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Schultz can see that industry shake-out on the horizon, and to him it appears much closer than one might expect. After four years, he’s continuing to tweak his whiskey recipes, always with an eye for consistency and flavor. The results of any given experiment could take many years to unfold, so “we don’t experiment too wildly,” he says.
Restraint is part of staying competitive in a market dominated by Kentucky distilleries that have been dialing in recipes for 80 years, or by Scottish and Irish distilleries that perfected the system a century or more ago. Even as Montana’s first distillery, RoughStock has just four years of experience. And already Schultz is noting shelf space for other products dwindling.
“Every large major brand right now makes 30 different flavored vodkas, so [retailers] are starting to cut down on some of that stuff,” Schultz says. “You’re starting to see a lot of these unaged moonshine-type products come in, which is a very cool novelty. We make one, too, an unaged corn whiskey. But there’s a lot of distributors and retailers that will not take any more or hold any inventory whatsoever of the unaged whiskeys … They’re done with it. They’ve moved on, moved past it.”
If and when the nation’s microdistilling industry reaches that consumer saturation point, many of Montana’s businesses will theoretically be ready. Distillers are constantly working on new products and expanding certain aspects of their respective operations. For example, Montgomery Distillery recently began bottling its non-alcoholic mixing syrups and shrubs for sale at the Clark Fork Farmers Market, allowing consumers to recreate those same cocktails at home. Anderson’s staff at Whistling Andy has been busy over the past several weeks preparing to move its distilling operation into a larger space behind the existing tasting room, doubling the distillery’s size and freeing the company to increase its production, bottling and experimentation in new types of spirits.
“I think we have everything here to make this an outstanding industry in Montana,” Anderson says. “We’ve got the best raw materials. Our grain is top notch. And fruit? We’ve got tons of apples, cherries, pears ...”
At the Rhino, the distillery reps gathered for the Cocktail Corral seem to focus more on the next big thing than the bottles already set out on the bar. Headframe opened just 18 months ago, Heidi Rosenleaf says, and through Chicago-based Binny’s Beverage Depot, they’re already distributing online in over half the country. About six months ago, Rosenleaf adds, Headframe owners John and Courtney McKee decided to start manufacturing small-column stills for other start-up microdistilleries nationwide. Headframe Manufacturing is delivering its first still to a client in late July.
Lauren Oscilowski, lead distiller at Glacier Distilling, is also touting new features at her facility. After getting fed up with using small pots, Glacier recently purchased a 55-gallon drum of honey from East Glacier. They’ll use it to sweeten up a new product coming out this fall, Oscilowski says, “just in time for Cabin Fever Days,” an annual event that features live music and bar stool races. She stops there, not wanting to ruin the surprise.