Cowboys and Whisky

Cowboys and Whisky

Davin De Kergommeaux takes us on an adventure through the Rockies

Travel | 21 Oct 2016 | Issue 139 | By Davin de Kergommeaux

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You climb a staircase to step over a sill and encounter a long row of tiny cubicles, each with a table set for four. A faint aroma suggests the turquoise semi-gloss, covering layers of scraped paint and broken blisters on the wainscoting, is recent.

Butte (pronounced: "bee-yew-t"), Montana, a once wealthy mining town also extracted riches from the pockets of lonely cattle drovers who rode the endless range beyond. Modern cowpokes still tip their hats to today's ladies. They ride sinewy mustangs, and pack six-shooters on their hips, on the look-out for rattlesnakes - of course.

Headframe Spirits

Atop the continental divide above Butte perches Our Lady of the Rockies, a 90ft statue of the Virgin Mary. She seems almost vulgar beside the industrial grace of the tall wood and steel headframes that dominate the cityscape. Each marks the entrance to a copper, silver, or gold mine stretching miles below this city of 35,000. Their names - Anselmo, Destroying Angel, High Ore, Kelley, Neversweat, Orphan Girl - are now on the lips of locals, in the form of liquors distilled at Headframe Spirits here in downtown Butte. Locals and tourists alike relish these clean, understated libations from the four column still at Headframe. Cowboy boots and six-shooters? Not many on display in the packed tasting room adjoining the distillery. Even so, it's easy to believe bottles of Neversweat Bourbon are slowly being drained into tin cups around campfires in those craggy hills above.

Back in 2010, when John and Courtney McKee established Headframe Spirits, their quest to find exactly the right still led them to their own kitchen table. John, an industrial engineer, had recently designed refining columns - stills - to transform bio-diesel from a hit-and-miss fuel into a clean reliable source of energy. Why buy a still when you have the expertise to create one? Courtney asked him over breakfast, and the decision was made.

The blinding blue light of welding torches cutting stainless steel tubes into ceiling-high lengths flashes from an industrial building on the edge of town. The success of his early spirit distillations led John to offer his stills to other micro distilleries. So far, seven across the US have taken his offer. In four column mode, the still strips nearly all the congeners out leaving ultra clean white spirits for vodka or gin. Flip a switch, and the distillate bypasses the two centre columns yielding a flavourful, low ABV spirit to be matured into Bourbon. Headframe stills have several advantages over some other micro stills. First, they arrive with a lot more than a package of tubes and instructions in German. McKee and his team spend four days installing the still and training the operators. Thereafter, from afar, a control panel on his iPhone lets him monitor and adjust each of the still's functions should the need arise. The biggest advantage for start-ups, though, is cost. A three-barrels-a-day 'Whiskey Rocket' comes in around the $180,000 mark.

Wyoming Whiskey Distillery

Western songs celebrate the streets of Laredo, cowboys making Amarillo by morning, or the rodeo in Cheyenne. But Thermopolis, Wyoming? The largest mineral hot springs in the world prides itself on genuine cowboy hospitality, respect, and real warmth. But there's no audience for heart-wrenching tunes about therapeutic bathing. Whiskey though, has a song in every bottle. Wyoming Whiskey Distillery, fifteen minutes north, in Kirby, makes 2,200 barrels of it each year. Wyoming Whiskey goes down mighty easy, too. Listen, pardner, with whiskey this tasty, it's a no-brainer to buy local. And people do, as the Wyoming Liquor Commission found out when the first 2,400 cases sold out in 26 seconds. Today, no self-respecting liquor store in the state is without Wyoming Whiskey. Every watering hole, no matter how small, keeps a rapidly diminishing supply in reach.

Chief operating officer, David Defazio has received good news. Thomas Chen and Roberto Roberti of Vancouver's Fountana Group are on their way. They've just launched a spectacular 35-year-old whisky as part of their Canadian Rockies line. Now they're seeking a source of American Rockies whiskey and Wyoming is stop one. The distillery's Kermit Sweeny is not sure what Chen and Roberti are looking for and has pulled samples from ten barrels to show the diversity of the range. At a table in the bottling hall, the two nose and taste quickly, pushing some samples aside, saving others for a second assessment. The Fountana team doesn't hesitate. Within an hour they have purchased three barrels and negotiated a future supply. Defazio is thrilled. He thought this was just a friendly how-de-do.

A decade earlier, ranchers, Brad and Kate Mead were whiskey greenhorns when they decided to go into the Bourbon business. They hired experts to get them started and one of those much-celebrated consultants convinced them that accelerated ageing was the way of the future. "It was a big mistake," observes Defazio, "but then serendipity."

Why? "Warming the barrels to 130°F almost blew them all up. The whiskey all leaked out. What is it, Boyle's Law?" Defazio asks. Of 20 barrels put into an accelerated ageing trial, 18 were soon completely empty, one had 12 gallons left in it and another had eight. But man, was that good whiskey. "The beautiful result of a failed experiment," says Defazio. It sold quickly at $199 a bottle. Nevertheless, "We have since wholeheartedly adopted a traditional approach," Defazio concludes, wryly. "We use full-size barrels and we don't cut any corners anywhere. We want to be America's next great Bourbon. We hate the word 'craft.'"

