A little too much vodka or gin might occasionally cause a few hiccups, but for Trailhead Spirits — a soon-to-open distillery on Montana Avenue — a few hiccups have meant a delay in getting any vodka or gin at all.
Casey McGowan, who owns the business in the former Beanery building at 2314 Montana Ave. with his wife, Steffanie, hoped to begin distilling vodka, gin and whiskey locally this month and start pouring around Christmas.
He's worked through just about all of the tedious permitting and paperwork needed to distill and sell alcohol.
But progress hit a snag when installers from the manufacturer coming from Hungary were turned back because their paperwork wasn't in order.
"They had some issues at immigration," McGowan said. "When they said they're coming here to do some work, they didn't let them in and sent them back" to Hungary.
The parts and equipment are in Billings and are clearly labeled with photo instructions.
So the McGowans gathered a team of family, friends, employees and a project manager from the manufacturer who lives in California to begin the assembly.
With the help of the California project manager communicating online and by phone, they should be able to get everything installed, just a little later than expected.
"There's nothing we can do, other than figure it out," McGowan said. "I think we're making good progress."
The still and seven tanks — which have a 300-liter capacity — are high-tech and custom made for Trailhead's needs and space requirement, with a complex electrical control system that includes pneumatic and electronic valves.
That means everybody pitching in with the assembly is taking extra care to make sure it's done right.
"We're looking at everything very carefully," McGowan said. "It's like a giant jigsaw puzzle, but with instructions, and we're going it ourselves."
Once everything is completed, the first batches of vodka and gin can be ready within about a week. Traditional whiskey and bourbon probably won't be available for about three years — it has to be aged in casks and gains flavor and color the longer it's aged — but Trailhead Spirits is considering offering white whiskey, which is unaged and mostly clear, in the meantime.
Many liquor companies like to brag about how their products are distilled three or five or six times before rolling out to consumers. McGowan said that one of his selling points is that, with the new equipment, his alcohol will be distilled about 16 times — making for a purer product.
As long as the equipment comes together as expected, the distillery could start selling merchandise by Christmas and begin liquor sales right around New Year's Day.
Nearly everything about Trailhead Spirits points to the past. McGowan's great-grandfather, Michael Healy, was a bootlegger in Butte during Prohibition in the 1920s. He's captivated McGowan for years and is the namesake for one of the businesses first products: Healy's Gin.
With the business sitting in the Billings Depot complex — rife with railroad history — he's named the Great Northern Vodka, in honor of the Great Northern Railway, which helped shape and expand Billings as it ran through the depot.
All of the grain used for the liquors will come from his family's farm, and the historic building will be decorated with family information and photos to go along with old railway pictures on the wall.
The business name aligns with a recent rebranding of Billings as Montana's Trailhead. McGowan said he originally hoped to call it Big Sky Spirits but learned the name had already been taken by a cheerleading camp in Texas.
One day as they were driving, Steffanie McGowan looked at her husband and said something along the lines of, "I've got it. The name's perfect. We'll call it Trailhead Spirits."
The Billings Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitors Bureau, which led the Billings rebranding effort, welcomed the idea.
"I think it’s great that businesses and others in the community are gravitating toward that message and helping to grow it," said John Brewer, the chamber's president and CEO.
Chamber members plan to meet with the McGowans soon to learn more about the business, and Brewer said he'd like to see it become a tourist destination, possibly as part of a tour of the local breweries, the distillery and restaurants.
"I think people wanting a taste and an experience of Billings are able to do that through these locally focused businesses," he said. "And with the Depot designated as Trailhead Plaza, it's all tying in together."
Under Montana law, the distillery can serve two ounces of liquor to each customer per day in the tasting room of the building. It can also sell them two bottles on-site to take home, and it will also be distributed through liquor stores and possibly bars and restaurants.
Despite a few hiccups along the way, McGowan said that the amount of time and effort put into the business will be worth it when the doors open.
"It's been a long time coming," he said. "We've been working on it for two and a half years, so we're ready to go."