The Founders Series #3 - Lenny Eckstein, Deerhammer Distilling Co
Graphic designer and home-brewer, turns to craft-distilling and a business is born. His name is Lenny Eckstein, Co-Founder of Deerhammer Distilling Co., and he makes booze.
Kayaks are stacked and at-the-ready, a stand-up paddleboard juts from the bed of a small pick-up truck, and wetsuits hang from a makeshift line. A full-sized poodle with the demeanor of a lab prances around a chalk marked 10x10 dirt landing-pad, designating the spot where a new grain storage unit for the distillery will sit. This is the scene behind Deerhammer Distilling Company. “Those paddleboards are made just down the road. Badfish. Good guys.” And, so our day begins with Lenny Eckstein, co-founder and distiller at Deerhammer.
Lenny asks in a polite, almost humble, manner if we would like to check the place out. He rolls up the single garage door behind the distillery, revealing worn concrete floors and a dozen or so sacks of malted grain, specially blended for Deerhammer. We are anxious to see the traditional, direct-fire, copper pot still that Lenny has told us about. Then there it is, or wait no. Dead center of the room, suspended from the distillery’s low-slung steel girders is a heavy bag. A 100lb heavy bag.
Though it’s jiu jitsu that Lenny practices, (“It was either the heavy bag, or lining the distillery floor with mats,” he claims), it’s visions of Joe Louis, Mohammed Ali, and the Sugar Rays (Robinson and Leonard) that are conjured up. Masters of their craft —The Sweet Science.
At Deerhammer, distilling, like boxing, requires physical exertion, strategy, repetition, and the ability to read situations and react on the fly. “Distilling is an industrial production process. I love to pay attention to the science, like the molecular side of why copper pulls sulfides out of the distillate. I might not get the science of that completely,” Lenny confesses. “But that’s OK. I feel like I come more from the art side of it. I like to pay attention to the flavors, the aromas, the sounds. That’s how I distill. The end result, to me, that’s my creative work. It is also his passion. It shows in his eyes, attentive and thoughtful, and in the way he talks about his chosen craft. Like talking about that girl that any of us might one-day marry, with shy emotion and palpable inflection in his voice, catching himself just before putting himself too far out on the limb. “Distilling to me, be it from the mash to the ferment to the still, is creating something that I’m very proud of.” Lenny says.
For fifteen years prior to starting Deerhammer with his wife Amy, Lenny poured his creative energies into his work as a graphic designer – that, and brewing beer. Rising at 4:30am to get a batch of beer started before work and rushing home at the end of the day to tend to it became a familiar routine. Laid up one ski season with two surgically repaired knees, Lenny determined that while there was plenty of beer to be brewed that winter, he was curious about making whiskey. Whiskey, like beer, is made from grain. For beer to become a whiskey, it must be distilled. That simple. Well.
“I was just intrigued by the process. My first batch was disgusting, but I took that as a challenge. I’ve always liked sucking at things because you can only get better.” And Lenny started getting better. He began identifying and refining flavor profiles and the processes it would take to repeat them. To watch Lenny at work at the distillery, one can hardly imagine him at a desk, behind a computer for hours upon end. He is curious. He likes to work with his hands. Rarely will you find him sitting still. Over time, his responsibilities as a designer at his agency began to weigh on him. “At a certain point the burnout set in,” Lenny says. “I just found that the things that I was doing that were my hobbies, were what I was so much more passionate about than what I would go to work and do everyday. I started to look at what I really enjoyed. And at that time, I was really enjoying making whiskey.”
Lenny claims, “There was no overnight decision to open a distillery,” Amy counters, “It was just one day, OK, we are going to open a distillery.” So regardless of how, the decision had been made to open a distillery. There were no disagreements however, when it came to where they would open their business.”
Buena Vista, Colorado, or BV as the locals often refer to it, is a close community of about 2,500 people. That number swells considerably when the spring/summer rafting business on the Arkansas River is running at full tilt. In the winter Buena Vista, along with the neighboring town of Salida, serves as home base for skiers and snowboarders eschewing the front-range crowds for the seemingly ever-present powder and never-present lift lines at Monarch Mountain Ski Resort.
