Buena Vista, Colorado
Before his distilling days, Lenny was a graphic designer who'd tired of designing things day in and day out on computers. "I used homebrewing as the outlet for actual creation. I would brew beer obsessively," he remembers.
That obsession expanded into distilling after he started tasting whiskeys. "I learned how to dissect the layers and the complexities and I had to make it," Lenny says. "I'd brew 10 gallons of beer and five gallons would be beer for me and my friends and five gallons would get distilled. I would taste it off the still and try to understand the whiskey-making process. That became my whiskey obsession."
That was in 2008. "We're almost four years into it now," says Lenny. "2010 is kind of when we started, but it took a couple of years before we started making any whiskey."
He's worked with his wife, Amy, since day one. "I make the booze and Amy keeps me from ruining the company," he quips.
Deerhammer now makes Downtime single-malt whiskey, Whitewater silver whiskey, and Bullwheel gin. "We're making whiskey from scratch, the way whiskey is meant to be made," says Lenny. "The consumer who's buying whiskey, I think they expect that."
The Ecksteins self-funded the distillery from the start and built a pot still on their own. "Our original system was comprised of goofball dairy tanks of all shapes and sizes and some weird fermenters. We were making 30 to 60 gallons of whiskey a month with a lot of my full-time work," Lenny explains. "It might have been one of the most low-budget distillery endeavors that have ever happened, but you can still make whiskey that way."
That meant a lot of elbow grease was involved. "I was carrying one 55-pound bag of malt barley at a time for 1,200 pounds for each batch," Lenny says. "Making three batches a week was getting a bit ridiculous."
The Ecksteins were able to work with a local bank to fund an expansion. "Fortunately we had already established ourselves and had many barrels down," Lenny explains. "As such, it wasn't that much of a risk when we approached them."
The original equipment is still in place -- including a pump mounted to a skateboard, according to Lenny. "But we brought in malt silos. We can buy our malted barley in bulk, we have a whole malt auguring system that augurs the grain," he says.
Downtime, Deerhammer's flagship, is a single-malt whiskey using malted barley. While Colorado produces plenty of barley, it doesn't produce much malted barley. As such, the company sources its malted barley from Minnesota at this point, according to Lenny.
Otherwise, all the grain they use is from right over the hill in the San Luis Valley. "We usually have it the day after ordering it," Lenny says.
The distillery is now producing about 500 cases annually, Amy says. "We'd like to be at about 1,500 cases in a few years."
The larger capacity and new equipment also allows them to take on more craft. "If a brewery comes to us with a project, which usually means a beer went awry, we're down to see what happens," Lenny says. They've collaborated with nearby breweries including Eddyline and Elevation on one-off whiskeys, for instance, and the company's also branched into other small-batch spirits, often with an experimental bent.
"We cobbled together a Frankenstein gin still and started experimenting with making a malt whiskey-based gin," Lenny says. The distillery now produces one to two batches of Bullwheel gin a week.
Growth has been rapid recently at Deerhammer. "We were distributing 12 cases a month through the entire state until a few months ago," says Lenny. "We're close to 50 cases a month now and we'll soon double that."
Challenges: Forecasting demand. "We have a product we make then we put in barrels and wait for it for about three years," Lenny says.
Opportunities: "The craft spirits movement is growing," says Lenny. "We're trying to build awareness and show what craft whiskey is all about. Craft distilleries are taking a different approach and showing a different flavor profile. It's certainly not a negative challenge. It's a good challenge. We're about big flavor and authenticity."
Needs: "More cash," says Amy. "We've got about 60 percent of capacity with our distillery. If we had more cash we could perhaps do several new projects, perhaps bring a different style of whiskey to market, but it's very calculated as to how we do that."