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Food

Spirited Away

Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits serves up a homey atmosphere, elevated cuisine and top shelf spirits from their Evergreen location

By Micah Drew
Cocktails from Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits in Evergreen. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After “What should I drink?” the top question that Clint Courtney hears at the bar he manages is “Why aren’t you located in Whitefish?” 

Though it was founded 15 miles to the north, Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits has been nestled on the side of U.S. Highway 2 in Evergreen for nearly six years. But if the distillery seems to have an identity crisis on its hands, it’s in name only. 

From a rocky start, Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits has turned into a top-rated bar, distillery and restaurant that punches far above what its hole-in-the-wall locale would make you assume. 

Danette and Tom Sefcak founded the distillery in 2016. The couple worked as mortgage brokers for a number of years leading up to the financial crisis in the late 2000s. After that, they headed to the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota and saved their pennies. 

While out in the oilfields, the Sefcaks, and their son Matthew, started making a moonshine rum that they’d share with their friends. It turned out to be a hit, and over the course of many afternoons sitting on the patio, smoking cigars and drinking moonshine, the Sefcaks decided they wanted to try expanding on their hobby. 

Korean fried chicken and bread pudding from Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Making craft liquor runs through Tom’s family history. According to legend, his grandfather used to make and sell moonshine in Texas. Danette said the story goes that the bootlegger would travel the state serving up spirits and playing guitar.

“At the time, the idea of micro-distilleries was fairly new,” Matthew said. “They weren’t popping up all over the place yet. We just took the idea and my parents ran with it.”

The distillery opened in 2016, but starting a business was anything but easy.

“It was so challenging to start up. There were all kinds of stresses and struggles we never thought about,” Danette said. “I think of that first year as my doctorate in bulls**t. It was expensive, a lot of hard work and heartache. But, honestly, it was beautiful, and eventually it all came together.”

It was only a year later that the Sefcak’s relocated to the current spot in Evergreen. Dannette said they hit their stride following the move but still saw regular growing pains. On the first truly busy day in the kitchen, Danette found herself cooking, despite having no commercial kitchen experience. Unable to coordinate all the orders, she had to admit to her diners she was in over her head. A round of free fish tacos and patrons’ goodwill helped smooth over the experience. 

“I’m really proud of the fact that, through that initial learning curve, we built up a good reputation and maintained good quality,” she said. “It sounds corny, but it’s always been our motto to nourish our patrons with love. We want people to come in and understand the positive intentions we put into what we create.”

The current location for Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits can be easy to miss while speeding along U.S. Highway 2, especially at the moment — last fall an errant driver crashed into their sign and the business is still waiting on a replacement. Once in the small parking lot, it doesn’t seem there’s any way a full restaurant, distillery, dining room and bar can fit inside the repurposed house. 

The bar at Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Stepping inside, however, the vibe is intimate and homey. It’s small, sure, but in the same way that your grandparent’s kitchen feels small when the extended family is packed inside. A few folks can fill the room with joy, and a love of the craft is displayed on every plate and in every glass. 

As its name suggests, the emphasis inside is on spirits. The small backroom distillery has limited capacity, but even so Matthew Sefcak, the sole distiller, is able to produce incredible output. 

Matthew makes between 13 and 17 spirits, depending on demand and the time of year, in addition to some prepared canned cocktails and all additional ingredients for the bar (by Montana law, distilleries can only serve spirits made on site, meaning a drink that uses a coffee liqueur, for example, must be made by Matthew). 

“The science of distilling’s not that hard. If backwoods moonshiners could do it, hopefully, we can do it even better here,” he said. “The real art of distilling is in the mashes, the recipes, and how you develop the flavors.”

The process behind the spirits is just as much a point of pride as the final product. Grain is sourced from eastern Montana, and organic blue agave nectar is brought straight from Jalisco, Mexico.

“We work harder than most, because we literally go grain to bottle, and that’s a rare feat,” Courtney added.

Most of the spirits are made with intense collaborative input from the Sefcaks and their staff and from the robust lineup, a few rise to the top shelf. 

The distillery’s best-seller is their Rum with Spices, a white rum infused with a unique blend that includes orange essence and whole cloves that Matthew says he can’t distill enough of during the holiday season. 

Amaretto sour cocktail from Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Then, as any Montana retailer will tell you, all huckleberry-themed products are a hit with tourists, meaning the Huckleberry Reserve liqueur also flies off the shelf and requires contracting with many local berry pickers to ensure adequate supply. 

The distillery’s Highline Rye is a blend Matthew is particularly proud of, in part because it is on the spirits list at the ultra-exclusive Club 33 at Disney World. The Sefcaks are big Disney fans and managed to get a tasting with the club’s manager years ago. According to Matthew, the rye recipe wasn’t finalized yet, but he brought along a sample in a mason jar that was proclaimed a unique hit. 