Situated just a few steep miles downhill from Leadville, arguably Colorado’s most historic mining community, Buena Vista is the gateway of the expansive Arkansas River Valley. Dating back to its mining heydays of the late 1800s, Buena Vista has been a place people come to do their thing. Drawn to the valley’s unyielding natural beauty and ubiquitous spirit of independence, life’s adventurers and explorers find this an acceptable place to put down roots. They are the types who greet what lies ahead a little bit further down the road than most.
While this may accurately describe Lenny today, it’s just as easy to imagine him stepping directly from the pages of Wallace Stegner’s hypnotically descriptive, Angle of Repose, much of which is set in Leadville, “His clock was set on pioneer time. He met trains that had not yet arrived, he waited on platforms that hadn’t yet been built, beside tracks that might never be laid. It seems only fitting that Lenny Eckstein is making whiskey today in Buena Vista, Colorado.
Like others before them, Lenny and his wife Amy, each ventured from their east coast roots, traveled far and wide, met, married and chose Buena Vista as the place they would settle down. “People move here for a reason. We love this place. We could have been anywhere. We lived in Golden (Colorado) prior to moving here and tossed around opening a distillery on the front range — for about a minute — but we realized pretty quickly that Buena Vista was the place we wanted to be. Yeah, it’s the spot, yeah.” Lenny says contentedly. In describing an average day, Lenny says, “I wake up in the morning. Ride my bike to work. Turn on the still. Take a walk to the coffee shop and say hello to everyone in town. In the summer when the river is flowing, I’ll get the hot water going to fill-up the mashtun, head down to the river, take the dog for a walk, go kayaking, paddle boarding. It’s fun. People dig it.”
The Deerhammer Distillery is located on Main Street smack in the middle of “downtown” Buena Vista. There is a comfortable small town feel here. A mix of mostly one and two story buildings line the 8 or-so blocks which constitute the core of Buena Vista’s town center. Deerhammer itself, is a non-descript building, short and constructed with brick. It was once home to the town’s sanitation department and a Curves gym for women. “We actually ended up buying it, which was not our original intention, but yeah we bought the building, it was pretty interesting,” Lenny says with a little laugh that indicates there’s likely much more to this story. “You have to have a building before you can apply for your distilled spirit plant license. So we had the building and we had no license. It was time to get to work. we started tearing up the carpet, painting the pink walls, cutting the floor out to put a drain in. It was an interesting time. Building out the tasting room, scavenging ebay for old tanks that we could turn into fermenters, and mashtuns, just trying to figure out the best way to put a distillery together on a shoestring.”
The Arkansas River is the heartbeat of the eponymously named Arkansas Valley. It gets its start in the Collegiate Peaks above Leadville and travels, steeply at-first, down through Buena Vista were begins to level out and continue its journey through the expansive Arkansas Valley on its way toward its ultimate meeting point with the Mississippi River. Across the Arkansas Valley, it’s evident that the river is the tie that binds, serving as the great connector for the inhabitants of the community. Ranchers and farmers depend on its waters for their livestock and crops. Rafting operations and fishing guide services live and die by the flux of the river’s waters.
Lenny, a long-since displaced native of Philadelphia, speaks with great reverence about the Arkansas River which had such a heavy hand in bringing he and Amy to Buena Vista, “It has a beautiful energy to it. It’s just an amazing stretch of river. I learned to kayak out here. I’ve traveled around a lot, and experienced rivers in others countries and in other parts of our country. I’ve never found one that was quite like this. I always wanted to come back here and thought this was a standard for what a river should be.” To truly begin to understand the deeper meanings of the Arkansas River however, one must walk along it, find that right spot, and stand in it. Feel its startling coolness and watch it move – racing, dipping, pausing to rest in slow, deep eddies along its banks. Hear its sounds, pounding or peaceful, depending on where you listen and at what time of year. “For me,” Lenny reflects, “the river has always been sort of an escape. When you’re on the river, you’re not behind a computer. It’s just this amazingly fluid experience than can last days, can last hours. You’re taking yourself out of your element. It’s just not anything else.”
Lenny’s strong hands and broad shoulders give him away as a maker of things. His work, like that of any artist or craftsman, is heavily influenced by the nature of his surroundings. He takes great pride in producing a whiskey with a flavor distinct to Buena Vista. “In spirit production, for whiskey, that’s part of it, to have some of the local aspect getting into the product. In the case of a Scottish whiskey, from the coast of Islay (EYE-lah) its going to taste briny, you will taste a lot of those notes. I definitely think we have a local flavor here, just from our surroundings. We are right at the base of the mountains and the foothills and all the trees and the cottonwood blows around and we leave our ceiling open and blow air in just to make sure we are getting that local flavor. I think it’s really important.”
