Waiting for whiskey
Kirby –Wyoming Whiskey was born when Brad and Kate Mead decided to diversity their 1,200-acre cattle ranch and obtained the first distillers license in the state of Wyoming.
After partnering with David DeFazio, Chief Operating Officer of Wyoming Whiskey, the Meads enlisted the help of Steve Nally from Kentucky to serve as master distiller and manager of the operation. Steve got his start in distilling at Makers Mark in 1972.
“I’ve done every job involved in distilling at Makers Mark,” says Steve. “I moved up to master distiller there in 1988, and did that for 15 years. In 2003, I retired.”
Steve’s wife Donna also worked at Makers Mark in the tour program for 27 years before retiring. When the Meads and DeFazio asked them to be a part of Wyoming Whiskey, the couple moved to Wyoming without hesitation.
“It was the chance of a lifetime to start a product from the ground up,” says Steve. “We developed the recipe, secured the grains and saw the building go up.”
“We are the first legal distillery to ever be built in the state of Wyoming, and we firmly believe we are the first bourbon distillery west of the Mississippi River,” explains Donna. “We are making bourbon whiskey the Wyoming way.”
To be called a bourbon whiskey, the product must meet a number of criteria. Bourbon can only be made in the United States, and the primary ingredient for the mash fill must be corn. The whiskey must be aged in a new white oak charred barrel, and each barrel is only used once. The fermented mash cannot be distilled over 160 proof and has to be barreled at less than 125 proof. To be called bourbon, no filtering that will alter the natural color or taste of the product can be done, and it must age at least two years.
Bourbon the Wyoming way means that all ingredients come from Wyoming. All the grains used in the product are grown in the area, and the water comes from Aqua Vista Springs in Manderson.
Donna explains that the grains used are corn, spring wheat and malted barley, and each was selected for its flavor. The second grain, known as the flavoring grain, is spring wheat, which was selected by Steve to replace rye, a more traditional flavoring grain.
While the barley is malted in a facility in Great Falls, Mont., the grain comes from Riverton and is shipped back to Wyoming Whiskey.
The whole-kernel grain is ground using a roller mill, as opposed to a hammer mill. Donna explains that a hammer mill introduces heat to the grain, altering the flavor. Limestone water provides the foundation of the sour mash, which starts the whiskey making process.
“It’s a lot like making sourdough bread,” says Donna. “We save a little of the mash, called the starter, to add to the next batch.”
Starter is added to the water in a mash cooker and each of the grains is added at different temperatures, based on when the starches are released.
“We want as much starch as we can get, because that is where the alcohol comes from,” explains Donna.
The grains cook for about three-and-a-half hours before being transferred to large tanks with cooling coils, called fermenters. Every Monday Steve adds two strains of yeast he has selected to the fermenter, and for the rest of the week a sour mash yeast starter is used to start fermentation.
“We let it ferment for three to four days,” says Donna. “The yeast feeds on the natural sugars of the grain, converting the sugar to alcohol, generating heat and producing CO2. That is natural fermentation.”
At the end of fermentation, the mash is referred to as “distillers beer” and has an alcohol content of about 11 percent. Out of 2,300 gallons of distillers beer in each batch, only 220 to 230 gallons of whiskey result.
The distillers beer is strained and the leftover grains are either kept to make the next mash or fed to cattle on the Mead ranch. The high protein content of the mash makes it an ideal feed source.
The beer enters a 38-foot-tall distillation column next. The column has an 18-inch diameter and 24 perforated copper plates. Vendome Copper of Kentucky custom-made the distilling equipment at Wyoming Whiskey, making it one of a kind. Steam evaporates the beer in the column, and the resulting vapor is cooled in a condensation column.
A second distillation in a pot-bellied still, known as the doubler, purifies the product further. From the doubler, vapors are condensed again to new, unfinished whiskey, which is about 130 proof, or 65 percent alcohol.
“It looks like cool water coming out of a spring,” says Donna. “Distillers refer to it as ‘white dog’ because it’s got a little bit of a bite.”
The proof is lowered to 110 using reverse osmosis, and the whiskey is put into 53-gallon white oak barrels for aging. The interior of the barrel is charred using a gas flame.
“When the whiskey goes in clear and gets hot in the aging warehouse, it expands into the wood. As it cools down, it pulls back out. That’s where we get the color and flavor of the whiskey.”
Each week Wyoming Whiskey fills about 30 barrels and puts them in an aging warehouse to mature.
While they never control the temperature of the warehouse, humidity is monitored, says Donna. Because of the low humidity in Wyoming, it is necessary to keep the warehouse at higher than 50 percent humidity to ensure the barrels don’t dry out or crack.
“The distillery has been in operation since July 2009 and runs four days a week,” says Donna. “We are running at full capacity. If we wanted to make more we would have to add more fermenters and run six days a week, but we’re not there yet.”
Currently the Nallys are waiting for the whiskey to age before they can start bottling. Just over 2,300 barrels are in the warehouse now.
“Once it leaves the distillery and goes into an aging warehouse, it’s up to Mother Nature,” says Donna.
About every six weeks, Steve samples whiskey from a variety of barrels.
“He critiques the color, aroma, proof and taste to see how it is progressing in the maturation process,” says Donna. “Right now, it has good taste, and the color is very good, but it still has a good bite. We are picking up a caramel and a little bit of a nutty taste, as well as slight fruity taste.”
Because bourbon whiskey has never been distilled in Wyoming, there is no standard for how long it should be aged.
“It’ll be at least one more year until it’s ready,” says Steve. “Hopefully at the end of this year, we’ll be able to put a pretty firm date on it.”
As the whiskey ages, Wyoming Whiskey is preparing to choose a label and bottle design and is looking a procuring bottling equipment.
“We are very excited and can’t wait to get it to the market,” continues Donna. “There is a lot of interest.”
“This will be a truly hand-crafted, premium product,” says Steve.
Donna emphasizes, “Steve and I are both very passionate about the bourbon industry. But it’s not what you drink; it’s how you drink it. This is a sipping bourbon, not to be overindulged, but to be enjoyed.”
The people of Wyoming will have to continue to wait for a finished product.
“As we say here,” Donna comments, “It’ll be good and ready when it’s good and ready.”
Wyoming Whiskey can be reached online at wyomingwhiskey.com or by calling 307-864-2116. Saige Albert is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.