Distiller’s Perspective: Laws Whiskey and the Farm-to-Bottle Connection

Founded in 2011, Laws Whiskey House in Denver has built its award-winning bourbons and ryes on Colorado-grown heirloom grains. Here, in the first of two articles—the next from the farmer’s perspective—founder Al Laws discusses how these crops shape the character of their “dirt-to-glass” spirits. As told to Ryan Pachmayer.

Al Laws Jan 30, 2024 - 10 min read

Distiller’s Perspective: Laws Whiskey and the Farm-to-Bottle Connection Primary Image

Photo courtesy Laws Whiskey House

I’d been trying to use locally grown grain from the beginning, but almost no one would sell to us. There weren’t a bunch of places set up to supply small distilleries, and big corn producers didn’t want to drive their trucks into Denver.

We ran out of a particular grain one day, and I went down to the homebrew store to buy a couple of bags of it. They had this stuff from Colorado Malting in Alamosa, Colorado. They told me it was a local producer, and I said, “I gotta try this.” It took only 25 pounds in a 900-pound recipe, but it changed everything.

We’re able to get rye, wheat, and barley—all heirloom varieties, and all directly from the farm. Anything that needs to be malted, they are able to malt there because they started a malting company a few years before. So, it just worked out great because there’s nothing like the flavors from these grains. These varieties aren’t grown for yield; they’re grown for flavor.

When you layer varietals, where it’s grown, the dirt it’s in, and the flavor it pulls, everything is tied together. And then the freshness of the malts—they’re literally made a week before we get them. The grain isn’t sitting in a silo for two or three years. It doesn’t mean the grain is bad after that, but to get it fresh, to make this value-added farming product called whiskey, it’s a pretty good thing. We’re all about it.


On the Sense of Place

We use only heirloom grains. We don’t use anything else.

Our San Luis Valley Straight Rye uses a varietal grown only in that valley in Colorado. It’s been adapted over 70-some years, and you’re in an ancient seabed in the valley with very high salinity. It’s pretty sandy, so the water rips through, and the plants have to struggle to do well. It produces a really impeccable seed with high density, and the flavors that it pulls from the ground are very distinctive.

When they’re sipping on our rye whiskey, our farmers tell us that’s what the dusty air tastes like when they’re harvesting the grain. It has that kind of cortical reaction for them. It’s the most distinctive grain. It tastes like where it comes from.

There’s a lower yield from the heirloom grains, and they’re more expensive. We pay more for corn than the top-end price for commodity corn. It gives the farmers a base of income; you could compare it to fair-trade coffee where these farmers have to exist. If they don’t exist, a key part of what makes our whiskey different goes away. Nobody is going to grow these grains the same way.

The main thing is to support the farmers, know where your ingredients come from, know all the aspects and the pieces that are used to put together a bottle of whiskey. We know all the folks who make ours. We go see where our glass gets made. In most modern production, no one knows where anything comes from. So, it’s pretty nice to know—here’s the field, here’s the dirt that these grasses and grains are grown in. They get harvested, they come to us, and we can take our whiskey and the flavors right back to a place. That matters.


On Experimentation

Most of the changes we see are from the malting process, but it’s up to the farm on what they’re going to grow, what’s going to work best for them. They may ask us, “If there’s something new, would we buy it?” And we’ll buy it. It helps them prepare and forecast. Not just us, but our peers, too—let’s try it and see what comes out of it.

We made some blue-corn bourbon last year, and it’s a different flavor profile to us. We have 10, 15 barrels of it. Once they hit four or five years old, we’ll know something more about it.

On Using Rye

Half of the rye is malted rye, so Colorado Malting is malting it there in Alamosa. It took them a little while to master. Rye malt doesn’t have a lot of conversion capacity. Rye is often able to convert below twice its weight, whereas barley is like five times its weight, so it makes it very tough to be an efficient converter of starch to sugar. Since they figured out the techniques, we haven’t had to make it with barley for the past seven years.

We use some enzymes to make the rye, but they’re for the process. We use betas to get rid of the gooeyness in the raw rye. It doesn’t give us any more yield; it just keeps us from having to clean up a bunch of rye that comes out of the fermentor and gets on the floor.

On Year-to-Year Crop Differences

When it comes to single-grain whiskies, we’re interested in the variation among vintages. We’re looking for what happens each year, the terroir of it. We recently released a new whiskey in our Origins Series called Cornerstone, and it’s a vertical marriage of our rye that we produce, up to 10 years old. It’s very difficult to blend that because of the yearly differences in the grain.


Our recipes tend to add the grains where they’re going to maximize their flavor. Sometimes the flavors are so strong that you have to kind of denature them a little bit. With the rye, mixed with the corn, we take that up to a higher temperature now, whereas before we got it in the 140–150°F (60–66°C) range, and it would just take over the whole flavor profile. When we take it higher, the flavor is still there, but it doesn’t make a four-grain whiskey taste like just rye.

We’ve mixed some of the recipes up over the past couple of years. We don’t know what it’s going to taste like yet. It’s not something you wholesale change; you just sort of slowly make tweaks along the way. We have about 6,000 barrels, so we have more flexibility than we had in the past. It lets us take things further. We have a number of experiments.

The wheat we get is grown in only one field, so it has a very distinctive soil condition, but it changes year to year as well. We’re using white wheat, not red wheat, and it’s a soft wheat grown in the spring, and it has bigger kernels. It reacts more like a rye in the fermentor—it’s a little gooier, and the yeast gets stressed a little bit more and gives off different esters. Along with the rye, the year-to-year differences are most obvious in the wheat.

On Climate Change

You have to think about the impact of climate change. The last time I was out at the corn farm, at the end of July, it was about 104°F (40°C). And we were eating dust the whole time, and this is what the future is. That rolls into how the trees grow. When the oak trees grow, the barrels are going to be impacted, and I think the whiskey will taste different. I don’t know exactly what to do about it at this point; it’s just going to be a factor in the years to come.

The Flavors of Our Heirloom Grains

The foundation of Law’s Whiskey is, and will continue to be, our four American “mother grains”: wheat, rye, barley, and corn.


The wheat gives you an amazing orange—it’s like when you think of a wheat beer with a slice of orange. All the flavors that come with the wheat, such as the cardamom, are very distinctive on the orange side. It’s really an amazing part of our bourbon.


The peppery notes in the rye are more vegetative, like a serrano pepper. It radiates, and that radiant heat brings out some of the anise in there. It’s really floral, it’s salty, all of these things that are in the rye to begin with—the heat pattern on it just accentuates them. After four or five years in a barrel, it tastes like salted caramel.


The barley is super-nutty. In a whiskey, it’s like peanut brittle, or like Spanish peanut skins. It comes through even though it’s only 10 percent of our bourbon recipe. Barley is typically only there for conversion, but ours presents a pretty distinct flavor profile—it’s not just helping convert the corn. There’s a maltiness to our Four Grain Straight Bourbon because we’re not trying to make a Kentucky bourbon—they already make that. We’re trying to make something different, and ours tends to be less sweet, drier in its finish, and a lot more of the flavor-grain combinations that are pretty unique for a four-grain.


In bourbon, the variations will be mellowed by the corn. Then the corn changes a bit every year. We’re getting the corn from Burlington, Colorado, from Whiskey Sisters. That’s a larger farm that treats the corn really well. They triple-clean it for distilleries; it’s fantastic. It’s way better than commodity-grade corn. It helps mellow out some of the year-to-year changes in the bourbon.