At high altitude (BV elevation = 7,969 ft) water has a lower boiling point and temperature swings in town at the distillery can be extreme, dropping and rising 30, 40, even 50 degrees on any given day. The result is two-fold. Lenny can run his still a little cooler during distillation, which he describes will ultimately lend a different kind of smoothness to the whiskey, one that you wouldn’t necessarily find at sea-level. And during maturation, his whiskey moves more actively in and out of the charred-oak barrel walls due to the expanding and contracting of the wood, thus accelerating to a degree the aging process of the spirits within.
It becomes quite clear that Lenny’s scientific understanding of fermentation, distillation and atmospheric impact on spirit production, is much greater than he’ll admit. But, equally as clear is where his true passion lies in the process of manufacturing distilled spirits. To hear Lenny talk about his approach to the art of distilling, you come to know it as a full sensory experience, “Visually there are amazing things to look at. I love looking at the way a barrel is put together by a cooper [KOOP-er: a skilled craftsman who builds wooden staved casks, barrels, or buckets]. We get our barrels out of Minnesota. Every barrel is handmade. They have inconsistencies. Some are longer. Some are shorter. I love seeing that. And some are louder.
An empty barrel rolling inside the distillery’s steel-shipping container storage unit makes much more noise than the same rolling barrel when it’s full of booze and deadened by the weight of the liquid within. Listen close, and throughout the distillery you’ll be treated to a graffiti of sound – opening and closing of an aluminum garage door, stitched sacks of malted grain popping in rapid-fire as they are torn open, a skateboard mounted with a pump motor trucking across poured concrete floors, the subtle hiss of gas-fueled flame coming from underneath the traditional direct-fire still, hoses filling a mashtun with 250 gallons of water, quiet bursts – or chirps – of sugars breaking down during fermentation, cocktail shakers filling glasses in the tasting room, and powerful, heavy thuds from Lenny’s systematic working-over of the heavy bag. These are the sounds of distilling at Deerhammer. Oh, and music. Lenny likes to listen to music when he works. He claims that his maturing whiskies also enjoy it, as he situates a small sub-woofer next to the barrel racks so that the aging casks can receive a dose of bass-infused agitation. We’ll call it added local flavor.
Aroma is an essential element in making and drinking whiskey and Lenny seems to have a particular appreciation for this. “Yeah, the smells,” he says, as he takes in a deep, yogi-esque inhale through his nose, exhales, and continues, “Yeah, the smells of the barrel, the smells of crystal malt, the smells of fermentation. And the river – just walking by the river – it smells like the river.”
Where this all really comes together is in the taste — the sights, sounds, and smells – and this is where Lenny is most in charge. He asserts, “When I run the still, I make the determination on which cuts to take, I make the determination on what to put in the barrel, how long to let it sit in the barrel, when to pull it out, how to blend it, what to dilute it down to. These are all individual decisions that yield a product that I like, and yeah, I hope that everyone else likes it, too.” Lenny is the most meticulous judge of his own creations. Throughout the process of producing a barrel of Deerhammer whiskey, Lenny is constantly tasting and noting. He explains, “Yes, I taste it along the way. A lot of folks just go by aroma. You can put a nose in a glass, get a good sniff, but I’m sticking my finger in there getting a sample pretty consistently. For me, that’s the best way to make a product. Going through it. Tasting it. Seeing where it’s at.” And to this, Lenny says, “These are the things that keep me going.”
What keeps Amy going is how they will pay for the next order of barrels. For the first year and a half of Deerhammer being open, Amy kept her job as a full-time nurse, though it wasn’t long before she had pared down to part-time before ultimately taking the leap and joining Lenny full-time at Deerhammer. At that point, the Ecksteins were all-in.
“My thing is learning to build a business,” says Amy. “I knew so little when we started and I still have lots to learn. I’m running the tasting room, the staff, the sales, the finances. I am hopefully pointing us in the right direction.” Together, Lenny and Amy must be doing something right. They are selling everything they make and Amy is running Deerhammer’s very busy on-site tasting room. On a small chalkboard above the bar, she keeps a short menu of seasonal cocktails featuring fresh, local ingredients. For interested visitors, she provides informative samplings of her husband’s art – Down Time Single Malt Whiskey. Lightly aged Whitewater Whiskey. The just-bottled Wheat Whiskey. And, Bullwheel Gin, a hybrid recipe of Dutch Genever and New West style gins.
