So there’s a new distillery opening near where I live and I’m SO EXCITED. So much, here’s the story I wrote for the Hungry Horse News, with photos.
Moonshine, grit and gutsBy K.J. Hascall/Hungry Horse News
Last week, Nicolas Lee and Danny McIntosh huddled around the spouts at the end of the distilling process, watching a clear, sweet-smelling liquid cascade into a mason jar.
Lee stuck the end of a finger in the spout, the first batch off the still, made from distilled Great Northern beer. He tasted it, smacking his lips. McIntosh did the same.
After a few moments pensive silence, watching the spirit steadily fill the jar, the two men started laughing and clapped each other on the back. At the end of a long process from dream to reality, Glacier Distilling is up and running.
Glacier Distilling began as an idea about two years ago. Today it’s housed in the Whiskey Barn, a bright red building on U.S. Highway 2 in Coram. The shiny new Kothe brand combination pot and column still stands copper in the window. There’s a tasting room in the works. Lee and McIntosh hope to be open by mid-to-late February.
“I feel like I’d always wanted to do it,” Lee said. “We were sitting around with some friends a couple of winters ago talking about microbreweries, talking about old timers and what people had to do to survive.”
Lee told the story of Josephine Doody, a homesteader near Harrison Creek in Glacier National Park. The memory of Josephine’s renowned whiskey lives on.
“She used to moonshine out of there,” he said. “When the Great Northern trains would go by they’d flash their lights to signal how many jugs they wanted. She was somewhat of a hermit, but apparently made really good moonshine.”
Glacier Distilling’s first brew is a light whiskey called Glacier Dew in honor of Josephine Doody and hardworking pioneers.
“They survived on moonshine and lots of grit and gut,” Lee said. “We wanted to create something to remind you of that time.”
A light whiskey is an un-aged spirit. All spirits come off the still clear; the color of a whiskey comes from the barrel it ages in. Glacier Distilling is using charred and toasted oak barrels to color and flavor the whiskeys they make. Glacier Dew will only sit in the barrels a brief time before bottling.
Unlike Scotch, which is aged in used barrels, American law dictates that whiskey must be aged in new barrels, which gives bourbon a distinct flavor. Glacier Distilling plans to find a home for their used barrels, perhaps at a brewery that ages beer in whiskey barrels.
In addition to Glacier Dew, Lee plans to release Badrock Rye, a rye whiskey, and North Fork White Whiskey. The piece de resistance, however, will be Belton Point Bourbon.
“The bourbon is my favorite whiskey drink,” Lee said. “I like that heavy, aged, oaked taste.”
The corn, rye and barley, once the alcohol is distilled out of them, make a great fertilizer. Lee hopes local farmers will use the grains. And in keeping it local, Lee said the distillery is trying to use all Montana grains in their whiskeys. The grains in the first batches off the still over the next few weeks come from Great Falls.
The distillation process is simple, and yet at the same time it’s a complex game of refinement. First the grains are combined with water and yeast in the mash tank, where the starches in the grain are converted to sugar. The yeast ferments the sugar, which turns it into alcohol.
The fermenting mixture is transferred to large blue tubs, where it sits for 72 hours, to days, to weeks, depending on the mixture.
The mixture, now called a wash, is placed into the still, where it’s heated to boiling. The steam that the wash gives off is what becomes the spirit.
“Steam is what you bottle,” Lee, a chemistry major in college, said. “The art is teasing, getting the temperature controlled, getting what you want out of there.
“With a small still like this, I’d like to play around. Everything is going to be small batches. We’ll have fun with it. The process is so simple you can do so much with it if you finesse it just right.”
The steam condenses into the spirit, which is placed in the oaken barrels, where the alcohol content drops off from around 160 proof to 80 to 100 proof. Glacier Distilling will bottle the spirit in small batches, which will be for sale out of the tasting room.
“We are trying to be a micro, local distillery,” Lee said. “Each product has a story of something that happened here. We’ve embraced this canyon area pretty hard. With the history that went on here it seemed like a good location at the doorstep of Glacier.”