A Spirited Start-up

Spotted Bear Spirits opens craft distillery in downtown Whitefish

By Tristan Scott
Lauren Oscilowski, owner of Spotted Bear Spirits in Whitefish, pictured on Dec. 17, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

At Spotted Bear Spirits in downtown Whitefish, owner and operator Lauren Oscilowski is teasing out the essence of her beloved craft while distilling a new sense of fellowship.

The microdistillery at 503 Railway St. opened its doors Dec. 16, ushering in a fount of holiday cheer and dispensing the first batches of its sleek new spirits, both by the bottle and in an array of craft cocktails, which are specially designed by the Spotted Bear staff and feature locally sourced ingredients and house-made syrups and infusions.

Building on a tradition sprung forth by the ancient Greeks, who ascribed sacred powers to the distillation process – believing that it released the essence, or “spirit,” of a substance – Spotted Bear Spirits is already cultivating its own unique concepts in a trio of traditional pot stills, while tending to a friendly flock of patrons in the adjacent, two-level tasting room.

Showcasing local craftsmanship and artistry, and brimming with alchemic warmth, the small-batch distillery’s tasting room was recently awash in a contrasting coterie of imbibers sampling a selection of mixed drinks that hold appeal to all comers.

In the “So Fresh and So Clean,” Spotted Bear’s “Confluence Vodka” plays with a house-made orange-and-rosemary shrub – a colonial-era herb-and-fruit infusion – while the “Nailed It” promotes a constituency of Thai basil, fresh ginger, raspberry compote, and a raft of Glacier Ginger Brew. The “Snow Ghost” is a decadent blend of house-made coffee liqueur, Montana Coffee Traders’ cold brew, Kalispell Creamery half-and-half, and Confluence Vodka.

Having debuted the signature vodka, Oscilowski already has an eye toward a suite of seasonally inspired spirits, with plans to introduce a gin, a coffee liqueur, an agave spirit, a variety of absinthes, and a whiskey in the coming months.

The first 250 bottles of the current rye-based vodka will be supplanted with a fermentation of Montana sugar beets, and later with pears and apples from the shores of Flathead Lake. The spirits will track along the seasonal fluctuations of raw, locally sourced ingredients, and will continue to develop as the character of the stills evolves.

Meanwhile, Spotted Bear’s pot still and reflux column is hard at work stripping and neutralizing the taste of the Confluence, while a pair of hammered-copper stills from Portugal will soon begin capturing the top notes of flavors and floral aromas for a gin.

Like distillation itself, the drinks and spirits are rooted in tradition, but Oscilowski’s penchant for playfulness and experimentation means she aims to improve upon conventions and hone her craft with courage and creativity.

“Our setup is small and modular, which will allow us to play around with a lot of different recipes and produce spirits that will be available only through the tasting room,” Oscilowski said.

The newly minted business owner cut her teeth in fermentation and distillation first as a homebrewer, then as a student at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago and most recently at Glacier Distilling Company in Coram.

Opening her own space in downtown Whitefish is a dream come true, she said, and the upshot of a long, difficult journey, which she’s enjoyed every step of the way.

As Oscilowski pursued her vision for Spotted Bear and secured a venue in downtown Whitefish, she was drawn to the talents, styles and craftsmanship of the artisans she encountered – other artists and entrepreneurs with grand visions and complementary skillsets.

“When I moved to Whitefish and started living in this community, I was struck by how many bright characters I met. All of these people were following their passions, and I think when you kind of put yourself out there you attract that like-mindedness and ambition,” she said. “Now we’ve all just kind of found each other and it’s been great.”

The allure of Spotted Bear is as ingrained in its décor as it is in its drinks, and Oscilowski’s vision of “organic industrial” – a concept that marries her labors as a manufacturer with her love for the Flathead Valley’s wild surroundings and natural ingredients – is on full display.

Custom-designed wallpaper patterns of elk antlers and juniper berries plaster some walls, while others bear shelving made of burnished plumber’s piping and rough-hewn reclaimed barn wood. The bar is made of concrete inlaid with river rocks from the South Fork Flathead River, a nod to the distillery’s namesake, and one of Oscilowski’s favorite places in the world to create memories.

“I’ll consider the distillery a success if it becomes a place where friends gather after going on epic Montana adventures, share memories, have a cocktail and laugh a lot,” she said.

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