The tasting room is a welcoming space, warmly designed and simply furnished with about six dark wooden tables and an equal number of barstools. A set of two vintage looking lounge chairs, built from oak barrels, and an accompanying ottoman, sit together in a corner next to a working wood stove. Behind a tastefully weathered sliding barn door bearing Deerhammer’s distinctive logo, is where Lenny conducts all facets of distilled spirit production.
Amy Eckstein is fit and equally as determined as her husband. Her commitment to the operations at Deerhammer perfectly compliments Lenny’s dedication to turning out high-quality, artisanal spirits. But behind the sliding door for Amy is a fear of not knowing. Once they had purchased the building that would house their distillery, it was eight months of not knowing for Amy. Permitting, licensing, design, sourcing and build-out provided daily roadblocks and kept costs inching higher. And, being the first distilled spirits production facility to open in the Arkansas Valley presented its own set of challenges. [There are now three, with Woods High Mountain Distillery downriver in Salida, and Two Guns Distillery upriver in Leadville.]There’s still a tension in Amy’s voice when she talks about it, “For 8-months, every morning I woke up and thought, what the hell are we doing. By this point, everyone in town knew we were opening a distillery. All I could think about was, are we going to be able open? Are we going to let everyone down?” Deerhammer opened and they have not disappointed. The tasting room is a year-round gathering place for locals and tourists alike. And, the recent arrival of new 600-gallon still signifies the early success of the distillery and will expand Deerhammer’s production capacities three-fold.
“Knowing we can do this has been the greatest gift ever, but there was an important step along the way for me and that was gaining the confidence in it being ok to fail. That’s what truly frees you to just do it,” shares Amy. “I’m getting better at sitting back and taking a breath now and then. If you spend all your time reaching for the end goal, you will wish your life away.” As Lenny and Amy carve their chosen path together, they learn much along the way, about distilling, about running a business, about each other. They are partners in life and in business and they have each other’s back. They share many aspirations, yet they each carry their own unique set of worries. They are individuals, independent souls, attached to Buena Vista and Deerhammer in their own ways. We ask Amy if there is ever anything that she would like to say to Lenny, but holds back. Amy hesitantly shares, “I would sometimes like to say that it’s ok if it’s not perfect. What is perfect, really? Is that barrel truly not ready?” And, it makes perfect sense. Lenny is an artist. It is in his nature to find beauty in imperfection. He is almost wistful in describing the handmade barrels in which he ages his spirits. Their inconsistencies sure to lend a uniqueness to his own final product which he will bottle and share with the world, or at least Buena Vista. But to embrace the beauty and character of imperfection in his creative work would feel uncomfortable, at best.
Amy continues, “Lenny will never compromise on quality. I respect that. There are times I see him struggling, going to such extremes. That’s when I want so say it’s ok if it’s not perfect. But I bite my tongue, because I know this to be part of his process. I never want to suffocate that.” The thing about Deerhammer is they make booze. Whiskey mostly. And they enjoy it, Lenny in particular. “What I love most about my job is that I come to work everyday and it doesn’t feel like work,” he says matter-of-factly. Deerhammer may be Lenny and Amy’s personal story – their passions, their choices, their doubts and their successes. But remember, we’re talking whiskey and whiskey is best when shared.
Lenny looks around the tasting room. You get the sense that he is truly humbled by the support the Buenva Vista community has provided. “It’s so great to have people come in and be able to talk to them about the history of whiskey and why flavors go in a certain direction, why we make an old fashioned, why that’s relevant,” Lenny says. “It’s just fun chatting with people about whiskey. Telling them our story and hearing their story.” And therein lies what it is all about at Deerhammer – making stories, sharing whiskey, and living a fulfilled life. Lenny puts it quite clearly, “There’s never a bad day of making whiskey.”
S|I is honored to partner with talented filmmaker and photographer, Shaun Boyte, of Boyte Creative, for Episode #3 of the Founders Series. We are moved by the passion and authenticity that Shaun discovers in Lenny Eckstein. Through Shaun’s lens, we experience a realness that is Lenny, that is Deerhammer. Thank you, Shaun.
A special S|I nod of thanks to: