Willie's Distillery, Ennis, Montana

Willie Blazer monitors a batch of Big Horn Bourbon Whiskey being distilled at Willie’s Distillery in Ennis, Montana. Photo by Jeff Adkins

With an abundance of grains and a population of entrepreneurs, it is no wonder Montana has had a boom in the number of distilleries launching in the last few years.

More than 20 distilleries have gone into business statewide since the Montana Legislature passed a bill in 2005, relaxing rules and tax codes surrounding them. Other states are expected to follow suit.

“Montana has always been a little bit ahead of the curve as far as any craft manufacturing goes,” says Robin Blazer, who owns Willie’s Distillery in Ennis with her husband, Willie. “Look at the brewery industry,” she adds. “Montana has more breweries per capita than any other state in the nation. The distilling industry is a similar kind.”

The Montana Department of Agriculture’s (MDA) Growth Through Agriculture grant program has helped some distilleries get off the ground. The program provides funds to businesses promoting and utilizing the state’s agriculture industry.

Distilleries – and other types of food and ag businesses – have greatly benefited from the Growth Through Agriculture’s Mini Grant/Loan program.

Willie's Distillery, Ennis, Montana

Willie and Robin Blazer founded Willies Distillery in Ennis, Montana. It is one of many that benefited from the state’s Growth Through Agriculture grant program. Photo by Jeff Adkins

That’s the Spirit

Willie’s Distillery, which opened and had its first bottling in December 2012, is one of those businesses that benefited from Growth Through Agriculture. It has grown from just one employee to staff of 22 people. Blazer credits the MDA for part of the distillery’s success.

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“We have gotten a couple of mini grants through them,” she says. “We’ve worked with them quite a bit.”

Like most of the craft distilleries in Big Sky Country, Willie’s Distillery makes a variety of spirits. It has bourbon, a few varieties of moonshine, a rye whiskey and liqueurs. It has also partnered with nearby wineries to produce a brandy. The business sells its products throughout Montana and several other states.

Headframe Spirits, Butte, Montana

Headframe Spirits in Butte, Montana. Photo by Jeff Adkins

Great Grains

Of course, whiskey and other spirits rely on healthy grain production, particularly on corn, rye, wheat and barley – ingredients all readily found in Montana.

“We have so much access to Montana-grown grains that are so prevalent across the state,” says Gabe Spencer, a distiller for Whistling Andy Distillery, located in Bigfork. “Everybody is growing barley, corn, wheat and rye, and those are the four big grains that distilleries use.

“We pride ourselves in using only Montana-made products and the relationships we have with our farmers,” he adds.

Whistling Andy’s lineup of spirits includes three kinds of whiskey, two rums, two gins, a vodka and a distilled beer called Hopshnop. It also hosts tours and other promotions at its distillery, and has sales in Montana, as well as other states.

Headframe Spirits in Butte is also a regular customer of grain producers in Montana.

“Ninety-five percent of our grain comes from Montana Milling (a leading milling company in Great Falls),” Chief Marketing Officer Cassandra Sunell at Headframe Spirits says. “They work as much as they can to get their grains from Montana farmers.”

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Headframe Spirits produces five varieties of spirits, including its most popular, Orphan Girl bourbon cream liqueur. The business also manufactures equipment used in its continuous-flow distillation process.

The company, which sells spirits in 20 states, has quite the footprint in the industry. Owners John and Courtney McKee were named 2013 Montana Entrepreneurs of the Year.