On a recent Wednesday evening, most of the activity at the Rhino in downtown Missoula is concentrated around a cluster of cocktail glasses and liquor bottles at the end of the bar. Each label brandishes some quirky name, like Orphan Girl, Glacier Dew and Whyte Laydie. No two are the same. There’s gin, vodka, rum and a whiskey that one distillery rep describes as “Montana-style tequila.” But every bottle shares at least one bragging right: The word “Montana” enjoys a prominent spot on the label.
Rhino owner Kevin Head lingers near the bar, soaking in his latest Cocktail Corral tasting event. He’s managed to gather people and product from four microdistilleries, each within a few hours of town. Glacier Distilling has come the farthest—160 miles from its still up in Coram. Montgomery Distillery is so close you can practically see it out the window, just across Front Street.
“These distilleries have really sparked a resurgence for Montana’s cocktail culture,” Head says. “We’re seeing new and unique recipes coming out of the tasting rooms, and some really old ones that no one’s served in a long, long time.”
The chatter at the event sways from new developments at the distilleries to the all-Montana sourcing of ingredients. Each bottle seems to be a celebration of the rich agricultural commodities of the Treasure State, from mint and basil to barley and Flathead Valley wheat. A few newer bottles dot the counter. Glacier Distilling just announced the release of Mule Kick, a jalapeño, garlic and black pepper infused whiskey that happens to be one of tonight’s main attractions. Headframe’s tasting room manager, Heidi Rosenleaf, singles out a bottle of Destroying Angel on the bar—the Montana-style tequila referenced earlier.
“We name each of our products after an old mine in Butte, and at one point, there were 420 or 430 mines there,” Rosenleaf says. “We’ve got a lot of products to name.”
The microdistillery industry has grown fast in Montana in recent years. The first—Bozeman’s RoughStock Distillery—opened for business in 2009. According to the Montana Department of Revenue, there are now nine microdistilleries operating statewide, with three more in the works. State tax revenue generated by retail sales of spirits in Montana tasting rooms totaled a mere $2,179 in 2011. That figure jumped to $22,000 in 2012 and $44,000 so far in 2013.
The trend has mimicked the surge of microdistilling activity nationwide over the past decade. There were fewer than 70 licensed craft distilleries in the United States when the American Distilling Institute was founded in 2003. The organization now has 400 members, and projects that there will be between 600 and 800 microdistilleries in the United States and Canada by 2016.
“This is a viable industry in the state,” says former state Rep. Brady Wiseman, D-Bozeman, who sponsored a bill in 2005 enabling microdistilleries to operate in Montana. “It’s a viable business model that you can come up with this $300,000, $400,000, $500,000 or more investment and produce a product and actually be able to compete.”