By Nathan Solheim
Watching Dan Tighe mix a cocktail is a display of the motion it takes to make a potion. First, he fills a glass with ice and pours 3 ounces of Tighe Brothers Whiskey over the cubes — transforming what was a cold, colorless and transparent environment into a warm and robust domain with a hue somewhere between milk chocolate and a Cuban cigar. With a medicine dropper, Tighe squeezes in barrel-aged smoked maple syrup, orange bitters and aromatics. He then peels off a perfect, spiral rind from a fresh orange and adds it to the concoction. Last, but not least, he lets a Luxardo cherry with a sweetness and texture that would make any confectioner jealous come to a gentle rest in the mix. Tighe gives it a stir and what travels across the bar to the thirsty customer is a version of a classic cocktail that is anything but old fashioned.
Dan, along with his brother Paul, are the founders, distillers and mixologists of Tighe Brothers Distillery in Denver, and their venture into the world of spirits has the pair in the middle of the American craft revolution just like that delectable cherry in their Old-Fashioned. What started with ales and lagers more than 30 years ago now covers wine, spirits, cocktails and a whole lot more.
“I think a lot of people are drawn to the idea that they know where their whiskey is coming from and they want to talk to the guy who makes it,” says Tighe, who graduated from MSU Denver in 1995 with a biology degree and minor in chemistry. “People like knowing the guy down the street makes a good whiskey. And with us, there’s a lot of thought that goes into what we do — it’s not just a machine pumping whiskey into a bottle.”
For those reasons and a few others, says Michael Wray, an MSU Denver professor of restaurant management who teaches many of the University’s beverage courses, the industry the Tighes find themselves in — craft distilling — has taken off in Colorado. According to the Colorado Distillers Guild, the number of distilleries in the Centennial State has risen to more than 90. By comparison, there were only five a decade ago.
“The Colorado consumer is very much focused on taste and quality and they’ll pay for it — they’ll pay more for it,” Wray says. “And that’s across all income groups. Regardless of income, craft-based products do better.”
That’s exactly what the Tighes are counting on. The brothers tested 50-60 mashes for their whiskey recipe and settled on a slate of 10 botanicals for their gin — all in the quest to find flavors that set them apart.
In addition to whiskey and gin, the distillery produces a vodka that’s distilled four times and serves it up in multitudinous infusions. In February, the Tighes debuted a single-barrel whiskey and their bourbon will be ready in March. Currently, there’s an Irish cream available for tasting.
They also searched far and wide for quality ingredients for their cocktails — even being told of a boutique bitters producer in Boulder while on a trip to California wine country. And if there’s a bit a fruit in one of their cocktails, it’s as fresh as it can be. Dan has even experimented with fresh basil from the garden.
“We love the magic of bringing grain and water and yeast together to get alcohol,” Dan Tighe says. “It’s interesting and it’s compelling to us.”
Almost as interesting is the distillery’s point of origin. Anyone who bellies up to the bar as Dan or Paul — who left MSU Denver before graduating — make one of a dozen signature cocktails will hear about the brothers’ grandfather, Jack McLaughlin, who was known to take a taste of Jack Daniel’s from time to time as he a puffed a cigar.
A bit of McLaughlin rubbed off on the brothers, who grew up to enjoy a good glass just as their grandfather had. After their MSU Denver days, Dan went into medical device sales while Paul started a successful local landscaping business and became a real estate investor. A few years ago, Paul approached Dan about launching the distillery. They started experimenting with a 25-gallon still in 2013 and after some planning, a bit of distilling school for Paul and a heaping capital investment from both, the Tighes poured their first drinks in late 2016 with a grand opening in February 2017.
The distillery — located at 4200 Milwaukee St. in the Swansea Elyria neighborhood — features a 300-gallon copper still that renders 50-gallon yields. The tasting room was designed to evoke the inside of a whiskey barrel with dark leather couches throughout and enough oak to make a lumberjack smile. They installed glass doors behind the bar so imbibers can see the still and the vessels of aging liquor.
While both brothers, who are six years apart, invested a barrel’s worth of sweat equity in the operation, they decided to bring in even more family. In fact, the company logo features two boys fishing in City Park, a favorite pastime of the two as they grew up in the Park Hill neighborhood. The cocktail menu highlights the rest of the Tighe family — drinks are named for Dan’s wife, Kim and his three children, Maddie, Rose and Sam. Paul’s wife, Nettie and children, Hannah and Jack, are on the bill of fare, too. Jack has even taken over mixologist duties a few nights a week.
“There’s definitely a bit of trepidation when you start a new business,” Dan says. “Before Prohibition, there were thousands of distilleries in the United States, and then there was 20. The country never recovered so we’re way behind. There’s lots of room for growth. It’s scary, and it’s a huge investment, but when you jump in, you jump in — there’s no looking back.”
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