SHERIDAN - With plates and glasses cleared away, pen met paper and ideas were scrawled on a tablet after a Koltiska family gathering.
Their secret-recipe liqueur had become so popular, locals were calling regularly for a batch or bottle to serve at weddings and other special occasions.
"We thought, 'This is crazy. We ought to do this for a living,' " said Justin Koltiska, one of the three Koltiska men who founded Kolts Fine Spirits in Sheridan. Justin's brother Jason and the two men's uncle, Rob, are the other partners in the business.
The liqueur formula, made from grain alcohol, was brought to Sheridan County in the late 1800s when the first Koltiska settled here.
"We began the process of putting it all together to see if we could make it happen," Jason Koltiska said. "We decided to take that jump."
The 1,400-square-foot plant on Broadway is the first distillery in the state of Wyoming. It is where Koltiska Original, the slightly sweet, amber-colored liqueur "with hints of extracts and spices," is distilled and bottled. The 60-proof liquor (30 percent alcohol by volume) debuted in April 2005.
Jason Koltiska said KO is "unlike anything on the shelf" and "hits everyone's palate differently."
Originally intended to be enjoyed straight as a shot or over ice, local bartenders began experimenting with KO, adding mixers such as orange juice to create a "KOjo" or mixing Red Bull with cranberry juice to make a "Cowboy Kool-Aid."
There's even a spin on the traditional margarita, the "KO-rita," developed and served with regularity at the Wyoming Rib and Chop House.
As the mixed drinks gained popularity, the men decided to develop a 90-proof alternative to KO.
"People were telling us they loved the product but wanted a little more bang for the buck (with a mixed drink)," Justin Koltiska said. "Something with a little more kick in it."
KO 90 hit the market in Wyoming in November 2006. Sheridan liquor stores, bars and restaurants carried the product, and other Wyoming communities soon followed. Sales and distribution of both items have now expanded to include Washington, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.
In a hotly competitive business dominated by big liquor companies with fleets of trucks and millions, if not billions, of dollars to spend, Kolts Fine Spirits continues to make inroads.
"It's a David vs. Goliath story," Jason Koltiska said.
The men conceded that they simply do not have the resources to compete with big corporations. As a small company, they can't directly order glass bottles whenever necessary; rather they must wait for the glass manufacturer to run large companies' orders, then "add a little bit" to that order to supply Kolts.
Subsequently, bottle shapes can be slightly different from order to order.
There is no elaborate advertising campaign or funding available to finance huge promotions. Word of mouth has been their greatest source of advertising.
Despite these disadvantages, the three continue their efforts to get their product to market.
Justin Koltiska travels an average of two weeks per month marketing the product, introducing the liqueur, and showing potential customers how to sell and drink the liqueur (and properly pronounce the family name).
Rob Koltiska said Kolts Fine Spirits is determined to support American, and more specifically, Wyoming businesses. He said the firm's raw ingredients, custom manufacturing equipment, point-of-sale displays, brochures, posters and numerous professional services are all from Wyoming.
"This form of Wyoming support is a source of pride to us, especially when our products are being exposed to out-of-state customers," Rob Koltiska said.
"We push Wyoming proud," Jason Koltiska added.
The men are eager to promote their liqueur to a larger audience and to that end are approaching the Sheridan-WYO Rodeo and Cheyenne Frontier Days hoping to promote the uniquely Wyoming product at the uniquely Wyoming events.
"We've done something no one else has done in the state," Justin Koltiska said of the distillery and their product. "We're pretty damn proud we've made it this far."