Co-founders Rick H. Talley and Owen R.B. Locke have brought to market an award-winning rye whiskey that incorporates Colorado aspen wood during aging.
There’s a reason why Locke + Co. only sells whiskey. For one thing, both of the company’s founders, Talley and Locke, consider themselves devoted to that aged style of spirit: “We love rye whiskey,” says Talley.
The two met at Littleton High School — and, in addition to skiing and camping together, they brewed beer at Locke’s house with his parents’ permission. (There’s a bootlegging heritage in Locke’s family, the company proudly notes on its website.) Talley and Locke reconnected when they both attended the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. And they both worked at one time for Beam Suntory, doing tastings for the company — which honed their appreciation for whiskey. “That moved the needle from our interest in brewing beer to distilling,” says Talley.
But they also don’t make any vodka or gin, because they don’t own their own production distillery yet — which, otherwise, might have necessitated making those quicker-to-produce spirits in order to recoup the overhead costs associated with that type of venture. “That’s why those distilleries have to sell gin and vodka, right away — because they’re letting their whiskey age,” says Talley. “[You’ve got to] pay off those capital expenditures when you get a brick-and-mortar [business].”
There are capital raises in the works, which Talley hopes will eventually result in their very own, dedicated distillery building. But, for now, here’s what Tally and Locke have done: first off, they developed the core recipe for their rye whiskey over the course of six years, using Locke’s own still to hone their concept. To now produce it commercially, they purchase distillate (95 percent rye and 5 percent barley) from an Indiana ingredient provider, MGP, as well as four grades of charred barrels from The Barrel Mill in Minnesota. They age the distillate in 30-gallon new American oak barrels for two years at Private Label Distillery in Colorado Springs. Next, they blend the results together.
And then, here’s where it gets quite unique, quite innovative, and quite Colorado-inspired: The rye whiskey spends an additional eight months sitting in 400-gallon tanks with disks of charred aspen wood placed within the liquid, before the rye whiskey from those different containers is blended together once again.
While the oak barrels add “vanilla and caramel, some toffee notes to the whiskey,” Talley says the aspen wood imbues the spirit with “really unique light brown sugar notes, some wonderful cinnamon, as well as some earthier, grassy” flavors.
They’re transparent about their approach on their whiskey’s label, Talley says, noting how it’s “aged, blended, and bottled by us.” But for some people their production process might not sit well, since they’re not making the distillate themselves. Talley counters, “I think it’s a similar kind of concept if you’re someone who makes sweaters, for example: If you don’t make the yarn you use to make the sweater, do you make the sweater?”
So far, the reception for their nano-distillery business has been outsized. “We’re probably in about 375 accounts across the state of Colorado,” says Talley. Add to that some state stores in Wyoming. And another 175 accounts in the state of Connecticut. They’re eyeing brand expansion into Georgia, as well. Furthermore, Locke + Co.’s rye whiskey has earned gold this year at both the Denver International Spirits Competition and the San Francisco Spirits World Spirits Competition.
The aspen wood they use is sourced directly from property which belongs to Locke’s wife’s family off Weston Pass near Fairplay, Colorado, before it’s charred at Talley’s house in his driveway.
They’ve learned the whiskey interacts in a superior fashion with disks, rather than staves cut from the wood. “We had to learn to properly cure and season the aspen wood,” says Talley.
Here’s a key component of their whiskey’s origin story: that family property includes a summer cabin they’d visit, sitting nearby around a campfire fueled by aspen wood, and drinking homemade whiskey from mason jars. One of their a-ha! moments: taking a chunk of charred aspen wood out of the fire, placing it in a jar of whiskey, and letting it rest on a southern-facing windowsill until reopening the cabin the following spring. After trying the results of their experiment, they concluded, “We’re onto something here. This tastes pretty good!”
There’s a reason their brand is called “Locke + Co.” instead of “Locke & Co.” — which might imply strictly a business concern. While growing up, Talley recalls his parents saying, “We’re having company over for dinner.” Talley explains, “So, it’s Locke + Co. — as if, you’re welcome to our homes.”
He adds, “We just want to share our whiskey with as many people as we can, and help bring people [together] around the campfire, and add people to our experience.”
Challenges: “Continuing to get brand recognition,” says Talley. Since they have limited capital for marketing, it’s figuring out how “to get people to know the name Locke + Co. Aspen Aged Whiskey.”
Opportunities: Talley says, “Continuing to get good whiskey into good peoples’ glasses and to enjoy a good time with family and friends around the campfire — like how our company started.”
Needs: Being able to acquire their own production facility, so they can bring together their distilling and R&D all under one roof. The duo continues to experiment with other unique woods. Talley says they have great connections on the Western Slope, allowing them to start aging with “peach, apricot, cherry, pear, pecan, and walnut woods for some limited releases in the future.”