Reading about Montana’s emerging microdistillery industry is nice and all, but deciding to spend hard-earned cash on a still-maturing product is another thing entirely. In the name of independent journalism and in the interest of new discoveries, we selected 15 bottles for a blind taste test that would not only grade Montana spirits, but also see how they stacked up against top-selling national brands.
We invited a dozen people to partake in the blind taste test and split them into two teams: vodka and gin. We focused on vodka and gin because those are the two types of spirits with the most in-state variety. We made it blind to avoid any favoritism. And we split our tasters into two teams because we wanted to protect the integrity of their palates (and perhaps their livers).
In addition to tasting either the vodkas or the gins, everyone took part in a wild card round that allowed us to try some of the distilleries’ more creative selections.
Our selection of booze came directly from what’s available—and proudly displayed with “Made in Montana” signage—at Grizzly Liquor. We selected all five Montana vodkas available for purchase (not including the flavored varieties) and all four Montana gins. We also selected two outliers—Smirnoff vodka and Gordon’s gin—just to see how our judges would react.
The wild card selections included distilleries not otherwise represented in the gin or vodka categories, as well as whatever looked the most interesting.
The term “methodology” assumes some level of professionalism and expertise, both of which this event certainly lacked, but we did put some thought into how it was organized.
Two people unaffiliated with the scoring were responsible for numbering clear plastic cups, pouring samples, delivering these samples to the judges and collecting scoring sheets. Before the tasting commenced, we provided each judge with a detailed list of characteristics they should be attuned to when tasting their respective beverage. Local drink aficionado Ryan Newhouse, who has consulted for a start-up distillery and enjoys foraging for his own cocktail ingredients (and who recently released his first book, Montana Beer: A Guide to Breweries in Big Sky Country), helped deliver some pre-tasting instructions, spur conversation among the judges and provide a general air of legitimacy to the event.
Our judges were asked to score each drink on its look, aroma, mouthfeel, finish and overall impression. The vodka had been placed in a freezer for four hours before being poured. The gin was served at room temperature. None of the drinks included mixers, although water was available to everyone and the gin team had the option of adding tonic after an initial tasting. The effervescence of the tonic (or the mix of water) can help release the flavors of the botanicals used in a gin.
The highest possible score a spirit could receive was 50. After tallying the results, we awarded one vodka winner and one gin winner. The wild card entries were not judged against each other, but we did award special jury prizes to the two that scored the highest. In addition to scoring the five categories, we asked judges to scribble down comments about each drink.
Without further ado, here’s how we graded the entries:
High Ore, Headframe Spirits, Butte
$26.45, 80 proof
Distillery description: “Made from the freshest waters of the Montana snowmelt, and crafted with care and attention to detail, High Ore Vodka is just as refined, just as satisfying.”
Our score: 32
Refined wasn’t the first word that came to mind for our judges. One described the finish as “gritty and harsh.” Another called it “a campfire vodka,” explaining it was “not smooth enough for a fancy cocktail, but refreshing enough for backpackers in the mountains.”
Best comment: “Great for a martini in the same way binoculars are great for meeting people.”
Cliffhanger, Spirit of Montana, Billings
$21.65, 90 proof
Distillery description: “Hand-crafted using the highest quality ingredients, including spring water from the ice fields of Froze to Death Plateau high above Red Lodge.”
Our score: 34
The judges came in all over the map on this one. One judge thought it tasted “like plastic,” while another noted a smooth finish with no burn and said she would serve it at a wedding.
Best comment: “Nothing stands out in a good way. This is a versatile vodka.”
Smirnoff No. 21, Diageo, Russia
$16, 80 proof
Distillery description: “The world’s No. 1 vodka. Its classic taste has inspired other varieties throughout all four corners of the world.”
Our score: 27
The world’s top-selling vodka came in dead-last in our blind taste test, which is a good sign for Montana distilleries looking to knock Smirnoff—and its dozens of flavors—off precious shelf space. One judge said he’d only drink it at a “European nite club while wearing tight white pants.” Another called the taste “hot and antiseptic, like meeting someone in the ER.”
