EUREKA – Dave Lehenky can be forgiven for smelling like booze at work. If he didn’t, you’d have to wonder if he was doing his job.
Lehenky runs Flathead Distillers, producer of Flathead Vodka, with his wife Nancy outside of Eureka. The couple is part of a small but expanding fraternity of micro distillers in Montana. There are distilleries making vodka in Helena and whiskey in Bozeman. In Kalispell, Ridge Distillery is starting up and will offer absinthe and gin.
To Lehenky, micro distilleries are a logical next step for Montana’s homegrown alcohol scene.
“First it was the breweries and the wineries, and now it’s going to be the micro distilleries,” he said.
A couple of years ago, Lehenky was reading an article about micro distilleries when an idea flickered. As an amateur beer brewer and winemaker, Lehenky already had his foot in door in the alcohol production business.
But just as important as prior experience was the fact that Lehenky already had a logo in mind: a man tipping his cowboy hat to reveal a flat head. After working with an artist, the Flathead Vodka brand was born.
Armed with a catchy logo, the Lehenkys constructed a 28-by-32-foot concrete building to house the distillery. It juts from a hillside in the woods near Eureka. But they also had to complete the tricky process of fulfilling all federal, state and county requirements: background checks, fingerprints and mounds of paperwork. Lincoln County officials, Nancy Lehenky said, had never dealt with such a proposal.
After completing the permitting process, the Lehenkys began distilling vodka and on Dec. 7 of last year they shipped out their first cases. Those cases, like all liquor in Montana, went to Helena where the state-run system then stores and distributes the alcohol to liquor stores across the state.
Flathead Distillers, on average, sells 17 cases per month, with 12 bottles in each case. It’s a good rate for a startup business, but the Lehenkys have a long ways to go before they need to reorder bottles. Their original shipment brought in 20,000 bottles and 1,700 cases.
The bottles themselves are impressive. Rather than plastered with a decal that can be peeled off, the bottles were imprinted through a baking process. When you rub the glass with your finger, you don’t feel any raised surface nor can you pull off any material.
“This isn’t a decal, it’s not silk screen ¬– it’s actually on there,” Lehenky said.
The vodka is made from sugar, derived from sugar beets. The sugar beets come from Montana and other Western states. Lehenky said people who are sensitive to gluten or foods derived from nightshade plants – like potatoes – can drink his vodka.
The Lehenkys are able to spread word of their vodka through posters, networking, taste tests and advertising. A few publications have written articles as well. But Nancy Lehenky said taste tests are particularly helpful, as Flathead Vodka has consistently fared well.
“We wish we could have more taste tests,” she said.
Dave Lehenky, a former IT consultant, is in charge of distilling the vodka, while Nancy, who formerly worked in television broadcasting, takes care of bottling and most marketing. Lehenky is scientific with his distillation, precisely orchestrating the fermentation, multiple stages of dilution, purification and filtration. The result is a 42 percent alcohol (84 proof) vodka that’s good straight, in martinis or in mixed drinks.
After the state tacks on taxes and other costs, Flathead Vodka is sold to liquor stores for $21.20 per bottle. The liquor stores then typically mark up the bottles another 10 or 12 percent, meaning customers can buy the vodka for roughly $23-$25 at stores.
Flathead Vodka can be found in liquor stores throughout the Flathead Valley and across the state, and at select bars and restaurants, including the North Bay Grille in Kalispell and the Craggy Range Bar and Grill in Whitefish. The Lehenkys said Great Northern Bar and Grill sells more vodka than any other location.
“We’ve been very pleased with the reception,” Nancy Lehenky said. “As long as they can get to try it, they like it.”
For more information on Flathead Distillers, visit www.flatheaddistillers.com or e-mail the Lehenkys at firstname.lastname@example.org.