He calls whiskey his “religion” and has his brand’s slogan, “there are no shortcuts,” tattooed on his forearm, yet it took 15 years of working in finance — including seven on Wall Street — for Al Laws to turn his obsession into a career. In 2011, the 52-year-old Canadian opened Laws Whiskey House in Denver, and it has since become a place where both staff and visitors revel in their shared devotion to the spirit.
“We have a small whiskey church in our tasting room, which we’re expanding into a larger facility,” Laws says. “It’ll have big vaulted windows and pews. Enthusiasts come to our ‘whiskey church’ not for worship, but to explore all things whiskey.”
Growing up in Alberta, Canada, Laws was surrounded by the oil and gas industry, and entered that world via finance. Working for firms like Merrill, he loved his job but “didn’t want to die at my desk,” leading him to change tack after relocating to Colorado.
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A decade later, Laws takes pride in producing whiskey “from dirt to glass.” The father of two spoke to VinePair about transitioning from stocks to spirits, his disastrous first whiskey-making attempt, and what makes Denver such a unique whiskey city.
1. What sparked your love for whiskey?
I’ve had an obsession with whiskey since I was 16. People get shocked that a 16-year-old would be drinking whiskey, but Canada’s more liberal with alcohol laws.
In Canada, you grow up with beers, but I don’t like beer. When I hung with friends, I wanted to slow the world down, not speed it up, and whiskey was the perfect companion to that. Jack Daniel’s was my first, then other Kentucky bourbon whiskey, like Wild Turkey. I don’t like Canadian whisky, which is odd, but it wasn’t sweet enough.
2. How realistic did a career in whiskey seem at the time?
When I was examining what I wanted to do [post-college], it was like, “I’d really like to [make whiskey],” but thought you can’t make it on [a small] scale and that you need large facilities. Then, my employer relocated me to Denver, home of Stranahan’s. They make a barrel a day, which is a scale I could wrap my hands around.
3. Is that what triggered your career switch, or had you already been looking to leave finance?
I’ve never worked anywhere I didn’t love. Wall Street’s engaging — it’s intellectual curiosity; looking at information and coming up with what’s going to happen next. It’s fun to be part of predicting the future and at the cutting edge of the economy. And I grew up around the sector, so I understood it well. I knew the people drilling the wells and buying the leases and what they were trying to accomplish, so when it came to investing in it, I provided good advice.
But it’s 60-, 80-hour weeks and a young person’s game. I had a family and wanted to find something that slowed the world down, so I was looking to leave finance and my friends went, “This is America — find something you love and go after it.” I loved whiskey!
4. It’s a big step from realizing your dream to fulfilling it. How did you start?
I found a great guy in Kentucky, Bill Friel, who became my Yoda. I’d already read everything I could find on the industry, and home-brewing helped me take what I read and put it into practice. But whiskey requires soul. That’s what Bill taught me. He went, “Son, those formulas you have won’t help you much — it’s about feel and knowledge.”
We built something from scratch and didn’t take any shortcuts. Starting out, I thought it would take 20 years, and we’re just over halfway and doing well. We’ve attracted other passionate and obsessive folks and built a village. We have 41 amazing staff, from people putting stickers on bottles to those selling it.
5. How was your first whiskey-making experience?
Scary! We were using new equipment and blew everything out and up into the ceiling because the temperatures you’d normally use at 1,000 feet above sea level [need to be adjusted]. We’re a mile-high here, and that changes things.
6. How has that difference in altitude proved challenging? And, on the flip side, how does Denver’s elevation enrich the spirit?
The altitude affects a lot, as does being nestled against the Front Range. We have dramatic barometric pressure swings. Right now, I’m getting a headache from the cold front coming in. When the pressure changes so dramatically, it pushes the whiskey into the barrel quickly and deeper, so the color’s richer because it has more barrel influence.
We’re also very terroir-focused. Scotch is basically malted barley, but where it’s made and aged matters, which is why you have Highlands, Lowlands, Campbeltown — all these different areas are helping develop American whiskey. Before, it was all made in Kentucky, but now, we have flavor profiles that are distinctive to upstate New York or the Rockies.
7. What else sets Laws Whiskey apart from other whiskeys on the market?
We’re making it in smaller, controllable batches and using pot stills, so getting more concentration of flavors. We only use local, heirloom-variety grains, which were abandoned decades ago because they didn’t have the right yield. Most are only grown in a certain part of the state so add a distinctive flavor.
Our recipes are also different; our bourbon’s a four-grain instead of three-grain, so we’re adding more layers and complexity. When we started that, there were two or three others in the country doing it, and now, some of the large distilleries are looking at four-grain expressions.
8. What have been some of the challenges of transitioning from Wall Street to whiskey-making?
The hard part about moving from Wall Street is going from needing to give an opinion on an event in five minutes and be 99 percent accurate, to this, where what we lay down today won’t see the light of day for years. You harvest barrels and go, “Holy — my kids aren’t kids anymore. They were 10 when we started!” It’s interesting to slow down and be more patient.
9. How does an average day compare to working on Wall Street?
All my suits are gone! I’m wearing running shoes, a polar fleece vest, and khakis right now. It’s more relaxed.
This is still really hard work, though, and the time cycle of solving issues and getting things done takes longer. Getting a building permit will take six months because the city doesn’t understand our business super well, so they’re uber-cautious.
10. Has anything you learned on Wall Street helped you in the spirits business?
Financial skills help make good business decisions. We’re far from frivolous, which helps since there’s a lot of time between the dollar we spend today making whiskey and that whiskey creating a dollar. So, investing in whiskey isn’t unlike oil and gas because you can drill the well, but you’ve got to drill 50 wells to get it all out of the ground, and that takes time. We’re very patient.
11. How has the pandemic affected the distillery?
We reeled in spending that wasn’t crucial and let everyone know that the last thing we would do is lay off anyone. The hardest thing was watching what it did to friends on the on-premise side. Everyone we interacted with lost their jobs, then all the regulations decimated the restaurant and bar industry.
Once things reopened, we rebuilt our relationships to continue growth and came out of 2020 being up, which is a tribute to our sales folks. Then last year, with vaccines and everything coming back more, we had more momentum. People have definitely needed a double during this time!
We’re more of a wholesale manufacturer, so it was different for us than peers who relied heavily on their tasting rooms. Still, 30 to 35 percent of our business is on-premise and that went to zero percent, so we had to make that up. Things are in a way better place than two years ago.
12. How do you think the pandemic is impacting the future of whiskey?
Coming out of the pandemic, the same things hold true, which is that whiskey’s an experiential thing with other folks. It’s not something to sit alone in the dark and sip. People have realized how much we need each other and should make time for things that slow this crazy, insane world down. Whiskey continues to be the perfect companion to that.