Wyoming Whiskey co-founder shares all as brand hits 10th birthday

Wyoming Whiskey co-founder shares all as brand hits 10th birthday

As Wyoming Whiskey launches its 10-year-old 10th anniversary bourbon, one of its co-founders reveals all on an early slip-up

News | 01 Dec 2022 | By Maggie Kimberl

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Wyoming Whiskey has released its first 10-year-old whiskey. We recently caught up with Wyoming Whiskey co-founder David DeFazio to learn more about the journey.

Maggie Kimberl (MK): Congratulations on 10 years. That's big.

David DeFazio (DD): Yeah, who would have thought we'd be here, right?

MK: Everybody feels like, gosh, 10 years at such a long time, and then it's like, boom, there you are.

DD: And at the same time though, it's nothing compared to what these other brands have been doing for a very, very long time. We're just to drop in the bucket compared to everybody else, but I'm happy to be where we're at and our trajectory looks good.

David DeFazio, co-founder of Wyoming Whiskey

MK: That's a substantial drop in your personal bucket to make it to 10 years of having a distillery. Tell me a little bit about the genesis of Wyoming Whiskey.

DD: Well, we have to go back further than 10 years. We go back to 2006, actually. Brad and Kate Mead [Wyoming Whiskey founders] are attorneys, and I had worked in their firm for about three years, and I decided to spread my wings and get out of the nest and do my own thing. Brad and I became really close, and I was very close to their family on a personal level, and about six years after I went on my own, in June of ‘06, Brad called me and said, “Hey, Kate and I have a proposal for you.” So I went over to their office and Kate came in behind me, they're staring at me, and my Catholic guilt is just killing me right now because I'm like, “What did I do wrong?” And Brad says, “Kate and I decided, we want to make bourbon.” And I laughed right in his face because I was so nervous I was about to be reprimanded for something. And I said, “How do you make bourbon?” He said, “That's for you to figure out.” And that was the genesis. Before that, Kate had asked Brad if he thought it was a good idea to start a vineyard in Wyoming, and he said [thought it was] a really bad idea, but all the grains that we needed to make bourbon are grown right in the Big Horn basin where we ultimately located our distillery. We got started and we went to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival that fall, and we started meeting some really great people and it just went from there.

MK: Tell me a little bit about those early days of getting the distillery set up. What kind of surprises did you come across? Was there anything that you didn't expect that happened in those early days?

DD: At that point in my career, I had not been exposed to much construction litigation as an attorney. That became a specialty later on, and I wish I had known more about it early on, because we decided to build our distillery right at the peak of the oil and gas boom here in Wyoming. Contractors, architects, everybody was very busy building out these cities around the oil and gas industry, so we couldn't find a contractor within 500 miles of where we wanted to build. We ended up hiring someone from out of state, which turned out to be an absolute disaster. We got so far behind schedule right out of the gate… We fired them, hired a local guy that actually had some bandwidth out of Cody, Wyoming, and he's been doing it for us ever since then.

Inside the distillery at Wyoming Whiskey

MK: Tell me about that first run, firing up those stills – how did that feel? What do you remember about that day?

DD: It was a huge day for me. We fired up the still on 4 July of 2009, and we wanted that to be the day that symbolically, and literally, we turned on the still to begin work, because our goal was to create America's next great bourbon. My birthday is also 4 July. I went over to Kirby and I will never forget – I had been waiting to do this for years – I grabbed a bowl, a spoon, and I dipped into our mash right as it was being put into the fermentation tank before we added the yeast and I ate an entire bowl of it. It was something that was actually tangible. Up until that point, we had been looking at plans, we had been talking about yeasts, we had been talking about all these different things, but there was nothing I could put my hands on. And so I sat on the front step and I ate that whole bowl, and it's super sweet, it's pretty chewy. And I was like, okay, it's happening. We're moving forward.

MK: The best birthday cake, I'll bet.

DD: Yes! It was fantastic. And everybody thought I was weird for doing it, but…

MK: I literally have been doing this 10 years. I've never heard of anybody doing that. So maybe that is a little weird, but I love it.

DD: It's not bad, it's just like, you know, it's like oatmeal... It was a huge day. And then once we got going, there wasn't a lot for me to be doing other than just kind of monitoring Steve Nally… Steve had been in the industry for 33 years, he knew what he was doing, so it was more that he and I would talk whenever something came up and we would work through it. Years went by and it was just production, and I was able to actually practise some law. It had been a full-time job and then some for Wyoming Whiskey. Once we got going, after a few years, then it was time to start thinking about what's our bottle going to look like. That was the next project.

Meet the Wyoming Whiskey family

MK: At what point did you release the first whiskey onto the market?

DD: 1 December, 2012. And that was one year too early – we made a big mistake and we own that. I would tell you the term ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ was so applicable to what we were doing, because when you see whiskey this color coming off still and you're trying it and it's fire, it's 130 proof coming off the second still, I can't tell you if it's gonna be any good after ageing in a barrel. Brad and I looked at each other and went, what if it's terrible? What if it's bad? And it was a leap of faith, but we felt pretty good with Steve at the helm. Nonetheless, when you're drinking that and then you're drinking it at six months to try it, and then try it at a year, a year and a half, two years, two and a half, by the time you get to three years, you're like, wow, this is great! It's not. It's not great. We were comparing it to younger stuff…and I think we had the blinders on. All of our friends and consultants were saying, “Yeah, it's good,” and they didn't want to speak truth to authority, and I wish somebody had said, “Stop, hit the brakes, you gotta wait longer, this needs more time.”

