Click the image above or use the arrows to see more photographs from Ridge Distillery west of Kalispell and Whistling Andy distillery in Bigfork.
Joe and Jules Legate stepped out their back door and discovered the key ingredient to their new calling in life. Growing all around the house was wormwood.
At the time, the Legates were preparing to begin making absinthe, which was outlawed in the United States until 2007. During its years of prohibition, absinthe acquired an exotic aura. What was this strange, anise-flavored liquor? And, just as peculiar, what was this oddly named wormwood?
It turns out that wormwood is basically a weed, commonly found throughout the northern United States and Canada. In some states, the Artemisia absinthium species is classified as noxious. In the Legate household, it’s classified as essential – one of many herbs that go into the couple’s homemade absinthe, sold through their business, Ridge Distillery.
“You would probably recognize wormwood as a weed you run over with your lawnmower,” Joe Legate said. “You see it in horse pastures all around here.”
Ridge Distillery, located at the Legates’ home between Kalispell and Kila, is one of seven operating microdistilleries in Montana, according to the state Department of Revenue’s Liquor Control Division. Four are located in Northwest Montana, including three in Flathead County.
In addition to Ridge, the other distilleries are Roughstock Distillery in Bozeman, Vigilante Distilling in Helena, Flathead Distillers in Eureka, Free Spirit Distilling in Billings, Whistling Andy in Bigfork and Glacier Distilling in Coram. There’s a pending application for Corvallis, along with possibly two new applications for Butte and Missoula.
The 2005 state Legislature approved a bill introduced by former Rep. Brady Wiseman, D-Bozeman, that outlined the licensing framework for microdistilleries. Then in 2007, the Legislature allowed distilleries to have tasting rooms and sell their own bottles in regulated quantities, instead of strictly through the state.
It was the 2007 decision that really opened up the doors for microdistillery operators, Brian Anderson, a partner at Whistling Andy, said. Roughstock was the first to open, receiving approval from the state in January of 2009, followed by Vigilante and then Flathead later that year. Ridge started making absinthe and gin last August, while Whistling Andy opened on New Year’s Eve.
Glacier Distilling was finishing up its first batches last week, owner Nic Lee said. Lee said the initial inspiration for opening his distillery, which he runs with friend Danny McIntosh, was “one of those sitting around in the winter stories.” Now he doesn’t have much time to sit around as he churns out gallons of un-aged – or white – whiskey.
“We have our still running and we’re pretty pleased with everything,” Lee said last week, adding that the tasting room isn’t open yet.
Lee marvels at how quickly the state’s microdistillery movement has grown.
“It was quite a boom all of a sudden,” Lee said. “There’s been a scramble.”
Distilleries seem like a logical next step after wineries and microbreweries, both of which have had successful movements of their own in Montana. According to the Liquor Control Division, the state has 14 wineries and 29 breweries.
Similar to brewers and winemakers, Montana’s distillers form a tight-knit fraternity. They have been meeting and calling each other on the phone to discuss each other’s progress, difficulties and trends.
“We’re such a small community and we know the struggles that they’re all going through,” Joe Legate said.
Anderson said “we don’t look at it like we’re competing against each other; we’re competing against the big boys.” The big boys – the national and international companies – make up to 100,000-500,000 gallons of booze per day, he said. As defined by state law, microdistilleries produce less than 25,000 gallons per year.
“We produce less in one year than the big boys spill in one day,” Anderson said.
Anderson and fellow distiller Mike Marchetti make rum, gin, vodka and un-aged whiskey, which is called moonshine and is essentially the same as Lee’s white whiskey. Eventually, Whistling Andy will age batches of whiskey in charred oak barrels to give it that distinctive brown color and bourbon flavor.
Distillers say a tremendous amount of paperwork is required by federal, state and local governments to open and then operate a facility. In describing the paperwork, popular words include “endless,” “mounds” and “overwhelming.”
“It’s certainly not for the hobbyist,” Jules Legate said. “Every drop is accounted for.”
Now up and running, the biggest challenge facing Northwest Montana’s microdistilleries may be keeping pace with demand. Ridge Distillery recently worked out a deal with a Virginia distributor to ship out 92 cases, or more than 600 bottles. The Legates’ liquors have received glowing reviews and will be featured in The Spirit Journal, the industry’s leading publication.
The Legates spent 18 months crafting the recipes for their liquors. Joe Legate said the absinthe “is loaded with herbs,” most of which are grown at their home.
“The reviews have been just staggering,” he said. “People are so kind and generous.”
Whistling Andy also derives its ingredients locally, with grains coming from local farmers and then, once used, getting sent out to ranchers for livestock feed. The distillery is staying busy with both its bottle distribution and tasting room, which can serve up to two ounces per person.
“We’re not trying to be a bar,” Anderson said.
In a state where craftsmanship is respected and self-sufficiency is sought, it shouldn’t be surprising that Montanans are now making their own liquor. And nowhere is the movement more evident than the Flathead Valley.
“It’s kind of neat,” Anderson said, “that the Flathead has become the epicenter for distilleries in Montana.”
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