A Matter of Time: Wyoming Whiskey ages gracefully before December release

KIRBY, Wyo. — If it’s true that good things come to those who wait, then whiskey fans in Wyoming are due for something special.

Since the first drops from production went into barrels in July 2009, Wyoming Whiskey has been a widely hyped but seldom-tasted product. Company insiders have given only vague hints about when their bourbon would be ready to market. And parched tongues across the state have repeatedly asked: “When is that whiskey going to be ready?”

Wyoming Whiskey master distiller Steve Nally

Wyoming Whiskey master distiller Steve Nally moves barrels of bourbon in one of the company's aging warehouses in Kirby, Wyo. (Ruffin Prevost/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Finally, the state’s first (legal) distillery announced this week that its bottles will be on retailers’ shelves by Dec. 1.

For many bourbon enthusiasts in the Cowboy State and elsewhere, that day can’t come soon enough. And for at least one member of the Wyoming Whiskey team, the agonizing wait has been especially difficult.

“For me, this has been an incredible lesson in patience,” said David DeFazio, co-founder and chief operating officer for Wyoming Whiskey. Like nearly everyone involved with the company, DeFazio has been constantly asked when the product will go on sale.

During a January tour of the company’s distillery in Kirby, a town of 57 near Thermopolis, DeFazio described himself as impatient and used to instant gratification — personality traits that might not make him a great distiller.

Wyoming Whiskey master distiller Steve Nally has loads of patience, and three decades of experience making whiskey in the heart of Kentucky’s bourbon country. Nally was for many years the man in charge of producing Maker’s Mark, a major national brand that was a small, family-owned bourbon when he started with the company.

Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon, America’s native whiskey, created by Scotch and Irish immigrant farmers looking for ways to preserve and add value to their surplus corn crops.

Scotch and Irish whiskies are forerunners to bourbon, and various forms of blended whiskey are made in the U.S., Canada, Japan and elsewhere. All bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskies are bourbon. Under federal law, to be labeled and sold in the U.S. as “straight bourbon,” a whiskey must:

  • be made from at least 51 percent corn.
  • be distilled, barreled and bottled at specific proofs, or strengths, of alcohol.
  • be aged at least two years in new, charred-oak barrels.
  • have no added colors, flavors or additional spirits.

Wyoming Whiskey will meet those requirements and be labeled as bourbon, a spirit that derives much of its character from how it matures in the barrel, which is mainly a matter of time.

Brad Mead and Steve Nally

Wyoming Whiskey master distiller Steve Nally uses a copper whiskey thief to extract bourbon from a barrel as CEO Brad Mead samples the spirit's aroma in one of the company's warehouses in Kirby, Wyo. (Ruffin Prevost/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Nally said he made it clear when he agreed to create Wyoming Whiskey that he wouldn’t sell the product until it was ready. Since no one had ever produced a premium whiskey on a large scale in Wyoming, he wasn’t sure how long that would take. But Nally figured it could be four years or longer.

“The process has actually been a little faster than I thought it would be,” Nally said.

Though he worried how Wyoming’s arid climate and extreme temperature swings might affect the aging process, Nally said he is pleased with how things are going.

“It’s going to be a very unique product. It’s got some flavors and characteristics I’ve yet to see in the industry,” he said.

That’s good news to DeFazio and partner Brad Mead, Wyoming Whiskey co-founder and CEO.

Mead and his wife, Kate, approached their friend DeFazio in 2006 about partnering with them to make a whiskey in Wyoming, using only grains grown in the state. All three are attorneys from Jackson, and have been bourbon enthusiasts for many years, trading rare and favorite bottles on holidays and birthdays.

The Meads, who also raise cattle, had considered setting up a winery, but concluded that the agricultural and logistical realities of Wyoming favored bourbon.

“Bourbon was nearer and dearer to our heart, and it just made more sense,” Brad Mead said.

Polite curiosity

“When we first started to talk to other people about it, their reaction was polite curiosity,” he said.

Mead admits that the idea initially struck some people as “crazy,” and still seems a little unlikely, even to him.

Wyoming Whiskey master distiller Steve Nally

Wyoming Whiskey master distiller Steve Nally samples bourbon to determine how it is aging in one of the company's warehouses in Kirby, Wyo. (Ruffin Prevost/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

“But we started to get credibility and people started to think we might actually do this when Steve Nally came on board,” Mead said.

Hiring Nally, a member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame in Kentucky, meant convincing him to come out of retirement and move to Wyoming.

But before he could even talk to Nally, DeFazio first had to convince another key player that the Wyoming startup wasn’t a lark. He had to get through Donna, Steve’s wife.

“After she interviewed me, she finally gave me permission to talk to Steve,” DeFazio said with a laugh.

Donna had been director of tourism and public relations for Maker’s Mark, a role she now holds for Wyoming Whiskey. Maker’s Mark was the first distillery to offer tours, and six cooperating distilleries now welcome visitors at gift shops, in tasting rooms and on tours along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a highly traveled tourism route she helped develop.

