Big Sky Meets Small Batch: Montana’s Resurgent Distilling Scene

Headframe Spirits in Butte, Montana / Alamy

Montana is known for its spectacular, wide-open spaces; but, by comparison, its breadth of distilleries doesn’t quite match the state’s sprawl. At least, not yet.

“The thing that makes a distillery most unique in Montana is its size,” says Keith Robins, owner/chief barman at The Standard, a cocktail and dessert bar in the ski resort town of Big Sky. By that, he means that Montana has retained some of the strictest laws in the country for its distilleries. As a result, many remain modest in size.

The state had a relatively late start in the craft distillery boom. A shift in state legislation in 2005 changed Prohibition-era liquor laws to finally permit micro-distilleries to produce small batches of alcohol for limited distribution. As of the end of 2019, Montana was home to just 25 craft distilleries, according to the American Craft Distillery Association (2020 figures are not yet available).

Even today, those distilleries still work around stringent regulations that limit how much liquor can be produced and sold. Tastings rooms can serve no more than two drinks to each customer, and can’t serve past 8pm.

Big Sky Country is also whiskey-drinking country. While many locals would gladly hoist a Montana-made whiskey, few distilleries in the state have been open long enough to meet that demand.

Steeped in Brewing History, This Mountain State Has a Serious Spirits Scene

With most Montana distilleries open less than a decade, “that’s not a lot of time to make a great whiskey,” says Robins. “It takes about that much time to let it sit in the barrel before it’s ready to go.” Some whiskey-makers have released excellent whiskey in very small batches, while others focus on flavored whiskeys that make the most of relatively young stock.

While Montana’s whiskeys take their time resting in the barrel, producers are making a variety of other worthy spirits, many spotlighting regional ingredients. Huckleberries, a fruit with a sweet-tart flavor some liken to blueberries or blackberries, grow wild around Montana’s mountains and forests. Willie’s Distillery is noted for its huckleberry liqueur, while Bozeman Spirits produces a huckleberry-flavored vodka.

Whistling Andy Distilling’s The Spirit of Sperry huckleberry vodka
Whistling Andy Distilling’s The Spirit of Sperry huckleberry vodka / Photo courtesy Glacier Country Tourism

Another, more surprising local crop? Wormwood, a central component used to make absinthe.

Yes, the same plant used to make the green stuff in France and elsewhere also grows in Montana. Up north, Whitefish’s Glacier Distilling is the only distillery in the state to make absinthe with Montana wormwood.

Although the state’s distilleries have plenty of hurdles to jump, that hasn’t dampened their creativity. “They’re trying to make the best they can make, because they can only make a small amount of it,” says Robins. “It’s to our benefit, because we don’t have to settle for something that’s sub-par or mass-produced.”

Many of the following distilleries have limited quantities available, and their bottles can be hard to score out of state. Here are seven producers to learn more about.

Bozeman Spirits interior tables and stills
Bozeman Spirits Distillery / Photo by Jim Harris, Bozeman Spirits Distillery

Bozeman Spirits: One of the older Montana distilleries, founded in 2014, Bozeman makes what Robins lauds as “a really clean vodka,” (Montana Cold Spring Vodka) as well as flavored variations like lemon and huckleberry.

Dry Hills Distillery: Also located in Bozeman, this is the distillery arm of a fifth-generation farm. Look for Hollowtop Potato Vodka, made from misshapen potatoes grown on the farm that would otherwise go to waste, and Montana Bonded Wheat Whiskey, the state’s first bottled-in-bond whiskey.

Glacier Distilling: Located at the foot of Glacier National Park, this distillery draws inspiration from local produce and botanicals, which are used in an astonishing array of brandies, gins and more. Of particular note are the Trail of the Cedars Absinthe, made with Montana wormwood, and Fireweed, a Bourbon flavored with brandy made from Flathead Lake cherries.

Bottles linked-up for Headframe Spirits various spirits
Headframe’s lineup / Photo courtesy Headframe Spirits

Headframe Spirits: Robins praises Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liqueur made at this Butte distillery. It’s named for the Orphan Girl Mine, a zinc and silver mine that operated in Butte from 1875 through the 1950s, and in 1965 became the site of the World Museum of Mining. A portion of proceeds from each bottle sold benefits the museum.

Whistling Andy Distillery: While this Bigfork distillery is known for turning Montana-grown grains into whiskey, their white rum and gin, including some creative flavors, are also worth a pour.

Wildrye Distilling: This Bozeman distillery showcases Montana-grown ingredients in its spirits, including its namesake rye whiskey. Robins remarks that Wildrye’s corn-based vodka as “the smoothest I’ve ever had,” and uses it as the well vodka at his bar.

Willie’s Distillery: Not far from Yellowstone National Park, Willie’s is known for its liqueurs, including a huckleberry cream liqueur, a wild-grown chokecherry liqueur and a coffee cream liqueur inspired by the tradition of “cowboy coffee” brewed over an open fire.

Published on January 26, 2021
Topics: Spirits Trends