MISSOULA — Undoubtedly, there’s been a fair amount of hooch and moonshine brewed in the Garden City since its early days as a rugged frontier town.
But Missoula’s first-ever batch of legally distilled whiskey is set to be released by the folks at Montgomery Distillery on Tuesday.
“I’m sure there’s been some illicit whiskey,” chuckled owner Ryan Montgomery, who owns the place with his wife, Jenny. “There’s had to have been in the last 150 years. This is the first one with a label on it.”
Called “Early Release Straight Rye Whiskey,” it’s been sitting in fire-charred barrels for two long years, and Montgomery is excited to see what people think of his recipe.
Local musicians Wartime Blues will play at the release party, a special cocktail will be mixed by the bartenders, and the first bottle will be auctioned off to benefit the Missoula Food Bank.
Montgomery said his special rye whiskey is unique in that it is made from 100 percent rye grain.
“In order to be called rye whiskey, it only has to be made with 51 percent rye,” he said. “And usually the rest of the mash fill or the recipe for the whiskey is made up of corn, barley and sometimes wheat. There are some ‘high ryes’ in the 80s and 90s. But we wanted an expression of the rye itself. So if you like rye whiskey, it’s kind of more of what you like, basically.”
This first batch is made with a combination of Canadian rye and rye from Montgomery’s family farm near Lewistown. The main batch, which should be ready early next year, will be distilled from 100 percent Montana grain.
“We tried to work with grains that are grown in Montana,” he explained. “We initially had issues trying to find rye within the state of Montana. There’s some, but not a lot, so we bought up what we could and the rest we got from Canada. But last year, we planted our family farm near Lewistown with rye and this year we harvested it. So any barrels from here on out will be made with all of our heritage family farm rye.”
Rye is actually considered an invasive grass by Montana farmers, and they don’t want it getting into their other crops. It’s commonly grown in Canada, but Montgomery said it doesn’t have a big foothold south of the border.
He expects sales of the 90-proof whiskey, which will be priced at $28 a bottle, to be brisk.
“We probably won’t have enough to meet demand, but at least it will be drinkable,” he said. “We tasted it probably every six months. It’s good.”
The distillery will also release a single-malt whiskey next May that’s been aging for three years.
“Rye and single-malt are my particular favorites,” Montgomery said.
This early batch comes from the first three barrels the distillers sealed two years ago, and it was originally expected to produce 2,500 bottles.
“When you age in barrels, the alcohol will evaporate over time,” he explained. “It’s called the ‘angel’s share’ of the whiskey. So you end up with less actual whiskey every year. So after we uncapped them yesterday, we think we’ll get about 1,900 bottles.”
The difference between whiskey and “white whiskey” or “moonshine” is that true whiskey has been aged in barrels for years, not months.
“The barrel will do three things,” Montgomery said. “First, it will impart flavor right away. There’s wood sugars in the wood, and it caramelizes the wood sugars. That imparts caramel and vanilla flavor immediately into the spirits. That happens fairly soon into the aging process.”
The charcoal in the barrel also removes some molecules from the spirits, acting like a filter. The biggest reason for the long aging process, however, is the slow oxidation.
“If you throw it in the barrel for a short time, it’ll get color and get that vanilla flavor right away, but it won’t have that slow oxidation and it’ll just taste like colored moonshine,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery said his crew also plans to release a brandy made from Flathead cherries, as well as their own versions of ‘Bloody Mary’ mix and Worcestershire sauce.
Their mainstays are their gin and vodka, but they’ve also come out with aquavit, a beer schnapps and a coffee liquor, among other concoctions.
The whiskey was bottled by a small group of volunteers on Saturday, and Montgomery said he expects a line out the door during the release party on Tuesday. The distillery is open from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m.
Montgomery is actually carrying on a long tradition of selling spirits at that particular location, as the building was originally built in 1882 by a former Butte miner as a saloon and liquor warehouse. It’s probably safe to say this week’s party will be a little more sophisticated.
“We’re pretty excited about it,” he said.