Donna hopes to build Wyoming Whiskey into a major tourist attraction as well, but state lawmakers will first have to bring distillery laws in line with those for breweries and wineries. DeFazio said he hopes to convince state lawmakers during this session to allow distilleries to have tasting rooms near their production facilities, so visitors can sample the product.

Nally said he and his wife had visited Wyoming in 2004 on a vacation to Jackson, so they were curious to return and hear about plans for Wyoming Whiskey. But they also had heard from Kentucky purists and naysayers who cautioned that “you just can’t do that — you can’t make bourbon in Wyoming.”

By that point, the founders had begun work on their distillery, including contracting with Kentucky’s Vendome Copper & Brass for a custom-made still that stands more than 35 feet tall.

Nally said he was impressed with early plans for the business and the distillery.

“They went into this the way they should,” he said. “They didn’t cut any corners.”

Wyoming Whisky still

Dennis Lue operates the still at Wyoming Whiskey in Kirby, Wyo. Lue monitors temperature, alcohol levels and other factors during each production run. (Ruffin Prevost/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Nally said many boutique spirits brands are startups operating on shoestring budgets, requiring them to sell product before it is mature in order to fund continuing operations. But Wyoming Whiskey’s well-capitalized strategy called for letting the bourbon sit in barrels for as long as required to take on the right flavor, color and aroma.

The founders also gave Nally control over how the whiskey is made, and what the final product will taste like, he said. The goal is to produce a high-end bourbon that will rival Maker’s Mark and other premium brands, targeting bourbon enthusiasts who prefer their whiskey neat, on the rocks or with a splash of water.

“From the outset, we wanted Steve to make this the way he wants to make it,” Mead said. “We’re not going to buy distilled spirits from somebody else and try to mix it and hurry the process,” a practice followed by some whiskey makers.

“All of ours, every drop, is from Wyoming and made by us. From start to finish, a pure Wyoming bourbon whiskey made by Steve,” Mead said.

That means using grains like wheat, barley and corn all grown in Wyoming, as well as artesian well water from a limestone aquifer near Manderson.

A public drinking water pipeline under development before Wyoming Whiskey was started will soon be completed, bringing water from Manderson to Kirby. But since it began production, the company has had to truck in water twice weekly.

Slow filtration through the limestone removes iron and other impurities, Nally said, making it some of the purest water used by any distillery.

Trucking water, paying Wyoming farmers for custom-grown grains and warehousing bourbon for years before the first sale hasn’t been cheap or easy.

“There would have been easier ways to do it,” Mead said. “But I wasn’t interested in doing it any other way than as well as it can be done. And it’s going to be economically successful doing it the right way.”

Private barrels

Mead isn’t the only one who is banking on Wyoming Whiskey’s success.

A handful of bourbon lovers have each bought an entire barrel of Wyoming Whiskey as part of a program that lets purchasers choose a specific barrel and have the entire contents bottled — but only after Nally decides it’s ready.

Wyoming Whiskey COO David DeFazio

Wyoming Whiskey chief operating officer David DeFazio examines one of 20 private barrels sold to bourbon enthusiasts as part of a special advance sales program. (Ruffin Prevost/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Buyers in the private barrel program, which saw 20 barrels sold at a few thousand dollars each, include Wyoming restaurant and liquor industry insiders. But the program also has grassroots supporters like a group of about a dozen highway workers from Douglas who chipped in to buy a barrel together. No one has tasted the finished product, because the bourbon won’t be fully aged until later this year.

Gavin Fine, owner of Jackson Hole Fine Dining Group, bought a barrel to ensure supply for his five high-end restaurants.

“I’ve got full faith that it’s going to be nothing but the best, and I’m super-excited, because I’m a big bourbon drinker,” said Fine, adding that his Q Roadhouse near Teton Village “sells an insane amount of bourbon.”

Fine said he has seen High West whiskies, made in Park City, Utah, catch on there, where he also owns a restaurant. Locals rally around the High West brand as they do for a local microbrew, he said, and he expects the same thing to happen in Jackson and across the state for Wyoming Whiskey.

“Everybody here is chomping at the bit to try it,” he said. “We’re big supporters.”

Perhaps no one outside of Wyoming Whiskey is betting bigger on the brand than Maurice W. Brown, who bought five barrels for his store, Town and Country Supermarket Liquors, in Cheyenne.

“I gambled on it because it’s being made in Wyoming,” said Brown, whose family has been in the liquor business since the late 1940s.

“It’s a Wyoming product, and if I can help somebody in Wyoming, that’s my goal. It helps the people raising the grains that go in this and working at the distillery,” he said.

Brown said he was impressed with Nally’s credentials, and he had faith in the Mead family, including Brad’s brother Matt, Wyoming’s governor.

“I think they’re an honorable family who want to help Wyoming,” he said.

