Montana is unique because it’s big, says Keith Robins, owner and head bartender of The Standard, a cocktail and dessert bar in the Big Sky ski area. By this he means that Montana has enforced some of the strictest laws in the country for its distilleries. As a result, many of them remain modest in size.
The state had a relatively late start in the craft alcohol boom. A change in the law in 2005 amended the alcohol prohibition laws, eventually allowing microdistilleries to produce small amounts of alcohol for limited distribution. According to the American Craft Distillery Association, there were only 25 craft distilleries in Montana at the end of 2019 (data for 2020 is not yet available).
Even today, these distilleries operate under strict rules that limit the amount of alcohol produced and sold. Tasting rooms may serve no more than two drinks per guest and may not serve drinks after 8pm.
Big Sky Country is also the land of whiskey. While many residents would like to purchase Montana whiskey, several distilleries in the state have been open long enough to meet this demand.
Since most Montana distilleries have been open less than a decade, that doesn’t leave much time to make good whiskey, Robins explains. It will take him about the same amount of time to be in the barrel before he is ready. Some whisky makers have produced excellent whiskies in very small quantities, while others have concentrated on flavoured whiskies that make the most of a relatively young stock.
While Montana whiskies spend their time resting in the barrel, producers produce many other fine spirits, many of them using regional ingredients. Blueberries, a fruit with a sweet and tart flavor similar to blueberries or blackberries, grow wild in the mountains and forests of Montana. Willy’s distillery is known for its cranberry liqueur, while Bozeman Spirits makes cranberry-flavored vodka.
Whistling Andy Distilling’s The Spirit of Orange Cranberry Vodka / photo courtesy of Glacier Country Tourism
A different and rather surprising local culture? Absinthe, the central ingredient in the production of absinthe.
Nearly 90 percent of the world’s vermouth is grown and harvested in Montana, Robins estimates. Yes, the green, which is produced in France and abroad, owes a debt to Montana. To the north, Whitefish’s Glacier Distilling is the only distillery in the state producing Montana absinthe.
Although state distilleries have many obstacles to overcome, this has not diminished their creativity. They try to do their best because there’s not much they can do, Robins said. This is to our advantage, because we should not settle for something mediocre or a mass product.
Most of the distilleries listed below have limited availability and may have problems being bottled out of state. Here are seven manufacturers you should learn more about.
Bozeman Spirits Distillery / Photo : Jim Harris, Bozeman Spirits Distillery
The ghosts of Bozeman: Bozeman is one of Montana’s oldest distilleries, established in 2014, and produces what Robins praises as a true pure vodka (Montana Cold Spring Vodka), as well as flavored varieties like lemon and cranberry.
Dry Hills Fever: Also located in Bozeman, it is a fifth generation distillery. Look for Hollowtop Potato Vodka, made from irregularly shaped farm potatoes that would otherwise be wasted, and Montana Bond Wheat Whiskey, the state’s first whiskey bottled in capsules.
Ice cold distillation: Located at the base of Glacier National Park, this distillery takes inspiration from local produce and plants to offer an amazing selection of cognacs, gins and other products. The Cedar Absinthe Trail, made with Montana absinthe, and the Fireweed, a bourbon and brandy from Flathead Lake Cherry, deserve special attention.
Frame / Photo Set courtesy of Headframe Spirits.
The spirits of the headdress: Robins praises the Bourbon Cream liqueur made at this Butte distillery. It gets its name from the Sirotka mine, a zinc and silver mine that operated in Butte from 1875 to the 1950s and has housed the World Mining Museum since 1965. A portion of the proceeds from each bottle sold will be donated to the museum.
Andy’s Whistling Distillery: If this Bigfork distillery is known for turning grains grown in Montana into whiskey, their white rum and gin, including some creative flavors, are also worth pouring.
Wild Burn: This Bozeman distillery uses ingredients from Montana, including the rye whiskey that bears its name. Robins notes that Wildrye Corn Vodka is the sweetest I’ve ever had and uses it as a good vodka in his bar.
Willie has a fever: Near Yellowstone National Park, Willis is known for its liqueurs, including Cranberry Cream Liqueur, Wild Cherry Liqueur and Coffee Cream Liqueur, inspired by the tradition of cowboy coffee brewed over an open fire.
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