Distillery Focus

The Ryes of Wyoming Whiskey

Visiting an outrider of the American whiskey scene
By Mark Bylok
WWhen Brad and Kate Mead founded Wyoming Whiskey a decade ago, their inspiration was a smooth Kentucky wheated Bourbon. They followed the example of Kentucky Bourbon makers, but that’s not quite how their whiskey turned out. Did terroir affect it or is the whiskey a product of its environment? The 10-year history of Wyoming Whiskey is a story of people, landscape and mistakes made along the way.

The Meads have been ranchers since 1890. However, when a virus carried by local moose endangered their cattle near Yellowstone Park, they thought it was time to diversify. Selling off some land near Jackson, they bought another ranch further east at Kirby, Wyoming, away from moose. At the same time, they looked for other ways to use their ranch land. Kirby is ideal for grain farming and after digging a little deeper, making whiskey was an obvious choice.

Kate and Brad asked David Defazio, with whom they worked through their law firm, to run the distillery. Defazio accepted a partnership role in the company, not quite realising what he was getting into. Although he is not a Wyoming native, Defazio has lived in the state much of his life and he speaks of Wyoming Whiskey with the same passion he shares for skiing and fishing, the hobbies that brought him there.

While researching whiskey making in Kentucky, David and Brad were warned that running a distillery would be three times harder than they thought, cost three times as much, and take three times as long. “I just assumed they didn’t want the competition,” Brad Mead said humbly. “We got a lot of good advice from Kentucky early on, but we didn’t know enough to follow it.”

Back in 2006, there was no easy template for opening a new distillery, but the Meads and Defazio did the most important thing correctly – they hired Steve Nally, a distiller with 30 years’ experience at Maker’s Mark. They had decided to make Bourbon the Kentucky way, using a wheated Bourbon recipe similar to that of Maker’s Mark and Pappy Van Winkle. It turns out that was the easy part. The high elevation in Wyoming meant boiling points were lower due to lower air density. It took months of trial and error to figure out how to make a proper distillate.

One of their most difficult lessons came after just three years of operation, when they released their first cases of Wyoming Whiskey Bourbon. They rented the largest tent in Wyoming to accommodate 1,500 guests for their launch party. An astounding 4,500 showed up. Unfortunately, the Bourbon was not ready for public consumption. “In hindsight, we were drinking the Kool-Aid,” David remembers. “People told me it wasn’t ready. But I had tasted it from when we first poured it into barrels. It tasted so much better.”

Nevertheless, it sold out within the first minute of online sales. “I take most of the responsibility for that. I was wrong,” Defazio adds. While sales were wildly successful, the reviews were sobering. They realised that in their enthusiasm they had jumped the gun. Defazio went to people’s homes offering to buy back the whisky, and promised to release a better Bourbon.

Obviously in need of direction, the team hired Nancy Fraley, a consultant known as ‘The Nose’ who has experience working in diverse climates. Fraley has earned a good reputation by bringing her Cognac and brandy sensibilities to whiskey making. At first her tweaks seemed small, but they were significant. Unlike Kentucky, Wyoming’s climate means hot dry summers and long cold winters during which the barrels lie almost dormant. To address this, Fraley pushed the barrel entry proof from 110° to 114° to balance out the sweet notes with sharper vanillas and a spicier profile.

Distiller’s yeast used in Kentucky was not as productive in Wyoming because of the lower levels of oxygen. She introduced a white wine yeast from France into the process. The Meads’ son, Sam, took the role of distiller while working with Fraley.
While Wyoming Small Batch continues as a popular flagship Bourbon, Wyoming Whiskey Outryder has stolen the heart of whiskey enthusiasts – though it started with a stubborn mistake. The fermenters reacted predictably to rye by overflowing and creating a mess. Production was painfully slow, but eventually 200 barrels were filled and laid down.

Year after year, Fraley tasted samples from these barrels. Finally, when they turned five, she told Defazio the whiskey was ready. But there was a problem. A ‘clerical error’ seemed to indicate the recipe for the mash was only 48 per cent rye, and American regulations required it be 51 per cent to be called a Straight Rye.

The Wyoming team was sitting on beautiful barrels of whiskey that were ready for bottling but they could not sell it as a Straight Rye. Worse, the recipe did not have enough corn (40 per cent) to qualify as a Bourbon. Fraley’s solution? Blend the high-rye whiskey with a traditional rye Bourbon whiskey they had already barrelled. They called the result Outryder, the ‘almost rye’ whiskey. Being neither rye nor Bourbon, Wyoming Outryder fits in the ‘American Whiskey’ category.

Which brings us back to the importance of place, and environment. Terroir romanticises wine making. It speaks to soil, air and weather that influence the flavour of wine and the wine-making process. Undoubtedly, Wyoming Whiskey produces its own style of whiskey that is adapted to and drawing on the land and climate. Their wheated Bourbon is certainly not Kentucky Bourbon, though it has a welcome familiarity on the palate. Wyoming Small Batch reveals the core of this profile, with its terrific orange-zest character, and a gentle nuttiness that complements the citrus and sweetness. It is wheated Bourbon to be sure, yet, in Wyoming, the peppery notes from the barrels mean you could easily mistake it for a high-rye whiskey and be forgiven for doing so.

The Mead family and David Defazio did not achieve their original dream of producing a fine wheated Kentucky Bourbon. Instead, they created something that is even better: a bold wheated Wyoming Bourbon that’s true to the land, in the dry summer heat and sub-zero winters. Does Wyoming Whiskey express terroir? I don’t know, but the whiskey in the barrels and the people making it are all maturing wonderfully together in the beautiful state of Wyoming.