It’s a gray-sky morning when I pull up to Distillery 291. Owner Michael Myers sees me from inside and ushers me into the quiet tasting room. As always, it’s immaculate, with a mouthwatering row of the house spirits and a gorgeous glassware set on display. The whole picture takes you back to the days before you could drink, when you stole glances at grown-up bar sets and wondered what this world was really all about.
Myers and I talk at the bar, the smell of the air thick and bready with the fermenting goodness behind the half-wall that separates the tasting room from the distillery.
The operation is Myers’ later-in-life endeavor, after decades working in New York City as a photographer for the likes of Vanity Fair, GQ and Esquire. The name 291 is reference to famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s Manhattan gallery. After witnessing the events of 9/11 firsthand, Myers realized he wanted to do something different—and do it somewhere else. That something still had to be creative and hands-on. With a childhood spent in part at his family’s gentleman’s farm in Tennessee between Jack Daniels and George Dickel, whiskey was just the thing.
Myers moved to Colorado in 2004 and set up shop on Sept. 11, 2011. By 2012, he was already garnering covetable reviews from the top authorities in spirits, like Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, which gave the young outfit a “Liquid Gold” rating.
So stands 291 at the start of 2017, perched between new and old, in all the best ways. In five short years, Myers has gone from rookie distiller in the commercial basement next door, to one of the most distinguished and awarded distilleries in the state of Colorado.
“It’s taken my life experiences up until now to have the vision for the whiskey of Distillery 291,” Myers says. “Creative expression has always been important to me. From being a fashion photographer to cooking, I’ve always needed an outlet. Today, I use whiskey as a way to get my art out, and I feel lucky that I get to share my vision”
Myers’ passion is obvious, and infectious. Distillery 291, in fact, will be featured in the upcoming Whiskey Film, which will illustrate the tradition and process of making spirits through the people behind it (see “Big-Screen Whiskey,” page 48).
“Michael Myers from 291, in our earliest days of research, has one of the most impactful and artful stories for why he makes whiskey,” says director Thomas Kolicko. “And his whiskey speaks for itself once you try it. It’s an experience. You can always tell a product apart that someone has put their blood, sweat and tears into creating. And for The Whiskey Film, those are the types of characters that we are seeking to feature. Those who are deeply intentional, who look toward the history of whiskey for tradition but want to define this spirit through their own take on the process.”
These days, Myers is looking big picture, with head distiller Eric Jett working most of the day-to-day production. In March, distribution spread to California, the third state, beginning in Malibu with L.A. up next. Myers also has plans for international markets in the Far East, where Americana is popular.
Of course, Myers is still very hands-on, and we soon move on to the distillery, where he shows me a new 1,500-gallon corn cooker and two Louisiana cypress tanks, which will allow for 291 to double, or even triple, its output this year. Nearby, 1,000 filled bottles await volunteers, who will label and cage them for distribution.
We pick through hoses, drains and pallets of raw materials, the working end of any distillery, but I’m still surprised to find that even here, 291 is tastefully appointed. Backed by barrels, there’s a large, lush velvet sofa faced by a set of chic wingback chairs.
It’s astounding to remember that Myers was working with his basement-sized equipment just two and half years ago when he moved into this former Bristol Brewing Company space on South Tejon Street. As if that weren’t enough, he had never even home-brewed before starting 291. Instead he drew from his knowledge in the dark room and his love of cooking to guide him.
“I think those two things combined are what helped me as a distiller. So that was my home-brewing experience,” Myers says with a chuckle. “I mean, that’s the only thing I can think of.”
Not bad, given that his limited-edition, four-grain wheated Bad Guy Bourbon—an especially silky sip with a dynamic kick—was the third recipe he ever created.
For now, Myers says he’s keeping his product line as is. Aside from his experimental label, and a few specials here and there, 291’s flagships include traditional whiskey, bourbon, The Decc clove liqueur and unaged whiskeys. That said, he’s collaborating with Triple S Brewing on a malt barley whiskey. It may be ready by August; it may need another year altogether.
“It’ll be our first Scotch-style whiskey, and so far it tastes pretty good,” Myers says.
More important than what changes though, is what stays the same. There’s no better symbol of that than Myers’ original 45-gallon copper still, made from photogravures (essentially, copper plates used to print photo reproductions). Evidence of its former life is still visible along the body of the keg, including images of mountains and the Chrysler Building. But it isn’t just for show. Today it serves as a thump keg, the last still of the process.
“All my whiskey runs through my original still,” Myers says.
While the 291 operation grows by leaps and bounds, Myers has no intention of leaving Ivywild, especially as the neighborhood’s future galvanizes with redevelopment.
“I love the support Colorado Springs gives us,” Myers says. “It’s amazing how much of my whiskey sells in Colorado Springs.”
If that means more competition, all the better. He’s happy to support and drink the efforts of fellow distillers. Myers and the staff sample from up-and-comers, award winners and others recommended to him. (For the record, he started on Jack Daniels and Crown Royal back in college). Though I have to know, if Myers isn’t sipping his own, what does he like to drink?
“If I can drink Thomas Handy, I’ll drink Thomas Handy,” he says. “Or I take my bottle with me.”
Michael Myers and Distillery 291 are featured in Thomas Kolicko’s upcoming The Whiskey Film. Read about it in “Big-Screen Whiskey,” and watch the trailer and sizzle reel.
Spirits of the Springs
The craft spirits wave is sweeping Colorado Springs. Read about other craft distilleries in the region in “Spirits of the Springs.”