By DOUG HECOX
The Rocky Mountain West is known for vast mountain ranges, boundless skies and an unending supply of inadequate descriptions. Over the last several years, it has become home to a growing community of bourbon distilleries, including RoughStock in Bozeman, Mont., and High West in Park City, Utah.
More than 1,000 miles from Kentucky and the cradle of American bourbon-making, diminutive Kirby, Wyo. -- population 92 -- seems an unconventional place to make whiskey. More widely known for its cowboys and vast mountain ranges, the remote community is ground zero for one of the West’s fastest-growing and most popular new bourbons.
Only five blocks long, three blocks wide and nestled deep in the heart of the Rocky Mountain grain country, Kirby is a shot glass-sized home for the small but thriving Wyoming Whiskey distillery. Not too far from corn, barley and other key grains, and a one-mile-deep limestone aquifer nearby, Wyoming Whiskey is local sourced.
Wyoming Whiskey’s small batch bourbon – a medium-bodied amber – offers an aromatic blend of molasses, sweet corn and clove. The palate of caramel, vanilla, charred oak with traces of citrus is complemented by a mild, smooth finish with lingering notes of caramel and toast.
Connoisseurs love it, and the experts agree. Within the last few months, Wyoming Whiskey won two medals in the “Certified Craft Bourbon Over 5 Years of Age” category from the American Distilling Institute, a bronze medal for its Small Batch Bourbon and a Best-In-Class Silver Medal for its Single Barrel Bourbon. It also won a Silver Medal at the 2015 North American Bourbon and Whiskey Competition for its Single Barrel Bourbon Up to 10 Years, and a silver medal at the Denver International Spirits Competition’s “Straight Bourbon” category.
When its operations began in 2012, Steve Nally – the former Maker’s Mark master distiller – was hired to mastermind Wyoming Whiskey’s initial batches. Though he eventually moved on to other projects, Wyoming Whiskey continues in the tradition of the larger, more established brands in Kentucky and Tennessee. (See a 2013 Imbibe interview with Nash here.)
“Every drop we make is 100 percent Wyoming,” says co-founder David DeFazio. “Our grain is all locally grown and non-GMO. We made the decision to use non-GMO grains at the outset because we thought it was the right thing to do. Keeping it natural is more expensive, but we feel better about it.”
Like most craft distillery bourbons new to the market in the past couple of years, this bourbon isn't cheap. Online reviews tag it consistently at about $50 a bottle, far more than better-known options like Maker's Mark, Elijah Craig, or Woodford Reserve.
But like those Kentucky bourbons, its creators credit much of its character to the place it's made in.
The notoriously dry summers and unrelenting winters make Wyoming a fundamentally different distilling environment than Kentucky and Tennessee.
“Our lowest measured winter temperature inside the rick houses was -4F, and it was -25F outside,” says DeFazio. “Not much happens in a barrel when it’s that cold, so our maturation season gets cut short.”
“It gets hotter in the summer than it does in Kentucky,” he adds. “We will experience weeks where it gets over 104 degrees outside and our rick houses have topped out at 134. That makes some difference and is a high temperature for one-story rick houses. And, it will cool down considerably every night. This diurnal change in temperature likely causes our bourbon to ingress into, and egress out of, the barrels’ staves more meaningfully each day.”
Originally from Slingerlands, N.Y., near Albany, DeFazio moved west after college. He stayed with a friend in Jackson, Wyo., intending to stay only briefly.
“Skiing is the passion that brought me here and the summers kept me here. Working in Jackson and Kirby allows a diversity of scenery, culture and outdoor opportunities I’ve never found anywhere else.”
Historians can’t be sure whether any distilleries operated in Wyoming prior to Prohibition, but Wyoming Whiskey lays claim to a unique title – it is the first distillery to be licensed by the State of Wyoming. The American Distillery Institute lists just one other in Wyoming, and dozens have opened across the West. By the end of 2013, nearly 475 craft distilleries were in production across the country. (See map here.)
“Our Wyoming Manufacturer’s License number is 1, and is the only license issued since 1935 when the Wyoming Liquor Commission was formed,” says DeFazio. The second distillery in the state is Single Track Spirits, a tiny outfit northwest of Kirby, in the equally small hamlet of Cody. It produces lightly aged, high-wheat, high-proof whiskey, about six barrels at a time.
The spirit of wide-open Wyoming, population just under 600,000, is infused throughout this Wyoming spirit. The ingredients all come from within a hundred-mile radius of the distillery. According to DeFazio, the idea for the distillery came from Brad Mead, a fourth-generation rancher, the grandson of former U.S. senator and Gov. Cliff Hansen, and the brother of current Gov. Matt Mead. The “TT” embossed on the bottom of each bottle is the Mead family’s cattle brand – one of the oldest in the state. (Story continues below photos. -ed)
“Our ABV of 44 percent is no accident, either,” says DeFazio, noting the bourbon is cut with water to reduce its proof from 110 to 88 by the time it's bottled. “Wyoming was the 44th state admitted to the union.”
From humble beginnings three years ago, Wyoming Whiskey is now sold throughout Wyoming and in 11 other states – Colorado, Texas, Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.
“We build each batch, barrel by barrel… to create a more balanced and consistent spirit,” says DeFazio, “and we’re relying on one of the best tasters in the business. As for our Single Barrel Bourbon, well, it will speak for itself. Every few months we sample hundreds of barrels and select only the very best for our brown label. This means it is a limited release and currently only available in Wyoming.
“Actually, it’s sold out,” he says, “but we’re making more!”
And, though he admits to not being a whiskey sommelier, he said Wyoming Whiskey goes great with dinner – preferably, he says, with “a quality elk loin steak.”
Doug Hecox is a journalist, author, teacher and comedian.