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Brian Anderson, co-owner of Whistling Andy Distillery in Bigfork, knows all too well the pains of sitting on an aging product. Whistling Andy opened New Year’s Eve 2010, and Anderson wasted no time perfecting his recipes for vodka, gin and, particularly, his hibiscus coconut rum. He filled several barrels with bourbon close to two years ago, which he hopes will be ready later this year. Whistling Andy has already released an unaged whiskey—or moonshine—as well as a whiskey aged for just over a year. The first release of the latter, about 375 bottles, sold out in a day and a half during St. Patty’s 2012. The third barrel sold out just as quickly last holiday season.
Standing in the distillery’s backroom, Anderson talks about the ups and downs of the business over the last few years. The rum’s been a big seller, he says, and even won a platinum award at the Spirits International Prestige competition in fall 2011. Whistling Andy now distributes in nine states, three Canadian provinces and Australia.
“We just wrapped up negotiations for another distribution deal a couple days ago,” Anderson says. “We’re going to be in Taiwan now, too.”
Anderson has always had a passion for liquor. He’s a self-proclaimed science geek and former geo-hydrologist who grew up in the Flathead. The mash tank in his distillery is a repurposed 600-gallon ice cream maker, once a “God-awful battleship blue color,” that used to make Eskimo Pies. Beakers and test tubes litter the place, along with huge oak casks from Kentucky. Anderson can’t imagine being surrounded by anything else.
“I make liquor,” he says. “I could be servicing port-a-potties. I could be sitting in a cubicle in Kansas.”
The scene down at Montgomery Distillery in downtown Missoula isn’t much different. Co-owner Ryan Montgomery has his desk and worktable situated in the shadow of a two-story-tall copper still column. After nearly a year of business his Front Street space already looks well-worn. On his desk are one bottle each of his Quicksilver Vodka and Whyte Laydie Gin. The bottles and labels, he says, come from a company in London that dramatically discounted the cost for both on account of Montgomery’s small size.
Visit the Missoula tasting room any given day of the week and bar space will be at a premium. The cocktail menu changes with each season, sometimes faster if a bartender invents a tasty new concoction.
“In general, things are going great,” Montgomery says, his eyes shifting occasionally to a set of temperatures gauges on the wall. “Basically what our strategy is is to, production-wise, meet the demand for vodka and gin and spend all of our spare production time and spare money making whiskey. It’s a difficult proposition because all the money goes in up front, and you don’t see any revenue from that for years in the future, however long you want to age the whiskey.”
Montgomery has kept the business predominantly local during his first year. The distillery’s products are in roughly 40 Montana state liquor stores and scores of bars across the state, but only within the past few months has he been working toward out-of-state distribution. “You’ve gotta prove yourself in the home market first, build a following and a loyalty there,” he says.
The modest start is just one of the many threads casual observers tend to tie between the microdistilling world and the craft brewing industry. Montgomery acknowledges those similarities—the emphasis on locally sourced ingredients, the biennial struggle in Helena to make Montana law more flexible—but feels there are some key differences as well. When the craft beer movement started roughly two decades ago, the major competitors were primarily domestics like Budweiser and Coors that put out a generic product. When craft brewers hit the market with an array of stouts and IPAs and porters, it meant instant and almost guaranteed success with consumers, Montgomery says.
Microdistilleries, on the other hand, are up against an array of established companies, from Grey Goose to Jameson, many of which put out excellent products. That’s largely why Montgomery is taking it slow, and why distillers like Anderson celebrate when they receive international accolades. Both owners anticipate an industry-wide shake-out in the future, when the newness of microdistilling wears off and small businesses will need to rely on something beyond novelty to compete with major labels.
“Flavor ultimately wins out,” Mongomery says. “You can throw a lot of money into packaging and marketing, but if it doesn’t taste good you’re not going to last.”