By Renée Jean
Wyoming Whiskey got its start nearly a decade ago on a 1,000-acre ranch in Kirby. At the time, it was the state’s only distillery and a complete unknown player in the whiskey world. In December, the business will celebrate its 10-year anniversary with quite a feather in its cap as one of the nation’s top whisky-makers.
USA Today has named Wyoming Whiskey as one of the top 10 craft whiskey distilleries in the nation.
That puts the Wyoming newcomer in distinguished company with the likes of Heaven Hill in Kentucky and Stranahans in Denver.
“We’re not sure who nominated us, but we are really excited about it,” Wyoming Whiskey’s Assistant Store Manager Nichole Martens told Cowboy State Daily. “We actually now have the Small Batch, which was our flagship product, in all 50 states now. So, we are nationwide in our distribution. And just from here in Kirby, we definitely have had people from all over the country trying Wyoming Whiskey, spreading the word about it.”
It Began On The Ranch
The business got its start from an unexpected turn. Brad and Kate Mead were fourth-generation ranchers in Jackson Hole in the early 2000s very near the Grand Tetons. After their cattle caught brucellosis, the ranchers decided to buy 1,200 acres in Kirby for wintering their herd.
With that much land, though, they also began to dream about what else they could do with the new property.
They first considered a winery, but didn’t feel confident about the climate and grapes. There were plenty of grains, though, so they started to chase a brand-new dream.
“They went to a bourbon festival in Kentucky, and they also had another friend, David DeFazio who’s the other founder of Wyoming Whiskey,” Martens said. “From there, that is where we bought our 38-foot copper still, and then that is how we also got our first master distiller to work for us, which was Steve Nally.”
Mastering The Craft
Nally is a world-class master distiller who had worked at Maker’s Mark for a little more than 30 years and was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2007.
Nally had recently retired, but was convinced to come out of retirement by the enthusiasm of the Meads and DeFazio. He even moved to Thermopolis, which is about a dozen miles from Kirby, to help the business during the first five of its fledgling years.
It’s All About The Water
Wyoming Whiskey is 100% made-in-Wyoming.
“Believe it or not, people will ask us, ‘Well, do you just get your products and slap your label on it?’” Martens said. “No, we do not. Everything is grown here, filled here, aged here and bottled here.”
In fact, even the water used to make Wyoming Whiskey is a little-known state specialty. It comes from a limestone aquifer about a mile underground Manderson that is also used by Pepsi Cola.
Limestone aquifers are frequently touted as a key element in the world-famous whiskies produced in Bourbon County, Kentucky.
“The limestone acts as a natural filter,” Martens said. “It reduces the irons in the water and helps to soften it.”
At first the water was trucked in, but now it comes by pipeline so the special water is on tap.
The grains used by Wyoming Whiskey also are sourced locally from a farmer in Byron. The grains get made into the traditional mash that’s fermented and distilled before aging in barrels for a minimum of five years.
Federal rules only require aging bourbon at least two years, but Wyoming Whiskey takes a little longer.
“We don’t use climate-controlled warehouses,” Martens said. “And because it gets so cold here in Wyoming, our bourbon will actually go into a dormant state. When our bourbon goes into a dormant state, you can’t age it. So, we do everything for a minimum of five years to make up for the really cold winters and the very hot summers.”
Time To Celebrate
Wyoming Whiskey will mark its 10-year anniversary Dec. 1, and is planning something special for the occasion at its Kirby headquarters. There will be an open house, as well as the first release of a 10-year aged bourbon.
Wyoming Whiskey also is looking to the future, making plans to grow and improve its business and product.
“We’re moving into bigger buildings and making more product,” Martens said. “We are nationwide, and we are definitely picking up popularity.”
Things to know
Whiskey is an umbrella term that refers to any type of distilled grain. There are many different types of whiskey, including Scotch, Irish whiskey and the bourbon that Wyoming Whiskey makes. To qualify as bourbon, corn must be at least 51% of the recipe, and the product must be made in the United States, just as Champagne must be made in France and Scotch must be made in Scotland.