

“I’m from Kansas City, but I have a ton of family in the Denver metro and was out here every summer growing up. I certainly think Colorado is in Stranahan’s core DNA. I usually say that we take some cues from both the bourbon and Scotch worlds, but I truly think craft beer is our whiskey’s largest influence.”

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How did you get into distilling?

“I started out as a mechanical engineer, but quickly realized a desk job looking at power plant design wasn’t for me. Meanwhile, I’d been homebrewing since college and started mulling over an attempt to jump into that industry. This was just as craft beer was fully booming in the US, and every brewing school I looked into was 1-2 years waitlisted. I then stumbled upon Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, which offers a dual brewing/distilling master’s degree program, as opposed to the certificates offered in the US at the time. That’s when it all clicked, so I packed up my belongings and moved to Edinburgh. Living in one of the whiskey capitals of the world, it didn’t take long for me to turn my sights from brewing to distilling. In fact, my thesis itself was done in conjunction with a prominent single malt Scotch distillery and the Heriot-Watt engineering department. Within a month of graduating, I was leading bourbon and rye production in a craft distillery in the south.”

How did you end up at Stranahan’s?

“Single malt whiskey continued to be my passion though, and Stranahan’s was on my radar as one of the pioneers of the American style. An opening came up after a couple of years, and I’ve been here ever since—a little over five years in a variety of roles, with the last two years as Head Distiller. From grain to glass, Stranahan’s premium whiskey is distilled and bottled at its Colorado distillery, the state’s first legal distillery after Prohibition.”

How does Colorado inspire your work?

“I’d argue that Colorado not only inspires, but completely shapes the character of Stranahan’s. It is a pioneering American single malt made from 100% malted barley and Rocky Mountain spring water, aged in new American oak barrels. You’ll see Colorado’s influence in the local ingredients that we source, and our climate’s effect is of equal importance in my mind. The high altitude in Denver leads to a unique Angel’s Share loss—the amount of whiskey that evaporates out of the barrel. Due to the dry climate at this altitude, we lose a higher proportion of water from the barrels than elsewhere in the country. The result is a higher-proof product out of the cask, with a robust and complex flavor profile specific to Colorado.”

What are your job responsibilities?

“Officially, my job title puts me in charge of new product development at the distillery, as well as curating and blending our existing special releases. American single malt is the most refined expression of American whiskey and craft spirits. As the category leader, Stranahan’s is committed to building the category and innovating for the future. On a daily basis, I’m looking to source unique casks, such as mezcal or maple syrup for example, that I can refill with matured Stranahan’s single malt. I fill these myself and then patiently wait for the whiskey to take on some of the tasty characteristics of its previous contents. After this second maturation, I blend these specialty casks together for our annual Snowflake release or select them to shine as single barrels at our summer Cask Thief festival. I love the camaraderie amongst our production crew and amongst the Colorado distillers in general.”

What does a typical day look like?

“One of the aspects of my job that I love the most is that there is no typical day around here. Even though we’re a mid-sized distillery, it’s still very much an all-hands-on-deck operation. You might find me running some experimental batches on our pilot still, giving a technical tour to engineering students, unloading new barrels, or sweeping up before the weekend.”

What is your advice for someone who wants to become a distiller?

“Patience, patience, and more patience. Whiskey takes time, so as a distiller you have to be patient to enjoy the spoils of your work. By that I mean, most of the experiments and R&D casks I’m laying down won’t be bottled for over five years. Additionally, as an industry, distilling is very much an ‘earn it’ trade. You have to put in your time and work your way up the ladder into the fun stuff. My road to blending special releases has been paved with a great deal of mopping, sweeping, packaging, and working at 4 o’clock in the morning. More and more distilling certificate programs have popped up in the last few years however, so there are alternate routes into the industry emerging.”