Après Bozeman: Exploring the Craft Distillery Scene
In Bozeman, we think it’s just plain ridiculous that après season ends in some towns when the ski lifts stop rolling.
Our après season extends well into summer. Actually, it’s pretty much year-round, though the time of après changes based on available sunlight. Après fishing, après mountain biking, après rafting, après elk bratwursts—there’s an après for just about everything. Our breweries have long been trusted to wash away the soreness in our legs after a powder day at Bridger Bowl or a long ride on the Bangtail Divide, but there’s a newcomer to the Bozeman après scene—craft booze.
Montana is quickly making a name for itself in the craft distillery movement, with stills now operating all along I-90—from Trailhead Spirits in Billings clear up to Glacier Distilling, near the gates of Glacier National Park. Bozeman now boasts three craft distilleries, with at least one more under construction. Bozeman Spirits planted its flag right on Main Street, bringing a tasting room to the center of town. Bozeman Spirits shares a space with White Dog Brewing Company, just in case you’re in the mood for a homespun boilermaker.
Wildrye Distilling is just a few hundred yards off North Rouse Avenue, on the way back from Bridger Bowl. (Or on the way to Bridger Bowl, but we’re talking après, not avant.) Wildrye also shares a space with a brewery, 406 Brewing, which makes a mean pile of nachos that you can eat in the Wildrye tasting room.
Bozeman Spirits isn’t slacking in the food department, though, like Wildrye, they’re guilty of outsourcing. Victory Taco, which operates out of a vintage trailer across the street, will deliver to the tasting room. I recommend The Bird—an ancho-rubbed lime chicken concoction with roasted tomato sauce and sour cream pickled onions. If hipster taco fusion isn’t your thing, order a small plate from John Bozeman’s Bistro, one of Bozeman’s best restaurants, which is right next door. Menus are available at the tasting room bar.
But this is an article about booze, not food. Although the two go together handsomely, and it’s hard to write about one without writing about the other. Which is why I’ll tell you that if you’re going to stop by Roughstock Distilling in Four Corners on the way back from fishing or rafting the Gallatin River, you should probably stop for a burger at Stacey’s Bar in Gallatin Gateway. The original wood floors of the hundred-year-old building and the classic rodeo and cowboy photos on the walls should make the place a UNESCO World Heritage site. The burgers are good, too, and lining your gut with the grease of a half-pounder will prime you for the tasting flight at Roughstock, which includes a sampling of all of their products.
Roughtstock was the early bird of the Montana craft booze scene. When they opened their doors in 2009, they became the first operational distillery in the state since Prohibition. The Spring Wheat Whiskey is worth the trip by itself. Distilled from a special strain of wheat known as “Prairie Gold,” grown by Wheat Montana Farms in Three Forks, and aged in used pure malt casks, the Spring Wheat Whiskey is smooth with just a touch of sweetness. Roughstock recommends it for eggnog. I haven’t tried it, but how could that not be good?
Prohibition ended a long time ago, but the laws are still a little weird in Montana when it comes to making and selling booze. That’s partly because bars and restaurants got bent out of shape when craft breweries and distilleries started filching their customers without having to buy one of a limited number of very expensive liquor licenses. The competing interests worked out a deal that allows craft distilleries to serve two ounces to each customer. That means you’re limited to two cocktails or one double. Cutoff time is 8:00 p.m., which guarantees that people who plan to make a night of it have to head somewhere with a liquor license. The benefit is that there’s an enforced term limit to your craft booze après. If you play your cards right, you can be in bed by 8:15.
It was probably too early to drink when I dropped in on Phil Sullivan and Matt Moeller, co-owners of Wildrye. But that didn’t stop Moeller from making me a couple of his signature creations. My favorite was the Thai Mule, made with basil-infused spiced rum, coconut milk, and fresh ginger, garnished with a fresh basil leaf. Imagine Tom Ka soup, but slightly sweet, redolent of delicious rum, and served on ice in a cold copper mug. And without the chicken.
Two signature Wildrye drinks: a Honey Crisp (left) made from Apple Pie, honey, cinnamon, lemon, and homemade bitters, and a Pony Ride (right), made from homemade huckleberry shrub, coconut, ginger, and Ramsdell’s Parrot Spiced Rum distilled from Montana sugar beets.
The Pony Ride also earned solid marks. The Pony Ride is made with a huckleberry shrub and spiced rum. A shrub is a homemade vinegared fruit syrup that was commonly added to cocktails in the nineteenth century but mostly died out with Prohibition. Wildrye, like its cousins in the Montana craft distilling scene, has a soft spot for heritage. Phil Sullivan, who has a PhD in organic chemistry and still teaches the occasional course at Montana State University, comes from Tennessee moonshiner stock. His grandfather ran a still outside of Gatlinburg during Prohibition. It was a time when banks were few and often distrusted, and rural people commonly used hooch as currency. These days Phil is able to operate above the table, but you still get the sense there’s something rebellious happening. It’s probably the commitment to sourcing as much of their inputs as possible from Montana, which they hope will help create growth and secure futures for Montana farmers.
It’s an issue that’s close to Moeller’s heart. He grew up on a farm in the Bitterroot Valley that his father still owns and runs. The idea for the distillery grew partly out of the annual problem of what to do with bushels of unsold sweet corn on the Moeller farm at the end of every summer. Sullivan had already been homebrewing for years and had the family pedigree and chemistry chops to run a distillery. That’s how the Sweetcorn Bourbon Whiskey was conceived. Wildrye’s spiced rum is made from Montana sugar beets. Their signature delicacy—Wildrye Apple Pie—is made from a blend of Montana apple cider (with apples from Moeller’s dad’s neighbors), bourbon, and apple pie spices. If you’re going to bring a bottle home to someone you really love, or someone you’re hoping to convince that they should love you, take them a bottle of Apple Pie. It’ll pay dividends, I promise.
Bozeman Spirits, founded by husband and wife Jim and Mary Pat Harris, has a similar commitment to Montana products. The Cold Spring Huckleberry Vodka anything but a run-of-the-mill flavored ethanol. Jim Harris and Master Distiller Thomas McGuane III spent months perfecting the huckleberry extract that’s added to the vodka after distillation, and the final result is utterly unique. It’s guaranteed to please tourists who love all things huckleberry, but is also a treat for folks who aren’t usually the flavored vodka types. The 1889 Bourbon, named after the year Montana became a state, has hints of vanilla and caramel. Be careful: it almost goes down too easily. Good thing you’re only allowed to have two ounces. Then again, you could just buy a bottle. Head over to Victory Taco on your way out—they also sell homemade ice cream.