Let’s just say Casey McGowan isn’t the first member of his family to make his own hooch.
His great-grandfather, Michael Healy, “was a pretty well-known bootlegger and distiller in the ’20s during Prohibition days in Butte,” McGowan said.
Healy ran several Butte bars before the nation’s grand experiment to force sobriety began. Then he ran stills in the countryside.
That’s a legacy that has long captivated McGowan, who lives in Billings.
For 20 months, he and his wife, Steffanie McGowan, have been juggling the small pile of state and federal permits needed to set up their Billings distillery called Trailhead Spirits.
McGowan expects to start distilling gin, vodka and whiskey in August and hopes to pour the first drink of his Montana-made liquor in mid-November.
“We are passionate about preserving our family’s amazing legacy,” he said. “I’d love to tell people I sell booze for a living.”
A love and deep knowledge of Butte history and a desire to start a business kept McGowan going as he tried to gain entry into one of the most regulated businesses in the U.S.
His dream of distilling liquor was so strong that McGowan wrote his first business plan in secret before presenting the idea to his wife.
“It came as a total surprise,” she said. “I wasn’t nervous about his abilities. I was worried about a business taking away from family time.”
She blessed the idea, came up with the Trailhead Spirits name and then got to work.
Should read “McGowan, who sells insurance and Steffanie, who works in marketing, want to keep their day jobs, so they want to run their tasting room from late afternoon until the legal closing time of 8 p.m.
“We both want to do something on our own and something that won’t take all of our time and energy, so we could continue our jobs and have a little more security,” Casey McGowan said.
Last October, Trailhead Spirits leased the former Beanery space, a tradition-rich brick building that is part of the Billings Depot complex. Leasing space early was one of the many Catch-22s of obtaining a federal liquor license.
“With a federal distillery license, it’s the opposite of what you think. You need to get the license and permit, but first you have to have a building,” Steffanie said.
Their two young daughters are now part of the team.
“We spent Father’s Day painting. The girls love to wander around here,” he said.
The beanery, which used to feed passengers from the two dozen trains that passed daily through Billings, will keep its historical look.
“We want to find a balance between the history of this building and bringing in modern equipment and a modern feel to it,” Casey said.
The names of their gin, vodka and whiskey can’t be disclosed until the federal government approves the labels.
Montana has a handful of distillers, including another one in Billings. George Moncure, who runs Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. and the Spirit of Montana distillery, wished the McGowans well.
“There is a huge amount of potential to showcase quality spirits in Montana,” Moncure said.
Under Montana law, distilleries can serve two ounces of liquor per customer per day, so Trailhead Spirits will be a place to taste custom-distilled liquors. More Americans are seeking local produce and goods, a trend the McGowans are banking on since the grains will come from Casey’s family farm on the Hi-Line.
“People will come in after work and have a drink and then we’ll send you on to the Rex or the Brew Pub or some other restaurant for dinner,” Casey said. “And when they see our brand on the shelf, they might say, ‘I’ve been to that place’ and pick up a bottle.”