“Now it’s a priority to keep that in stock, which is a really great feeling,” he said. “I don’t pretend to have the best whiskey in the world, but I’m listed on the same page as some of the best whiskeys in the world.”

In recent years, the business has focused more on providing a top-tier dining experience. It’s a far cry from the early days when Danette was doing everything in the kitchen, despite being “just a mom who liked to cook.”

Since then, the restaurant has rotated through a cadre of chefs, each adding their own touch and elevating the cuisine step by step. 

The current chef, Vern Smith, is a recent addition to the team, bringing 35 years of kitchen experience including stints at Tamarack Brewing Company and Maverick’s Roadhouse down in Lakeside. His decades behind a stove have given him troves of inspiration to draw on, but his focus at the distillery is to “put my own little thumbprint on a menu and throw some fancy at it.”

While the spring menu is about to launch, Smith’s “fancy” was recently displayed through Korean fried chicken with a whiskey sauce, served with French carrots and a savory bread pudding, and perfectly tender short ribs served with a red wine reduction sauce. Both dishes seem simple on the menu but have impressive layers of flavor that Smith says are augmented by the pairings offered at the bespoke cocktail bar. 

“Behind the bar, we’ll go off the menu and try to come up with something that will elevate what you’ve been served from the kitchen,” Courtney said. “We’re really striving for a comprehensive menu that can’t be duplicated in this valley.”

Brook ranch grass-fed braised short ribs from Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Bar manager Becky Hafferman said the small scale of the operation allows creative freedom and deeper connections from the distillery to the kitchen to behind the bar.

“It’s one of those places where you really build a relationship with people coming in often,” she said. “People will pop in, then become regulars and then friends, and that makes you always want to be around, which isn’t always the case with a job.”

Courtney began managing the distillery after working in the cocktail industry for more than a decade, working everywhere from “uber dive bars to upscale speakeasies,” but said Whitefish Spirits is by far the best behind-the-bar experience he’s had, especially in terms of crafting cocktails.  

“Matthew will always joke to me that he makes the spirits and I make them drinkable, but that’s not true at all. The spirits speak for themselves,” he said. “I don’t have to work around bad-tasting alcohol, and I can really find ways to make the spirits sing.” 

One spirit sings louder than its brethren: gin. 

“I was not a gin fan,” said owner Danette. “Until we made our gin.” 

It’s a refrain echoed by Hafferman and Matthew Sefcak, none of whom claim to be fans of the juniper-heavy spirit. However, they’re all united behind their own version, the Kintla Peak Gin, which bolsters different botanicals, with prominent lemongrass and lavender notes while de-emphasizing the juniper. 

Whitefish Handcrafted Spirits in Evergreen. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

There is also the River Rock Gin, which is the Kintla Peak Gin aged in white oak barrels, a variation that Danette and Matthew describe as their pride and joy. 

“I’m most proud of that, a low-key item we have that turned out absolutely fantastic,” Matthew said. “There’s nothing else like it. It drinks kind of like whiskey — it’s almost better neat. It brings cocktails to another level, certainly, but the sipping factor of this gin is unlike anything else I’ve ever found on the shelf.”

Courtney agrees, adding that the aging pulls out some additional flavor, including a smoky vanilla bite, that will convert any gin scorner. 

Of course, you don’t have to sip a spirit neat. Courtney and Hafferman will mix any classic cocktail or readily go off the menu to quench a thirst. The house whiskey sour, made with homemade spiced fig syrup is especially popular, as is the Long Island Iced Tea — one of the cocktails that the distillery cans (at a whopping 16.2% ABV).

“As a lifetime bartender, there’s some judgment involved in that drink,” Courtney said. “But it’s really unmatched by any other Long Island, because of how good our spirits are.”

Whitefish Spirits is the first Montana distillery to can with actual spirits, as opposed to malt, an idea that owner Tom had a few years back. 

“We really weren’t expecting the explosion of demand from people who were waiting for it,” Courtney said about their first canning run two years ago. “We blew through them faster than we could make it.”

Currently, they can an amaretto sour along with the Long Island, with plans to release a Bee’s Knees (gin, honey and lemon juice) this year.

While the Whitefish Spirits experience is available at your home bar, or wherever you’re traveling via its canned cocktails, being on-location is a fuller experience.

“When you walk in here, we want you to feel like we invited you over to our house for a cocktail party,” Courtney said. “This is a casual environment, a laidback, homey space where you can be yourself. And that’s what we expect to maintain.” 

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