After endless hours of jumping through hoops to comply with state and federal regulations and working through numerous delays that cropped up at nearly every turn, Casey McGowan finally got down to business in early January.
Trailhead Spirits, McGowan’s labor of love since early in 2011, has introduced its first product, Great North Vodka. The first 500-bottle run was distilled, bottled, labeled and ready for distribution. The tasting room is now open in the former Beanery building at 2314 Montana Ave., part of the historic Billings Depot.
Around St. Patrick’s Day, McGowan will introduce Healy’s Gin, named after his great grandfather, Mike Healy, who owned the Radio Bar in Butte and was a well-known bootlegger and still operator during Prohibition.
In a couple of years, look for aged whiskey and other distilled spirits from Trailhead, as McGowan tests the market and develops his skills as a distiller.
“It’s been an amazing adventure, but the fun part is just starting,” said McGowan, who described the custom-made distillery as a giant chemistry lab.
“What we’d like to do is continually have a new release, very limited, maybe 1,000 bottles,” he said. “We’d like to explore different flavor profiles and educate people on why it tastes the way it does.”
As consumer tastes evolve and markets become increasingly fragmented, many people are on the lookout for unique products. Not only does a locally produced liquor need to deliver on taste, it helps if there’s a story behind it.
And McGowan believes Trailhead Spirits has a pretty compelling story. Wheat grown on the family farm near Great Falls is the main feedstock for Great North Vodka. He also plans to use as many other Montana-made ingredients as possible, both in his distilled beverages and in the cocktails mixed in the distillery’s tasting room.
That means locally grown beet sugar and chocolate from Kings Cupboard in Red Lodge will be used in fancy cocktails. Martinis will be garnished with olives from the Yellowstone Olive Co., an upstart retailer that specializes in olives and related products. McGowan also hopes to incorporate other well-known Montana products such as Flathead cherries and huckleberries into his product line.
“That’s kind of the premise behind the business plan,” McGowan said. “We try to use as many local vendors as we can.”
McGowan had originally planned to name the distillery Big Sky Spirits, but his application was rejected by the Montana Secretary of State’s office because the name had already been taken by a Texas-based cheerleading camp that has operations in Montana. A few months went by as McGowan pondered different names. One day out of the blue he got a call from his wife, Steffanie.
“I’ve got the name,” she said. “Trailhead Spirits.”
The distillery’s name ties in with a homegrown branding initiative that promotes Billings as Montana’s trailhead. The Billings Chamber of Commerce Convention and Visitors Bureau has been quite supportive of the name, and McGowan hopes to develop cross-promotional events.
Distilling remains one of the most tightly regulated industries in the nation, and complying with the myriad state and federal regulations has required patience and diligence, McGowan said.
Under state law, distilleries like Trailhead Spirits have limited hours and may serve only 2 ounces per customer per day, although customers can also buy packaged products to take out. Because of that, McGowan expects that 80 percent of his production will be consumed away from the premises, either purchased in liquor stores or consumed in other drinking establishments.
Trailhead’s products intended for wholesale must be distributed through the state liquor warehouse. Under state law, if the bartender at The Rex just across the street runs out of McGowan’s product, he can’t pop over and pick up a case. He has to order it through the state warehouse, which means shipping it to Helena and back to Billings.
Despite the tight regulations, micro distilleries are popping up all over the map. About a half dozen small distilleries are operating throughout the Big Sky state. The owners have formed an informal distiller’s guild and may eventually look for opportunities to benefit the industry. One potential change to state law would be to allow distilleries to distribute their products locally, while still paying their taxes but avoiding the additional expense of shipping through the state warehouse, McGowan said.
The distilling process hasn’t changed a lot since it was invented sometime during the Middle Ages. But McGowan’s great grandfather would likely be impressed with the sophisticated technology utilized at Trailhead.
The computerized equipment relies on pumps and automatic control valves. A beer-like mash of fermented grain, yeast and water is placed into a copper kettle where it’s heated. Ethanol, the compound that gives distilled spirits their kick, boils at 173 degrees, compared to water’s boiling point of 212 degrees. The alcohol vapor is captured in a series of vertical condensers.
The clear distillate is sent through again, filtered and bottled.
McGowan has no grand scheme to compete with Jack Daniels and other national brands. He and other micro distillers will continue to focus on discerning customers who value something different.
“Even if we have our 1 percent, we’ll be happy,” he said.