New distillery seeks Wyoming grainWritten by Echo Renner
The idea for Wyoming Whiskey developed when Brad and Kate Mead, Jackson area ranchers and attorneys, purchased a ranch near Kirby, north of Thermopolis.
“Kate and I were concerned about our cattle contracting brucellosis,” says Brad. “The most dangerous time is when the elk are calving, so we bought the ranch at Kirby to run our cattle during that time. Kate also thought it would be interesting to diversify our agriculture operation by starting a vineyard, but the climate in the Big Horn Basin doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a vineyard. All the right ingredients are there, however, to make bourbon,” says Brad noting the climate, grains and water.
Bourbon is a type of whiskey that meets six criteria. It must be American-made and packaged in white oak barrels charred on the inside and used only once. Corn has to make up at least 51 percent of the ingredients and it can be distilled at no more than 160 proof. When it enters the barrels it can’t surpass 125 proof and flavorings of any kind are prohibited. According to co-owner and Jackson attorney David DeFazio, it’s called whiskey when it enters the barrels and bourbon after aging and bottling.
David and Brad are both bourbon connoisseurs. “We’ve exchanged bourbons over the last 10 years and were always trying something different,” David explains. In June 2006, the Meads approached DeFazio about going into business making bourbon on the Kirby ranch and he jumped at the chance. DeFazio did a lot of research and the business partners attended the Kentucky Bourbon Festival to discover what distilling whiskey is all about.
“We’ve hired two master distillers, both members of the Bourbon Hall of Fame,” says Brad. “Lincoln Henderson, who invented a bourbon for Woodford Reserve, is advising us on the recipe and on marketing issues. Steve Nally was a master distiller for Makers Mark and he’s now in charge of our day-to-day operations. He’s the chef.”
Construction on the new facility including a 5,500 square foot distillery, a barrel house, a bottle house and tasting room, is underway. They designed the distillery building to look like an old grain elevator to accommodate the still, which David says is 35 feet tall. The copper still is custom-made for Wyoming Whiskey and for this region of the country.
“Kentucky distilleries brag on their limestone water, and it’s true, the water makes all the difference,” David comments. “Worland has a deep, limestone artesian well, with a pipeline that ends about six miles north of Kirby. We’re working with the Big Horn Regional Joint Powers Board to obtain grant funds from the Wyoming Business Council to complete the pipeline and bring that water to Kirby.” The company will truck its water to Kirby until the pipeline is complete.
During the first couple of years in business, Wyoming Whiskey will employ about six people, possibly adding more when the bottling process begins.
“Our goal is to have a value-added product where our ag producers can say, ‘My grain is in that bottle,’” says David. “From seed to spirit, Wyoming Whiskey will be 100 percent Wyoming.”
By this June, the company should be ready to make and barrel whiskey that will age two to four years before it’s available to the public. “We’ll do it slowly enough to make it right,” explains Mead. “It won’t be the most expensive bourbon, but it will be top-shelf.”