It’s difficult to imagine hard-working construction workers setting aside their free time to partake in the trial-and-error art of distilling, but the founders of Branch and Barrel Distilling are far from average. Between the three of them, they have zero chemistry degrees, but they do have the most important component to distilling: Passion.
Ryan Morgan is a third-generation developer, Scott Freund is a master plumber and Tom Sielaff has been constructing apartment buildings for nearly 50 years. They met through their work in construction while working on a project in Boulder and shortly afterward, Sielaff proposed the idea of trying to distill bourbon.
He proposed the idea to Morgan (who ran a tea company on the side) and from there they purchased “how to make whiskey” books. Despite being novices, they read the books from cover to cover and then went to Freund with a plan for a still.
“We always wanted to have a very clean alcohol, so we started with a fractioning still, because it had a better chance to remove impurities,” Morgan says. “So we drew the schematics, and handed it to Scott and asked if he could make it. Three months later, we showed up and there’s a six-gallon water heater with copper piping welded to it.”
With a homemade still constructed, they purchased turkey fryers, grain, and other necessities and started experimenting in Sielaff’s backyard in 2012. Despite working through frigid temperatures and failed attempts, the hardworking construction workers were determined to produce alcohol. After finally succeeding, they needed a way to flavor their hooch, but couldn’t purchase barrels as they were technically bootlegging.
In true bootlegging fashion, they got creative and decided to try flavoring the spirit with the clippings from different tree branches including aspen, hickory, oak, apple and plumwood. Morgan admits that 95 percent of them were horrible. Some tasted like varnish and were undrinkable. However, the ones with apple, red oak and plumwood were palate pleasers.
“I would go to these parties and bring a mason jar with wood chips in it and put it on the table and just see what would happen,” Morgan says. “By the end of the party it would be gone, and people started asking us ‘what is this and where is it from?’ That gave us the courage that maybe there is a market for this.”
Named after the backyard bootlegging creations flavored with branches, Branch and Barrel has grown into a fully operational distillery – and yes, they are using barrels these days. The distillery outgrew its old water heater still, moved operations to Centennial in 2015 and has expanded throughout its building, adding a tasting room and acquiring more space to distill. From those backyard trials to now filling 20-25 barrels every two weeks, Morgan says their hobby/business progressed extremely quickly, and there were times when they felt they were in over their heads.
Just after moving into the Centennial location, the man they had hired to be their distiller quit on his first day because of a horrible allergic reaction from milling grain. While it clearly appeared to be a defeating blow to their start, it opened the door for their current distiller Rick Warren, an electrician who happened to be wiring the building when it happened.
“Rick was in there and he said, ‘I’ve been looking at what you guys have been doing and I’m trying to get out of being an electrician, would you consider hiring me to be your distiller?’” Morgan says. “We asked him if he had any experience and he said no. We told him neither do we, this is perfect.”
Morgan praises Warren for his work ethic and dedication to learning how to make bourbon as the master distiller. From the beginning, they always wanted to do things the right way and that is why they focused solely on bourbon and perfecting their recipe throughout the distillery’s first three years.
There are multiple components to producing quality products, but one big piece is the use of water from a well at Freund’s farm that taps into the Arapahoe Aquifer. Every week, trucks extract spring-quality water from the well and transport it to the distillery’s massive storage tanks. The nutrient-rich water contains microbes that make the yeast happy and in the words of Morgan, “Happy yeast is happy alcohol.”
Along with an obsession for quality, Branch and Barrel also embraces sustainability. Every piece of equipment is either repurposed, recycled or reused with modifications provided by Freund. One noticeable trait of its two current stills, named Rosa Linda and Delta, is that they are stainless steel vessels rather than copper. There is copper in the column heads of the customized stills, which has its benefits and is the distillery’s own secret.
Taking sustainability one step further, all the spent grain from the distillery is taken to Freund’s farm to feed the livestock, and then during butchering season, they sell meat from the farm out of the tasting room. Nothing like pairing your favorite whiskey cocktail with a juicy steak that was fed using the grain that made the whiskey.
“We plan on being here for a very long time,” Morgan says. “This is a generational company, and we just happen to be the first generation. If we can set up these practices now and work on our efficiencies and create that reputation in our product that garners a $60-$100 bottle price, our thought is that people will respect that and buy it.”
The distillery’s original motto is family, friends and freedom. “Family,” because they all view each other as such and they’re in it together. “Friends,” because they want to share these spirits with friends, and “freedom” to promote the freedom to experiment.
Just like the early days experimenting with various wood chips, Branch and Barrel is always open to trying new and creative methods. Among their lineup of spirits is the original Plumwood Bourbon, which is aged in stainless steel rather than oak and uses plumwood chips from local farmers.
Another one of the distillery’s whiskies is the 3-Way, aged in barrels that were used previously to hold cinnamon whiskey, vanilla extract and maple syrup. Each barrel is unique with some of the flavors being more prevalent than others depending on the barrel. While some people may steer away from flavored whiskies, these are simply aged in barrels that add flavor and aren’t flavored with additives. The result is amazing.
In contrast to its experimental creations, Branch and Barrel is focused on traditionalism and creating typical styles of whiskey. Roughly 90 percent of their volume is dedicated to the flagship bourbon, and it will be the defining product of their lineup going into the future.
“We want to be known as the Colorado distillery,” Morgan says. “I want people to travel to this state and know that they can only buy Branch and Barrel here, and hopefully they’ll buy a bottle before they go back home.”
While the founders of Branch and Barrel would be happy to see their whiskey on shelves outside of Colorado in the future, right now they are focused on building the brand within the state. Distilling success set aside, Morgan, Freund and Sielaff still work their day jobs in construction because they love what they do. They look forward to growing the distillery at a rate that will never compromise quality because Branch and Barrel is truly a passion project.
Jay McKinney grew up in Sedalia and graduated from the Metropolitan State University of Denver with a bachelor’s degree in communications. During his free time, he enjoys playing golf, shooting pool and hiking throughout Colorado and neighboring Utah.