The curve in the road where South 24th Street West turns into Gabel Road has slowly transformed into a hub of industry, quietly luring new businesses to the West End.
Joining the collection of shops, restaurants and entertainment joints there is Trailhead Spirits, a Billings-based whiskey and gin distillery that recently made the move from downtown. Trailhead launched in 2013 at the Depot on Montana Avenue downtown, and after five busy years, ran out of space.
Whiskey, you see, has to age. And because of space restraints at the Depot, the capacity didn't exist to store large numbers of barrels.
"We could never expand our production on the whiskey side of things because we never had the room for storage," said owner Casey McGowan.
So as McGowan began looking for new locations several years ago, at the top of his list was ample storage. The once vacant Sutton Sportswear warehouse at the corner of 24th and Gabel was the perfect fit.
The center section of the warehouse was remodeled four years ago when the trampoline park Get Air Billings moved in. The jump house has been continually busy since it opened in 2016 and it's helped pull other businesses to the area.
One block away on Overland Avenue is the Billings Escape Room, which opened in 2017 and is just as busy as the trampoline park. Across the street from the warehouse is a small business development with a half dozen storefronts, anchored by Resurrection Church.
Trailhead remodeled the space over the summer and opened the day after Thanksgiving, taking the space in the warehouse just east of Get Air.
The new location has 10 times the storage space from what McGowan had at the Depot and so he's begun to expand his whiskey portfolio; Trailhead distributes to five states. McGowan didn't intend to set up shop next to a trampoline park — he wasn't even looking to leave downtown — but the old Sutton warehouse was just right.
McGowan loved being on Montana Avenue and loved the Depot. Leaving downtown meant leaving the tight-knit group of shops, restaurants and pubs on Montana Avenue that have all worked for years to transform the street.
"You lose the community feel of downtown," he said.
Amanda Sowden, an attorney in town, loves the look and feel of the Depot and just swears by that downtown community feel. She and her husband Clint Sowden will open Bar MT in the old Trailhead space in February.
"The patio is the best patio in town," she said with a laugh.
Bar MT will feature 28 beers on tap and a selection of wines.
"It's kind of like City Vineyard but flipped," Sowden said.
The main emphasis will be on offering a variety of beers with some wine to round out the selection, she said. And because it's a bar — as opposed to a tasting room — Bar MT will stay open late.
"I've been looking to do this for a long time," she said.
The Montana Avenue businesses have already welcomed the Sowdens. Many have visited to offer a warm welcome or support. Uberbrew, which is just across the street, came in to help the Sowdens troubleshoot getting their taps set up.
"It's been really refreshing," Amanda Sowden said.
As much as McGowan will miss that Montana Avenue conviviality, he's excited to be where he is and is impressed with how the businesses around him have reached out.
"So far the response the community's been great," he said.
For years, Jake's Bar and Grill on the corner of 24th and Overland marked the far end of the group of restaurants and shops that feed off the King Avenue retail corridor. With Trailhead's opening one more block down the street, that corridor is now stretching further along Gabel.
McGowan expects the growth to continue; Gabel Road is affordable.
When he first started looking to move from downtown, McGowan checked out various locations on Shiloh Road. The Shiloh Crossing retail center at King Avenue and Shiloh has boomed in the last five years. A mile up the road, Shiloh Commons at the corner of Central Avenue and Shiloh, is nearing completion and will again increase the retail footprint on Shiloh.
New development along a popular corridor means higher rents, and ultimately McGowan needed something more affordable. He has a tasting room that by law can only be open until 8 p.m.
The location at 24th and Gabel was affordable and close to much of the retail action on the West End. It ended up being the perfect spot. The large open warehouse space allowed McGowan to configure the space to his needs and create a unique storefront for customers.
"It's got a pretty swanky feel for Billings," he said with a laugh.
It took a while for the Grotto's owners to find the perfect place — it is, after all, Billings' first kombucha bar and all-vegan restaurant. T…