Montana is a young state, and a rugged one. The weather is extreme, the economy is shaky, and the people are spread out. In many areas, well-stocked grocery stores and creative restaurants are hard to find. But thanks in part to the difficulties of life in the Treasure State, Montanans have been butchering game, brewing beer, and growing vegetables at home since long before those things came back into the culinary mainstream. Today, a new generation is drawing upon a legacy of self-sufficiency to bring the flavors of Montana to the national table. And in keeping with a statewide love for drink that goes back to the frontier era, many of them are distillers.
For decades, microdistilleries were illegal in Montana. Then in 2005, the state legislature approved the Microdistillery Act, a bill championed by Helena lawyer and would-be distiller Mike Uda. Less than a decade later, native-made spirits are flowing across the state like water through a mountain stream.
Here are a few of my favorite offerings:
When you think of absinthe, chances are that you don't think of Montana. To Julie and Joe Legate, however, absinthe made perfect sense for Vilya Spirits, their Rocky Mountain distillery. Extrait d'Absinthe Verte takes its spicy and multi-layered flavor from herbs grown near Kalispell, where the distillery is based. As it turns out, the alpine climate of northwestern Montana helps to create an absinthe that can stand glass-to-glass with the fine absinthes of chilly Switzerland, where the green fairy was first distilled in the eighteenth century.
The spirit that put Whistling Andy on the map was a hibiscus coconut rum, which drummed up buzz when it won an international spirits contest a couple of years ago. But if you're looking for a tipple that speaks a bit more to the distillery's Bigfork location, try Andy's Moonshine, a grainy white whiskey that tastes like the sun-baked air in the Big Sky state around the time of the fall harvest. Made with barley, wheat, corn, and rye grown and milled in Montana, it is an appropriately rough-hewn rebuttal to the smoother whiskeys enjoyed back east. Ask about the kirschwasser, made from local Flathead cherries, which is tasty enough to be a flagship offering but currently sold out.
Montanans love their beer, whether it's craft brew from Big Sky Brewery or ice-cold Canadian Kokanee. And over the past few decade, the Great Northern Brewing Company, in Whitefish, has become one of the state's standout sources. Glacier Distilling partnered up with Great Northern to create Wheatfish Whiskey, with a mash based on the brewery's popular Wheatfish Lager. The whiskey, made just outside Glacier National Park, is warm and gentle, with just a touch of oak and a strong foundation in Montana-grown wheat.
When Roughstock Distillery opened for business back in 2008, it was the only legal distillery in Montana. Today, the distillery is still turning out some of the best straight-down-the-line whiskey in the Big Sky state using local grains and corn. For the soft wheat that gives the Spring Wheat Whiskey its mellow flavor, distiller Bryan Schultz turned to Wheat Montana, a statewide chain that grows spring wheat to mill into flour for its breads. The mash ferments in Oregon fir barrels before it moves into distillation.
Though Missoula, Montana, is a shopping center for the cowboys in the many small towns that surround it, dreadlocks and sandals outnumber cowboy boots and pearl snaps in the laid-back Garden City. Montgomery Distillery, located in downtown Missoula, follows its hometown's idiosyncratic lead with spirits and cocktails executed with a Brooklynite sensibility. If you're taking home a bottle, choose the Whyte Laydie Gin, made with local ingredients that include Rocky Mountain juniper, yarrow, and elderflower. Also, scan the distillery's shelves for seasonally available mixers such as Douglas fir-tip syrup and Flathead cherry shrub.
About the Author: Jed Portman is a Charleston, South Carolina-based writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @jdportman.