With an 18in diameter column towering 38ft into the rafters of the distillery (designed to look like a grain elevator) four x 2,500 gallon fermenters, and 6,000 barrels of Bourbon maturing in the warehouse, some of them there for over seven years, no one is going to call them

them craft.

On their Spring Gulch ranch near Jackson, brucellosis has become prevalent in the wild bison herds so the Meads have begun using Kirby as winter cattle range. In a couple of dozen troughs, they supplement whatever grass the cattle can forage under the snow with spent grains from the still. They truck the cattle in from Spring Gulch now, but their son (and distiller) Sam remembers making the three day ride herding 600 cattle to the Big Horn Basin where Kirby and the distillery are located. "What do we do if he fails?" Brad asked Kate before appointing Sam their distiller.

"Well then we fail with him," she replied. Instead, Sam boosted quality and increased production by 83 per cent, through process improvements including better sanitation.

Sam lives on the distillery site, and typically spends his days distilling whiskey. Today, however, he has made the five hour journey to Spring Gulch to brand calves. Brad twirls his lariat in the air, his keen eye helping him lasso one animal after another. Chen and Roberti, perched atop a rail fence, watch as Sam places a red-hot branding iron on each calf's shoulder as five hands hold it down. This is a full Mead family affair. Kate pulls a penknife from her pocket when a bull calf is being branded, and she quickly 'steers' the animal. Within the couple of minutes the ordeal is over and the calf trots off with seemingly no memory of what he's just lost. Cattle! They have no sense, no feeling! Incidentally, Chen's not just a whisky mogul. He has genuine (pronounced: "Jen-ewe-wine") cowboy roots. In his youth he wrestled steers on a ranch - in Australia. We hope to meet up with him and Roberti again in Colorado.

High West Distillery

Before the Mormons arrived, the Shoshone, Paiute, Navajo, and Ute who first settled these parts likely indulged in the occasional peyote button. It was not until 1847 when Brigham Young rolled in with his 43 wives and a wagon train of followers that they encountered alcohol. Young's settlers planted wheat for baking and distilled any surplus into whiskey. In 1870, Young, by then the husband of 54, moved to outlaw alcohol. Although his dictums on polygamy still stand quasi-legal in Utah, in 2004 David Perkins surmounted Young's decree against alcohol, by opening High West distillery in Park City.

Once a cluster of flourishing silver mines, Park City is perhaps best known today as the home of Robert Redford's annual Sundance Film Festival, and as the venue for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Steps away from the distillery door, a chair lift makes High West the world's only ski-in distillery. Its mining days long behind it, a thoroughly gentrified Park City has evolved into a thriving year-round tourist destination. This means a micro distillery with a tiny 250 gallon Holstein pot still can support 160 staff, 125 of whom feed the 210,000 visitors who tour the distillery each year. "It's unbelievable how packed we are," says distiller, Brendan Coyle.

New distillers with an eye to longevity often play the game of 'source and wait'. They sell whiskey made elsewhere in order to stay solvent while their own product matures into something palatable. Perkins has plenty of his own distillate maturing in barrels and yet is tremendously proud of the blends he has created from whiskies supplied by larger producers. The final products are distinctly High West, and they are delicious. Each is bottled in authentic Wild West livery, with names like 'Campfire' and 'Rendezvous', and stories to match. It didn't take Perkins long to figure out that a 250 gallon still couldn't keep up with demand. Late last year, he installed a 1,500 gallon pot still in a picturesque new distillery building on the nearby 3,000 acre Blue Sky Ranch. High West is definitely a micro distillery with macro plans. His 1,500 gallon still was the first of four; a second is now ready to install. There is plenty of empty space in the new building for today's three 1,500 gallon stainless steel fermenters to become no fewer than 32, each holding 3,200 gallons. While other small distillers have an almost fetish-like focus on Bourbon, it is American whiskey writ large that drives High West, beginning with Silver Oat and Silver Rye.

But it's time to mosey on over to Denver, so, as those early settlers would say, "Till next time, pardner. Yippee ki-yo ki-yay!"

Tasting Notes

High West Campfire whiskey 46% ABV

Scotch, Bourbon and rye blended. Butterscotch, floral notes, honeycomb, vanilla, grainy sandalwood, subtle tobacco, with a 'kiss of smoke'. Complex and moreish.

Wyoming Whiskey Small Batch Bourbon 44% ABV

Sweet and rich with clean grain and dry alfalfa. Hints at fragrant flowers then bites with a gorgeous, spicy rye palate.

Headframe Neversweat Bourbon whiskey 40% ABV

Caramel tones with mild hints of dry cereal and charcoal. Light, simple, and quite hot. Great for a ginger

ale highball.
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