We ended up releasing our first release on 1 December, 2012, and we set a record – 2,400 cases were sold in 26 seconds through the Wyoming Liquor Division. The state was fired up for it, our marketing team had done a fantastic job of just getting everybody worked up into a lather, we were getting numerous calls a day, emails, faxes from people saying, “When can I buy it?” My partner's brother was the governor, he was getting pressure, and so we made the decision to release it at three years, three months of age. And that was a bad idea. We really burned a lot of people here in Wyoming. I like to say a third of the people liked it, a third of the people wanted to like it, and the third of the people thought it tasted like turpentine.

MK: I think you bring up a really interesting point because I do see a lot of people rushing to market, and I always have assumed that it's mainly a money thing, but I think you're absolutely right. You're tasting it as opposed to that new make instead of what the market wants, so you're tasting it from an inside perspective instead of an outside perspective. How did you recover from that?

DD: Once we had another summer on it, we went out and we started trading out four-year-old product for the three-year-old product. I hired a team of 14 salespeople, dispatched them around the state, and over the course of a week, we tried to get every retailer in the state, and I think that went a long way to winning a bunch of them back. It showed effort on our part. In the bigger towns and cities in Wyoming, which nothing here is huge, tourism would pull these bottles off the shelf so they re-order and the newer stuff [would] come in, which was more mature. People started trying the stuff that was coming through and were like, oh, this is pretty good. By the time we had five-year-old bourbon in a bottle, then we were past all of that. Now, that's not to say that you and I could walk into a bar in the middle [of] Wyoming, a little tiny bar, [and] no one in there will say a nice thing about Wyoming Whiskey because number one, it's bourbon, and they drink Canadian whisky, and two, I could say, “Hey, can I buy you a shot? Instead of your Canadian Club, can I buy you a shot of Wyoming Whiskey?” They would say, “That **** sucks,” to this day. But they've never tried it since December of 2012.

Picking barrels in the Wyoming Whiskey warehouse

MK: That's really unfortunate, but it seems like you've definitely learned and evolved from that lesson. What would you say to people today, either inside Wyoming or outside of Wyoming? What's your elevator pitch? Why should I try a Wyoming whiskey?

DD: There's a lot of great Bourbons out there, there's a lot of great traditional Bourbons that are on the shelf, and most people are very brand loyal. All I would say is, don't look past Wyoming Whiskey as just another craft whiskey. There are some really good craft whiskeys that are being put out, and I think people should branch out and try those, but ask about them first. We're in that category. Unfortunately, there's a lot of folks in the position that we were in years ago that are putting out a craft whiskey that might be too young, and if somebody happens to pick that up on a whim and try it, they're gonna go right back to the old stand-by. We're not one of those. We are a non-GMO, all-Wyoming grain, limestone water from a mile deep limestone aquifer that hasn't seen the light of day in 6,000 years. We're doing everything right, and we've got a great nose specialist, Nancy Fraley, who's selecting these barrels. She's the best in the business.

Every day we're trying to get better. I just want people to know that Wyoming Whiskey is something that is as authentic as you'll ever find… And you've now heard the biggest mistake we've ever made. We don't hide anything, and I hope people would like it.

I point out the mistake we made as a cautionary tale to anybody who is in that position. I do get the financial reasons for releasing, but it's amazing what a kick to the gut it is when people say, “I tried it and it's terrible” – that lasts. First impressions last for a long time. We're past that now, but anybody who's in that position now needs to seriously think about taking out another loan or whatever they need to do to get past that hump and bring in an independent third party that you're paying money to to give you an honest assessment of what you have, after all the work that people put into it up until that moment. Spend a little bit more money and be willing to take the truth of what someone's going to tell you… Unfortunately, I think there's a lot of ego in this game, me included. Even in situations where people have been told it's not that good, it's not ready, they do it anyway, because they're like, screw you, what do you know? Well, if you're paying somebody that you trust, who’s an industry expert, listen to that person.

The picturesque setting of the Wyoming Whiskey distillery

MK: What do you think the next 10 years holds for Wyoming Whiskey?

DD: Well, the first exciting thing is we just opened a store just off the Town Square here in Jackson, so that's exciting. We've wanted to have a satellite location tasting room here in Jackson because more tourism rolls through than any other city in Wyoming. It's nice to have a store dedicated to the brand. That's the beginning of the next 10 years. It's going to be refinement more than anything, what are we really good at and what should we be focusing on moving forward. People love Outryder, and so we started making more of that six years ago, and so that's back filling our older stock. We've been blending those two older and younger together for the last couple of years, and then next year will be exclusively into what we've made starting six years ago. So it’s going to be fun to see that evolve.

You may or may not ever see a true rye from us. We started making Outryder, of the two whiskeys that we put into that product, we turned it into a 51 per cent rye to correct Steve's defiance way back when. So if we want to do a small-batch rye, we can do that moving forward. But what we see is our specialty products, our limited editions, our National Park Series, our Wyoming-only releases. Our upcoming 10 year [old], 1872, which is going to be coming out in the next couple of weeks. People really gravitate toward these specialty items. We have to walk a line, you don't want to get too specialised because you can really wear people out, but at the same time, you don't want to under-do it, you want to make sure you have enough out there to keep people interested and be offering something that is truly unique. You will continue to see really good Wyoming-only releases. You’ll see expansion into international markets. And I think you'll see the ground swell of small batch continue to grow as more and more people learn about it.

Our 10-year anniversary bourbon is coming out on 1 December. It's 10 years old. It is the bourbon component of Outryder. That's going to be the oldest whiskey that we've ever released and it's absolutely fantastic. I was bored and I tried a couple of these barrels when they were eight and I was blown away then, and now that Nancy has blended them in the batch that she has, it's awesome. It's just incredible to have a whiskey that [is] 10 years old.

Wyoming Whiskey 10th anniversary bourbon is available at wyomingwhiskey.com.
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