Wyoming Whiskey rides the wave of craft distilling popularity, readies for next release

Feb 1, 2013

Distiller Steve Nally stands with the still at Wyoming Whiskey in Kirby. Formerly a master distiller at Maker’s Mark in Kentucky, Nally was hired to create and brand the only bourbon made in Wyoming.
Credit Rebecca Martinez

Craft breweries and distilleries are hot right now. Not to be outdone, Wyoming entrepreneurs created a bourbon distillery in Kirby, using local ingredients from the Bighorn Basin and bearing the name Wyoming Whiskey. After four years of aging the first batch, Wyoming Whiskey flew off the shelves when it was released exclusively in Wyoming in early December. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez visited the distillery and explored the hype. She filed this report.

(bar ambi)

REBECCA MARTINEZ: It was a state record. As soon as the Wyoming Liquor Division – which handles all the distribution in the state – put the first 3,000 cases of Wyoming Whiskey up for sale, retailers snatched it up in less than a minute. Only 75 out of 1,250 retailers were able to buy up that inventory. Wyoming Whiskey was able to release a few hundred more bottles to other retailers to smooth over hurt feelings, but this stuff was scarce.

A couple weeks after the release, JJ Moran – who owns the Four Winds Liquor and Lounge in Cheyenne – read aloud a sign he posted at the bar.

JJ MORAN: Wyoming Whiskey, $6 per shot. That’s the most expensive shot that we pour, as a matter of fact.

MARTINEZ: And why are people willing to pay for it?

MORAN: Because it’s Wyoming and it’s something new and they want to taste it. Because you can’t get any more until the next batch comes out now.

MARTINEZ: They won’t have to wait much longer. The Liquor Division is taking orders for more Wyoming Whiskey until Valentine’s Day, and the bourbon will ship out to bars and package liquor stores statewide on the 20th.

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The Wyoming Whiskey distillery is the tallest building in Kirby, and one of the only businesses. Two stories high, it’s full of huge, shiny equipment. The smell of warm grains pervades every room. It was the brainchild of the governor’s brother and sister-in-law, Brad and Kate Mead, and their friend David DeFazio. The trio scouted out a celebrity of the bourbon world to make Wyoming Whiskey a reality: they plucked former Makers Mark master distiller Steve Nally from his retirement in Kentucky and invited him to build a distillery, and a brand, from scratch.

STEVE NALLY: It was a chance that I dove into eagerly, but, at the same time, being in a new region, not knowing how the grains would turn out, how the water was here… I knew what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure that it would turnout like that. And, when you put the product together new, you have to wait four years to know what it’s going to be.

MARTINEZ: Bourbon fans hold a variety of standards for how the liquor should be made, but here’s what U-S law says: Bourbon must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51-percent corn. It has to be aged in new charred-oak barrels, distilled at no more than 160-proof, barreled at no more than 125-proof and bottled at 80 proof or more. It does not, by law, have to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. It can be called bourbon at almost any age, but after being aged in barrels for 2 years, it’s earned the right to have “straight bourbon” printed on its labels. Wyoming Whiskey meets all this criteria, and is aged for four years to enhance flavor. Most distilleries blend bourbons from different barrels before bottling.

NALLY: The big boys, you know like Jim Beam, the different bigger distilleries, they go in and select the best of the best. Somebody like Wyoming Whiskey, we don’t have that luxury. We only put out one product, so everything they put out has to be that.

MARTINEZ: Wyoming Whiskey has run a formidable marketing campaign, and visited towns across the state, hosting tastings.

(Whiskey Cast clip)

MARK GILLESPIE: Here are my tasting notes for Wyoming Whiskey bourbon…

MARTINEZ: Its big release caught the attention of whiskey critic Mark Gillespie, who hosts the Whiskey Cast podcast. He traveled to Kirby from New Jersey for Wyoming Whiskey’s grand opening, and he was impressed.

GILLESPIE: It is one of the best bourbons I’ve ever tasted, and I’m scoring Wyoming Whiskey a 95.

MARTINEZ: A ringing endorsement, if ever there was one. But, bourbon drinkers are an opinionated bunch with diverse and particular palates. The intense demand for Wyoming Whiskey at Wyoming bars was followed by intensely mixed reviews. Some folks love it. Others complain of a harsh aftertaste.

Amateur whiskey connoisseur Rod Miller ordered shots of Wyoming Whiskey for himself and a friend at Front Street Tavern in Laramie last week. Miller says the bourbon has potential, but it’s too “young.”

ROD MILLER: Not number one diesel, not jet fuel, but it needs a little more time in the barrel.

MARTINEZ: Miller says he’d be interested in trying it again in about 8 years.

Wyoming Whiskey’s C-O-O David DeFazio says he’s heard similar critiques of how young the whiskey tastes, and he says they have a plan to work with that.

DAVID DE FAZIO: We will be holding back supply of our product from each season to be used at our discretion in the future. And some of that will be mixed into the four-year-old product to slowly bring the age of it up to closer to a five-year and then ultimately a six-year, but that’s going to take some time, just because of the inventory that we have, and… time.

MARTINEZ: DeFazio says there are big plans for Wyoming Whiskey. After the remaining 2009 season bourbon is distributed this month and again in the summer, the eventually more mature 2010 season will be released this coming December. DeFazio says there will be plenty more to go around, and they’re even considering releasing Wyoming Whiskey in other states.

For Wyoming Public Radio News, I’m Rebecca Martinez.