Best comment: “This tastes like college.”
FIRST PLACE FLASK WINNER
Great North Vodka, Trailhead Spirits, Billings
$26.20, 86 proof
Distillery description: “A small-batch vodka hand-crafted in Billings, made with wheat grown on the family farm near Great Falls.”
Our score: 37
The vodka category winner is about as understated as its description, but impressed all of our judges with a smooth, flavorful finish. Every judge remarked that they would try this vodka again, with one saying it was the only vodka that didn’t need a mixer. “Just put this on ice,” he noted.
Best comment: “A smooth sort of vodka that could sneak up on you.”
Flathead Vodka, The Montana Distillery (formerly Flathead Distillers), Eureka
$20.80, 84 proof
Distillery description: “I’m an 84 proof vodka derived from sugar beets. By myself, I am warming and slightly sweet with a smooth finish.”
Our score: 32
That smooth finish didn’t translate to our judges. One felt it tasted like “plant matter” and another likened it to “sucking on swim shorts after a day at Splash Montana.” Yikes. While the taste suffered, Flathead Vodka scored high with a sweet aroma and thick texture.
Best comment: “Neutral, but with a still-present aftertaste, like a delicious tongue depressor.”
Quicksilver, Montgomery Distillery, Missoula
$25.55, 80 proof
Distillery description: “Produced from local wheat in our traditional still, which employs a towering 21-plate rectifying column to bring the alcohol vapor to its ideal concentration, while maximum contact with copper helps purify the spirit of off-flavors. We make large ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ cuts, bottling only the purest ‘heart’ of the run. A final chill-filtration finishes the spirit.”
Our score: 35
Our judges were allured by Quicksilver’s distinctive aroma, which one described as “like heavily buttered corn.” Another picked up on the same flavor notes in its taste, saying she liked it “because it tastes like margarine.” Overall, it rated the most consistent between all of the judges, although just a few points below Great North.
Best comment: “Sweetest in the lineup. A very pleasant, almost creamy taste.”
Silvertip, Vilya Spirits (formerly Ridge Distillery), Kalispell
$24.80, 88 proof
Distillery description: “An American dry gin produced using handcrafted copper alembic stills from Portugal, and only the finest botanicals available, including many grown in the Northwest Rocky Mountains.”
Our score: 31
Our panel of judges envisioned this robust gin working best in a dirty—or “very dirty,” as one specified—martini. “This is a heavy gin that needs a powerful mixer to pull forward some of the subtle flavors,” said another judge, summing up the group’s consensus.
Best comment: “It has a strong anise flavor. No, not anus, anise.”
Healy’s Gin, Trailhead Spirits, Billings
$27, 86 proof
Distillery description: “Small-batch gin distilled from Montana wheat and local botanicals.”
Our score: 29
Healy’s had some trouble standing out among the other gins tested. One judge said it had a “pleasant aroma, but short-lived flavor.” Another thought it tasted more like a mainstream gin, saying it reminded her of something used in collegiate G&Ts.
Best comment: “Weak sauce.”
Anselmo, Headframe Spirits, Butte
$28.50, 80 proof
Distillery description: “A unique blend of 12 different botanicals, including citrus and huckleberry, that give it a distinct, fresh flavor.”
Our score: 17
A few of the local spirits took a beating in our blind taste test, but none more than Anselmo. The botanicals failed to come through in the aroma, and none of our judges appreciated the harsh finish and unpleasant mouthfeel. “This is like drinking a mistake,” said one unhappy judge.
Best comment: “Reminds me of my Dad’s cologne.”
Gordon’s London Dry Gin, Diageo, England
$14, 80 proof
Distillery description: “The distinctively refreshing taste comes from the finest handpicked juniper berries and a selection of other botanicals.”
