Festival Draws a Dozen Montana Distilleries to Whitefish

The Montana Distiller’s Festival takes place this Saturday, April 22 at Grouse Mountain Lodge. Tickets can be purchased in advance.

By Mike Kordenbrock
The Cheermeister jun tea with orange peel and a cinnamon stick by Spotted Bear Spirits on Nov. 19, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Twelve distilleries from across Montana will be offering up an array of cocktails and spirits this Saturday, April 22, as part of the annual Montana Distiller’s Festival in Whitefish.

Participating in the event are Bozeman Spirits Distillery; Dry Hills Distillery out of Bozeman; Glacier Distilling Company out of Coram; Spotted Bear Spirits out of Whitefish; Whistling Andy distillery out of Bigfork; Headframe Spirits out of Butte; Willie’s Distillery out of Ennis; Lakeside Distillery out of Townsend; Westslope Distillery out of Hamilton; Portal Spirits Distillery out of Evergreen; Montgomery Distillery out of Missoula; and Undammed Spirits out of Billings.

Lauren Oscilowski, the owner of Spotted Bear Spirits in Whitefish, helped organize the festival. She characterized it as a chance to socialize and sample cocktails and spirits from across the state on the rare occasion that they’re all available in one place. The festival also represents an evolution of a similar event that Oscilowski previously organized as part of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce’s weeklong Feast event.

The rebooted Montana Distiller’s Festival, which will take place at Grouse Mountain Lodge Banquet Room, is not associated with the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, and will act as a fundraiser for the Montana Distiller’s Guild, an industry group which both promotes and advocates for distilleries in the state. Proceeds from the event will go towards supporting the Montana Distiller’s Guild.

Bottles of Whistling Andy spirits behind the bar at Andy’s Crafthouse in Bigfork on Nov. 30, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon distillery

There’s also an event for VIP ticket buyers which Oscilowski referred to as a Whiskey 101 class, which will be a presentation on how Montana whiskey goes from grain to bottle, with discussion about different methods and styles distilleries across the state are using to produce whiskey.

Those VIP tickets are $60, and include early admission beginning at 2:30 p.m., as well as eight drink tickets and a commemorative glass. General admission tickets are $40 and are for the event’s general admission opening at 3:30 p.m. General admission tickets also include six drink tickets and a commemorative glass. Small-bite appetizers will also be served, and are covered with the cost of admission. The event runs until 6:30 p.m.

A limited number of tickets are available for purchase at the door. Tickets can also be purchased in advance at montanadistillers.org/events/.

Portal Rum’s Flathead Fog Rum in Kalispell on August 5, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“We’re in mud season. We’ve been waking up to dustings of snow and the ski hill’s closed. What do you do on the weekend?” Oscilowski said. “It’s the perfect time to get out on a late afternoon, hang with some friends, try some cocktails, have a good time, and have something to do on your shoulder-season, mud-season weekend.”

While Oscilowski said it will be a bit of a surprise to see what other distillers showcase in terms of cocktails and spirits, she shared that Spotted Bear has plans for a “Cinnful Sour,” made with lemon, maple, vanilla, and cinnamon whiskey, and a “Salt and Ash” cocktail crafted with grapefruit, lemon, lapsang souchong tea, blood orange cordial, hibiscus, agave spirit, and lava salt containing activated charcoal.

Nic Lee, the head distiller at Glacier Distilling Company in Coram, said that his distillery will be bringing its North Fork Whiskey, its Bearproof single malt whiskey flavored with huckleberries, its Trail of the Cedars Absinthe, and a new product called Bear Claw, which is a huckleberry cream liqueur released just a few weeks ago.

The rye whiskey will be incorporated into a campfire-inspired old fashioned, which Lee characterized as a “smoked old fashioned made with burnt orange peel.”  Bearproof, the huckleberry flavored whiskey, will be used for a cocktail made with huckleberry, Meyer lemon and sage, and the absinthe will go into a yet-to-be-named drink involving grapefruit and thyme.

One of the benefits of trying a Montana-made spirit, according to Oscilowski, is the chance to discover some of the distinct flavors that are achieved through crafting spirits made with grains and other organic materials grown in Montana.

That can mean different things for different distillers. In the case of Glacier Distilling, Lee said they source their huckleberries from local pickers. Ryan Montgomery, the head distiller for Montgomery Distillery in Missoula, takes things a step further by operating a farm to produce its own grain for spirits. He said his distillery will be making cocktails this Saturday using their Whyte Laydie Gin, Nite Owl Coffee Liqueur, and Sudden Wisdom Rye.

The incorporation of local materials is part of what Oscilowski sees as the benefit to going local when it comes to choosing a spirit. Oscilowski, who is also the vice president of the Montana Distiller’s Guild, said she feels the distilling industry in the state is roughly 10 years behind breweries in terms of winning over local consumers who might reach for a Montana beer, but gravitate toward a more established national liquor brand like Tito’s or Smirnoff.

The So Fresh and So Clean cocktail at Spotted Bear Spirits in Whitefish, pictured on Dec. 17, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

“Just like with wine, there’s terroir, there’s flavor profiles that come from your raw materials,” Oscilowski said. “So, if you’re sourcing hyperlocal, your whiskey or bourbon is going to taste a little different.”

That opportunity for Montana distilleries to differentiate themselves is something that Montgomery also sees as a benefit to the industry.

“The cool thing about us, is just like brewers, we all approach things a little bit differently. There’s not a ton of overlap between what different distilleries do,” Montgomery said. “It’s really fun to see what other distilleries are doing.”

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