Bottle after custom-made bottle lines the shelves behind the bar at the new Montgomery Distillery on Front Street. Each is filled with the first batch of Quicksilver vodka, for now, the only liquor Ryan and Jenny Montgomery's tasting room offers. Downstairs, in a huge steel vat on wheels, the second batch is finally ready to be packaged. Thousands of empty, label-less bottles are enshrouded in plastic and stacked on pallets in the far corner.
The Mason jars arranged on a wire rack near the basement door are plain and unassuming in comparison. Each contains a different concoctionrhubarb, cinnamon and vinegar in one, coffee bitters made from Black Coffee Roasting grounds in another. A plastic tub underneath a bench holds slices of cantaloupe in syrupy liquid. Ryan Montgomery calls this collection of ingredients a "work in progress." Eventually, they'll join Quicksilver not just behind the bar upstairs but in customers' cocktail glasses.
"There's endless variety," says Montgomery, who announced the distillery's soft open via Facebook last Wednesday. "Basically, if you can think of it and it tastes good, you can do it ... We're not a bar. We have a very limited amount we can serve. But what we're trying to promote is an interest in cocktails, because they're delicious. I guarantee you I can find one that you like. I guarantee I can probably find five or six you like that you've never tried before."
When Montgomery and his wife began contemplating a move back to Montana several years ago, Montgomery's first thought was to start a new brewery in Missoula. The notion pre-dated the opening of Draught Works Brewing on the Northside, but even with three breweries in town, Montgomery wasn't confident there'd be demand for more. In addition to craft brewing, the couple had long been fans of good Scotch and good cocktails. Playing off that passion, they decided a distillery wouldn't be such a bad idea.
"Being the first and only distillery in Missoula is a huge initial benefit," Montgomery says. "But if we don't make good products and don't make good cocktails and don't have a good atmosphere here, that benefit will wear out pretty quick. For us, it's offering people the same thing they go to Kettlehouse or one of the taprooms for. It's the environment. It's the ability to taste new things that they haven't tasted before."
As far as Rhino owner Kevin Head is concerned, the timing couldn't be more perfect. He's noted a slow resurgence in Missoula's cocktail culture over the past few years, marked by the rising popularity of drinks like the Moscow mule. Montgomery Distillery dovetails with that renaissance, Head says. Not only that, but it offers cocktail drinkers a hyper-local option; Montgomery describes Quicksilver, made with grain from two Hamilton-area farms, as "basically Bitterroot wheat and Missoula water." For Head, the distillery is breeding not just a "consciousness of cocktails, but also a consciousness of where you're from."
"We're taking a little more pride in where we're from," Head says.
There's no doubt the new distillery will challenge local palates. Montgomery's current menu boasts a few familiar names, such as the Moscow mule and a standard vodka tonic. But he plans to balance those with an ever-changing lineup of more experimental cocktails. The choice of mixers behind the bar right now includes a sour cherry and a pineapple-rosemary syrup, key ingredients in the new cocktail recipes Jenny Montgomery is creating.
Most of the Mason-jar concoctions in the Montgomery Distillery basement were prepared by local writer and craft beer connoisseur Ryan Newhouse. In addition to syrups, he's been creating a variety of "shrubs," or mixtures of fruit, vinegar and sugar aged several weeks. The majority of his ingredients come from the farmers markets, including strawberries and rhubarb. He's working on a cocktail mixer using Dixon melons, and hopes to roll out a pumpkin-based mixer later this fall. Newhouse, whose grandfather was a moonshiner, calls it "very tasty trial and error."
"People want to know where their ingredients are coming from," Newhouse says. "Breweries are doing that every day. They're showing exactly where they're sourcing this stuff, and for a drink coming from a bottle, it's something more intimate. You know where these grains are from."
So far, Montgomery's been busy fine-tuning the German-made still and wrestling with a few equipment setbacks. The crowds have grown, and already people are inquiring about Montgomery Distillery's gin, which Montgomery plans to start work on in the next few weeks. It's just a matter of working out the wrinkles, he says.
"Right now, at the beginning, we have 1,000 wrinkles to work out," Montgomery says. "Next week we'll have 800. The week after that we'll have 500. Eventually we'll get down to a level of, like, 20 wrinkles that'll just be constant."