The Zoo’s First (Legal) Still: Montgomery Distillery Opens at Last

Editor’s Note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Lee Banville, to create a Citizen Journalism feature that’s all about local views, stories, and issues. We’re excited to provide them with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.

By TREVOR REID

Despite many challenges, from missing parts to shipping crates lost at sea, Missoula’s first micro-distillery opened this fall on Wednesday, September 26.

“It’s probably inevitable, some of the kinks of starting a business of this nature, but the city has been wonderful in helping us get up and running, figuring out how to deal with us since there is no precedence,” Jenny Montgomery said.

Montgomery Distillery, the first legal distillery in Missoula’s history, hopes to build on what local microbreweries have accomplished with craft beers. “Spirits are just as complex, unique, and amenable to experimentation as beer, and the cocktail is ripe for renaissance. When people come taste cocktails made with fresh local fruits and botanicals and some of our house made syrups and liqueurs, they’re going to be happy,” Jenny said.

Originally approved for the old Firestone building on Pattee and Main, Missoula’s first micro-distillery had to move a little further down the road to support the large stills that would be used in operation. The Pipestone Mountaineering building offers a two-story venue where large, noisy stills can operate downstairs without interfering with the atmosphere of the upstairs tasting room.

It seems fitting that the first modern distillery in Missoula would find its home in the former Pipestone Mountaineering building. Edward Schilling, who had a successful liquor business in Butte, Mont., built the old Pipestone building at 129 West Front St. in 1889. He had a liquor warehouse on one side, and a saloon on the other. Keeping with this tradition, Ryan and Jenny Montgomery decided to fashion their tasting room after the saloon style so prevalent on Front Street a century ago.

“In the tasting room we’ve tried to tie the two together: it’s a factory and a place to come and enjoy cocktails,” Jenny notes.

An old-time, two-story still with a rectifying column for vodka rises up to the upstairs tasting room. Alcohol vapor rises through each column and gets purer as it goes, resulting in a finer quality product.

A look inside the Montgomery Distillery in downtown Missoula.

The two-story, 21 plate rectifying still currently producing Quicksilver Vodka is the pride of MontgomeryDistillery

The process that the liquor goes through is not the only aspect that contributes to Ryan and Jenny’s spirits; it’s the local flavor, too. Montgomery Distillery will use local Montana ingredients in its gin and vodka. Bitterroot Valley grain, Rocky Mountain Juniper berries yarrow spruce tips will go into their liquors and seasonal fruits such as huckleberries and Flathead cherries will flavor their cocktail syrups.

With Ryan’s distillation background – studying whiskey making in Spokane, Washington and the Springbank Distillery on the Kintyre peninsula in Scotland – John McKee at Headframe Spirits in Butte predicts Montgomery should rapidly become an integral part of a growing network of micro-distilleries in the state.

“They have such a brilliant plan, and such a brilliant location and they’ve done so much remarkably hard and good work over the last three to five years in planning what they’re doing, they are going to be one of the best distilleries in the state, hands down,” McKee said.

Although their whiskey will not be ready for at least three more years since it requires a longer aging period, Montgomery Distillery’s Quicksilver Vodka is on the shelves and their Whyte Laydie Gin will be available shortly after production.

State law limits the amount of liquor sold on site, limiting the distillery to 1.75 liters of bottled spirits and two ounces in the tasting room per person, per day. McKee believes that the law that is currently in place is a welcome bit of legislation that provides a better atmosphere for his patrons.

“It generally works out to two cocktails, which is spectacular. Not only can you have just two cocktails, but we have to close our doors at eight, which is great because inherently the way the law is put together our business encourages moderate drinking,” McKee said.

The anticipation for the opening of the distillery has been building since last year when the Montgomerys were first approved to build in the Firestone building a few blocks away from their new location. After issues arising from the size of the original space, the Missoula City Council approved the paperwork for them to move to the Pipestone building further down the street.

Signs were made and posted on the front windows advertising a summer opening, but the opening date had to be pushed back due to unforeseen circumstances. Their still was shipped from Germany and assembled in town, but between leaving the manufacturer’s shipyard and the mountainous northwest, their cargo went AWOL. After some time, the still made its way to Missoula only to find that a few parts were not up to par.

A broken boiler part, missing mill parts, and an agitator on the fritz provided enough frustration and complications to push the opening date back for a time. After some time of fixing and finagling, their first batch of vodka went through the still at the beginning of September, has been bottled, and now resides on a cozy shelf in the tasting room.

“I’m surprised something like this hasn’t happened earlier. Being a college town, a drinking town, I think people are going to love it. I’m definitely excited to taste what they put out,” Missoula resident Jackson Ball said.

“On their opening night, I’m going to be there. If I have to shut my place I’m going to be there because they are honestly one of the best groups of people I’ve ever seen to open a distillery,” McKee said.

Ryan and Jenny Montgomery have maintained a large presence on their Facebook page – search for “Montgomery Distillery” – and they have kept followers updated on their progress over the months. Updates on what is happening in the laboratory are posted regularly, so check out their page and see what’s going on in the future.