At Montgomery Distillery in Missoula, proprietors Jenny and Ryan Montgomery distill top-shelf spirits. They tap pure aquifer water and their family’s deep roots in agriculture to concentrate the essence of Montana into small-batch vodka, gin, and whiskey (their primary mission). Four years after they produced their first batch of vodka, they released a two-year old, American oak cask, straight 100% rye whiskey called Sudden Wisdom. It ages in casks and a batch is released each year.
Insight may or may not come with drinking whiskey, but wisdom is inherent at Montgomery Distillery, where they blend tradition and innovation. This authenticity is evident when you tour the distillery, participate in a bottling party, watch the bartenders in action, or converse with the elegant and immensely funny Jenny Montgomery over a cocktail.
The ancient Greeks believed distilled spirits were divine and used them for ritual and religious purposes. Standing next to her curvaceous German-built CARL still, Jenny exclaims, “they figured out, ‘Hey this is amazing! It changes your frame of mind. You can light it on fire. Clearly, this is from the gods!’” Later, Scottish and Irish Celts agreed. Their word for distilled spirits is uisge beatha, meaning “water of life.”
Unlike some so-called “craft distilleries,” Montgomery uses grain milled and fermented in-house. They source barley grown and malted near Great Falls, but the wheat and rye is from Ryan’s parents’ farm near Heath in central Montana. The Montgomerys also never use alcohol made by another producer. The spirits in their bottles are their own.
Rich grain, pure water, frisky yeast, gorgeous copper stills and charred oak casks: these are the tools of the trade. The act of distilling, however, is a little bit art, a lot science, and requires discerning judgment. Montgomery excels in this department.
Ryan learned the traditional fundamentals of distilling in Scotland and has worked alongside distillers throughout the U.S. He and self-taught head distiller Chad Larrabee know that the art of distilling is when to make the cut. You must discern when to select what’s called ‘the heart of the run’ that contains ethyl alcohol and aromatic flavor compounds. Cut too early and you get heads (toxic methanol and acetone). Cut too late and you get tails (fatty acids and fusel oils). “What we’re going for is the ethanol,” Jenny says, “because through some miracle—divine or scientific—our livers can metabolize it.”
To the water of life made of heart Jenny brings pure botanicals. Her certificate in herbal studies from Green Path Herb School informs her choice of ingredients for Montgomery’s delicious cocktails; the products they produce for sale or use behind the bar, like bitters, syrups, shrubs, and liqueur; and for their exquisite Whyte Laydie dry gin and Skadi Aquavit.
Mixing cocktails is a mongrel culinary art, born in America from the blending of cultures, a history that inspires Jenny. Because a Montana distillery may only serve alcohol it produces, Jenny explains, “We make a lot of 19th Century cocktails that are based on a single spirit….and use the full spectrum of fruit, herbs, and botanicals.”
Belly up to Montgomery’s mahogany bar and sample concoctions, like the Honeybee Highball with vodka, Wustner Brothers honey shrub, lemon, soda, and spanked rosemary; and The Dude Abides with vodka, Black Coffee Roasting Company coffee liqueur and Kalispell Creamery milk. The cocktail menu changes with the seasons, but retains the “classics.” Many ingredients are from local producers. All are tasty!
An auspicious location for Montgomery Distillery, 129 Front Street was originally built in 1889 to contain a liquor warehouse and the Elite Saloon. Back then, Front Street was the Wall Street of western Montana. Saloons like the Elite acted as community centers with the benefit of cocktails. “In early Montana history drinking was a priority,” says Jenny. Surprisingly, mixed drinks were popular, not straight bourbon as Western films would have us believe.
One of the pinnacles of their endeavor thus far, Montgomery released a small batch Montana Single Malt in November 2016. It’s delicious and significant. It was, after all, sharing single malts that sparked the love between Jenny and Ryan and inspired them to create Montgomery Distillery. Their hearts are in their business, and so is their fabulous sense of humor. For a chuckle watch the mockumentary they made, “Introducing Montgomery” or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Gin.” The title pays homage to Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic “Dr. Strangelove.”
Downstairs on the wall of the distillery next to the magnificent copper stills are two portraits that sum up the heart and soul that abides in Montgomery Distillery. One is Sir Robert Burns, knighted 18th century poet of Scotland. The other is Jeff Bridges as The Dude in the film “The Big Lebowski.” It seems only appropriate, therefore, to sign off with the toast. Slàinte, Dude!
DAMIANA DARE ME
1½ oz Damiana Infused Vodka
3/4 oz lemon juice
3/4 oz honey syrup
3-4 dashes lemon bitters.
3 oz. Orange juice
Build in Boston shaker with plenty of ice. Shake hard to combine. Spank a sprig of rosemary to release aroma and garnish.