Our score: 26
The world’s best-selling London dry gin failed to impress our judges, who immediately pegged it as a tasteless mainstream offering. “Is this amateur hour?” asked one judge. “I’d mix this with some punch at a high school dance,” said another. If it’s any consolation for local distilleries, their small-batch flavor consistently stood out against outliers like Gordon’s.
Best comment: “God knows I’d drink anything, but this tastes gross and cheap.”
FIRST PLACE FLASK WINNER
Whyte Laydie, Montgomery Distillery, Missoula
$28.70, 80 proof
Distillery description: “A dry gin incorporating Rocky Mountain juniper and a variety of native botanicals with European juniper and other imported ingredients traditional to gin: fresh citrus, orris and angelica root, cardamom, grains of paradise, and more.”
Our score: 39
When our judges found a gin they liked, they really liked it. This runaway winner initially impressed with a pleasant aroma (“very floral”), and further impressed with a smooth first taste (“crisp on the front of the tongue”) and clean finish (“that taste sticks around but doesn’t feel dry”).
Best comment:“You know that Phish song about a bathtub full of gin? I’d bathe in it if this were the gin.”
Glacier Dew Light Whiskey, Glacier Distilling, Coram
$24.25, 80 proof
Distillery description:“A whiskey distilled from rye, barley and corn. It is minimally aged so the natural flavors of the grains shine through. The result is a crystal clear whiskey perfect for sipping or mixing.”
Our score: 30
The judges’ first whiskey met mixed results. The aroma was described as “overpowering,” but the taste varied from “hot and woody” to “well balanced with a clean finish.” Many judges said they wanted to try the Glacier Dew with a sweet mixer that would cut through the nose and soften the taste.
Best comment: “Smooth, clean and sweet, but not with an overwhelming body. I’d like to date this one.”
Special Jury Prize Snifter
Hopshnop, Whistling Andy Distillery, Bigfork
$37.20, 68 proof
Distillery description: “A unique spirit distilled from grain with hops from Blackfoot River Brewing Company’s single malt IPA.”
Our score: 35
This format-buster immediately turned heads and many judges asked for a second tasting. Part of the appeal was simply trying to figure out how to classify it. “Tastes extremely familiar, but can’t quite place it,” said one judge who called Hopshnop a “sip-worthy spirit.” The floral aroma also wowed most judges, with one saying she’d almost rather “dab it on her wrists” than drink it. Overall, the mellow finish left our judges intrigued and wanting more.
Best comment: “Light some candles, put on some R. Kelly, I wanna make love.”
Montana Moonshine, Willie’s Distillery, Ennis
$26.20, 90 proof
Distillery description: “Made with four Montana grains and gently distilled to bring out the full flavor. It is what whiskey looks and tastes like before it goes into a barrel.”
Our score: 26
Our judges immediately pegged this one as moonshine based on its distinct corn flavor and aroma. “I’d only drink this if I were below the Mason-Dixon line,” said one. “Deliverance,” quipped another. But even those who weren’t huge fans appreciated some of its flavors: “Not for me, but lots of character in every sip.”
Best comment: “Down home meets downtown.”
Special Jury Prize Snifter
RoughStock Black Label, RoughStock Distillery, Bozeman
$64.10, 125 proof
Distillery description: “The single barrel version of Roughstock’s Montana Pure Malt Whiskey. The whiskey is untouched: uncut, unfiltered, and unadulterated in any way and at actual cask strength.”
Our score: 35
Whoa, Nellie. This cask-strength whiskey will put some hair on your chest. Our judges were excited to see an actual brown liquor arrive at the tasting, but those feelings were quickly tempered by Black Label’s overpowering taste. “This just kicks you upside the head!” said one judge. “You could light your breath on fire with this, right?” asked another. Despite its aggressiveness, fans of traditional whiskeys appreciated the Black Label’s long legs in the glass (“Cindy Crawford would be jealous”) and picked up the wood notes in the finish. Overall, it turned out to be an all-or-nothing selection for the judges, with enough alls to put it on the podium.
Best comment: “Wise beyond its years—and bodes well for how it might taste in a couple more years.”