Wyoming Whiskey fermentation tanks

Wyoming Whiskey chief operating officer David DeFazio, far left, chats with Steve Shyrack while CEO Brad Mead talks to Jeff Strong, far right, next to massive fermentation tanks at the company's distillery in Kirby, Wyo. (Ruffin Prevost/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Brad Mead started Wyoming Whiskey before his brother announced plans to run for governor. He has largely avoided the media spotlight since the company began, and avoids mentioning his family’s political pedigree. But Mead said he realizes that talking to the press will become an increasingly important part of promoting Wyoming Whiskey.

Still, outside of Wyoming, it is Nally who has the well-known name in bourbon circles.

Baker Dillihay is the bourbon buyer for Liquor Barn, a chain of discount warehouse retail stores based in Louisville. Bourbon is the single largest product category in the store, and Dillihay regularly meets with master distillers to sample and discuss their latest projects.

“I think he automatically brings credibility to the project,” Dillihay said of Nally’s involvement.

Though many in Kentucky are skeptical of bourbons made elsewhere, there are also many who are open to trying new brands, he said, and consumer interest in new bourbons has grown steadily in recent years.

Bourbon insiders are speculating online about what kind of whiskey Nally will finally release.

The flavor is likely to closely track the bourbon he made while at Maker’s Mark, with a relatively sweet taste derived from prominent wheat notes, as opposed to the sharper flavor of a whiskey that uses more rye.

Nally said he’s happy with how his new bourbon is aging, with his only concern being a slightly rough finish. That aftertaste will smooth out as the whiskey mellows and matures during its final year in the barrel, he said.

“From what I’ve seen right now, it’s a little bit creamy with some caramel and vanillas there, and a little bit of a nutty taste,” Nally said.

“I’m interested in trying it to see what it’s like” Dillihay said. “If it’s as good as you’d expect, I think it would definitely earn some traction with customers here.”

Hometown fans

Bourbon lovers in Kentucky will have to get in line behind the hometown fans.

Wyoming Whiskey will sell all of its limited first year’s worth of product to the state-controlled Wyoming Liquor Division, Mead said. It will expand to national distribution only after satisfying demand at home.

Unlike giant corporate distilleries in Kentucky, Wyoming Whiskey produces about 30 barrels per week.

When Nally started with Maker’s Mark in 1972, the company made about 35 barrels each week. The then-family owned brand grew through the years and has since been sold, with production now topping 2,000 barrels per week.

“This type of environment is more home to me,” Nally said. “I really enjoy it.”

The slower pace allows Nally to personally supervise the company’s three production operators and a maintenance worker, while wife Donna works with a part-time tour guide. The small crew of Wyoming workers had no experience in distilling, and thus had no “bad habits” for him to retrain them for, Nally jokes.

Steve Nally and David DeFazio inspect corn samples

Wyoming Whiskey master distiller Steve Nally, left, and chief operating officer David DeFazio, center, check samples of corn being delivered by grower Brent Rageth, right. (Ruffin Prevost/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

That includes Dennis Lue, a former cable television technician who moved from Arizona to Thermopolis.

Lue, who operates the towering still, said he enjoys his work, though he’s not a huge bourbon fan.

“Since I had a part in making it, I’m sure I’ll drink a little,” Lue said. “It’s kind of cool to be able to say I make bourbon, especially in Wyoming.”

Brent Rageth, a Byron farmer who sells 15,000 bushels of corn each year to Wyoming Whiskey, is also not a major bourbon drinker.

Though Rageth said he could ramp up corn production to provide 100,000 bushels annually if needed, he’s happy in the short term just to be able to answer the question he hears over and over. Like DeFazio, Rageth is trying to be patient, but it isn’t easy.

“I have people ask me all the time, ‘Hey, Brent, when’s that whiskey going to be ready?'” he said.

Ruffin Prevost is editor of Yellowstone Gate, an independent news site focused on Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and their gateway communities. Contact him at 307-213-9818 or ruffin@yellowstonegate.com.

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Published on February 14, 2012

  • http://www.yellowstonegate.com Ruffin Prevost

    Peggy,

    In response to your question about reserving a couple of bottles of Wyoming Whiskey, I know this is a question they get asked at the distillery, and I don’t think they have any option allowing for that right now. My understanding is the distillery will sell to the state, and retailers will buy their supply from the state. So you might want to talk to your local retailer about setting bottles aside for you when they come in. Otherwise, you might want to visit wyomingwhiskey.com and sign up for their newsletter to stay in the loop on any special offers.

  • Peggy Lesser

    I would like to purchase a couple bottles when it is ready.. Is there a way to reserve them to make sure I get them !!! Sounds like it is going to be sold before it is even ready.. How much a bottle ? Would i need to pay in advance?? I am thinking ahead to Christmas gifts…..

    I think this is absolutly fantastic way to diversify work in Wyoming !!!

  • Bob T.

    Great piece, Ruffin.

    Congrats to all at Wyoming Whiskey. Can’t wait to put your whiskey on the shelf and into a glass.

    Bob

  • DeweyV

    Coal-to-Liquids, or Corn-to-Liquor ? Welcome to Wyoming.

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