A couple of weeks ago I received a bottle of Wyoming Whiskey. I was immediately inspired by the company and how they came to make this true-to-its-roots whiskey. Blending the best of their state with traditional methods and top bourbon talent, these guys took no easy way out. I asked co-founder David DeFazio a couple of questions about his product, the story behind the company, and how Steve Nally, a bourbon Hall of Famer with 33 years at Makers Mark under his belt created the whiskey. The bourbon, and the story of its creation, are phenomenal.
First, the Bourbon
Wyoming Whiskey is a small batch bourbon that is distilled, barreled, and bottled in Kirby, Wyoming. Incase you don’t know, a “small batch bourbon” is a whiskey that has been mixed with the contents of a relatively small number of selected barrels which David will talk more about in a bit. It’s ABV, or alcohol by volume, is set at 44 as a nod to Wyoming being the 44th state admitted to the USA and has a proof of 88.
Today, we are sipping on Batch No. 25 that was bottled on 11-12-14. There is no sting to the nostrils as you go to sniff, just sweet notes with tones of maple, caramel and a touch of leather. The legs are slow and thick and tickles the tongue and lips on your first sip. I found a good balance of sweetness and spice and a nice oak-vanilla finish. Overall, a very smooth and lovely bourbon that makes for easy sipping and mixes wonderfully in a nice and refreshing cocktail.
The only thing more impressive than the whiskey and its all-local ingredients is the story of how it came to be. I love a good start-up story and Wyoming Whiskey’s is inspiring. Below is my conversation with David.
The Whiskey Women: I couldn’t find what the mashbill is, do you mind sharing? How long has it been aged for? Are you using the typical 53-gallon American White Oak barrel or have you opted for smaller barrels for a speedier age time?
DDF: Our mash bill is 68% corn, 20% wheat, 12% malted barley. All of our grain is non-GMO and has been grown within 100 miles from the distillery in Kirby, Wyoming. A 100% Wyoming product. Important to note, and critical to the quality of our product, is our water. We source our water from a mile-deep, limestone aquifer. Limestone water makes the best bourbon. We are told that the water hasn’t seen the light of day in over 6,000 years. Our small batch bourbon is 5 years old and is aged the traditional way in 53 gallon charred, white oak. We considered a number of “accelerated maturation” techniques but we learned there is no substitute for time. A good distillate placed in a good barrel makes a good bourbon when given time to mature.
The Whiskey Women: What prompted the start of Wyoming Whiskey?
DDF: The idea to start a distillery is credited to my partner Brad Mead, a fourth generation cattle rancher from Jackson. But, for the full story, you must go back one step to Kate Mead, his wife. Kate had originally thought that a vineyard would be a good idea. But, after some quick research, it was decided that grapes wouldn’t work in Wyoming. Building on that idea, Brad noted that the Bighorn Basin had everything needed to make bourbon: corn, wheat, rye, and barley. So, the decision to make bourbon was born.
The Whiskey Women: You see a lot of start-up whiskey companies these days sourcing product from LDI/MGP. I am very, very impressed that you guys didn’t do that. Can you give us a bit of insight as to what the start up stages were like?
DDF: It never occurred to us that we should buy bourbon from elsewhere and slap our label on it. We didn’t even know that was an option. To the contrary, if we were going to start a bourbon company and place the state’s name on it, it had to be a genuine Wyoming product. Given the deep heritage that Brad’s family has in the state, I was told that we had to do it “right”. So Brad and I set out to learn everything that we could about the industry and met a lot of great people in, and around, Bardstown.
Lincoln Henderson, of Woodford Reserve and Angel’s Envy fame, was our first advisor. He led us to Vendome Copper and Brass and Rob Sherman. Besides building us a legendary still, Rob has been a tremendous resource and has become a good friend. He introduced us to Steve Nally who was our first distiller and got us off the ground.
A big moment for me was when we made our first mash. It was the first tangible thing that I could touch. Until that moment all we had was a concept and a building. I distinctly remember walking upstairs and dipping a bowl into one of our fermentation tanks and filling it with that day’s mash. I walked outside, sat in the sun, and spooned every every drop of it into my mouth. It didn’t taste that great, but it was the best bowl of food I had ever had. Then the difficult part started: the waiting. Make it, barrel it, and warehouse it for years. Patience is golden. But I am not a patient guy. I’d check on the bourbon’s progress way too often, sometimes weekly, until I realized that we had years to wait.
The Whiskey Women: Steve Nally has a very impressive resume distilling with Maker’s Mark for 33 years and being inducted to the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2007. What prompted him to come to Wyoming Whiskey?
DDF: Steve had retired from Maker’s Mark when we contacted him and he was ready to get back into the game. It was a great opportunity for us both. And, after seven years at Wyoming Whiskey, he returned to Kentucky and his family in the spring of 2014.
The Whiskey Women: I appreciate your attention to detail in the creation of this whiskey and how you have really tried to capture the spirit of Wyoming in your product. Particularly with your use of all locally sourced ingredients and setting your ABV (Alcohol by Volume) to 44 to reflect Wyoming being the 44th state admitted to the USA. How have else you guys captured the spirit of Wyoming in this whiskey? Is there anything Steve Nally honed in on while creating the mashbill and recipe to capture a certain taste profile?
DDF: We found an old still that had sat in Callum Mackay’s backyard in Kelly, Wyoming and fixed it up for Steve. Who knows the history behind it, but I’m sure it’s interesting. With it, Steve tried eight different yeasts before settling on two that produce our desired alcohol. As I said before, all of our grain is non-genetically modified and all of it is grown in Wyoming thus capturing the terroir of Wyoming in the truest sense. We decided to use wheat because we didn’t want the spiciness of rye. But the grain isn’t the only Wyoming influence. It’s aged in the Bighorn Basin which means its subjected to intense Wyoming heat in the summer and bitter cold in the winter. We’ve recorded 134 degree heat in the warehouses in the summer. And below 0 temps in the winter. It’s also a very arid region. The exact effect of these temperatures and low humidity is hard to quantify, but the Wyoming environment has an undeniable influence on the finished product. And an additional design aspect on the bottle is the TT on the bottom of the bottle. It is the Mead ranch cattle brand that is still used to this day.
The Whiskey Women: Do you mind taking us through the life cycle of a bottle of Wyoming Whiskey?
DDF: It all starts with the grain which is milled daily on site. Our corn is first added to backset (also called sour mash) from the previous day’s fermentation and brought to a boil. Then wheat and malted barley is added at lower temperatures for specific periods of cooking time. The mash is then cooled quickly in a mash cooler before being transferred into a fermentation tank where our yeasts are added. The yeast then converts the sugar in the grains into alcohol over three or four days. Once the fermentation process is complete, the mash is run through two different stills where the alcohol is vaporized and removed from the mash. It is then condensed after each vaporization and collected in our unfinished whiskey tank. At this point it sits at 130 proof and is crystal clear. We then reduce it to 114 proof before pouring it into 53 gallon charred, oak barrels where it will sit for five years. During this time it picks up its color from the char in the barrel and its flavor from the caramel layer just under the char and the oxidation that occurs over time. We sample all of our barrels and when we deem a barrel ready we marry it with other barrels that will create our distinctive taste profile. It is then reduced to 88 proof and bottled. We write the bottling date and batch on the back of every bottle before it is boxed up and sent to the market. Meanwhile, our mash is fed to Mead cattle and other cattle herds in the Bighorn Basin.
Distillery: Wyoming Whiskey, Kirby, Wyoming
Mashbill: 68% corn, 20% wheat, 12% malted barley
Aged: 5 years
Availability: WY, CO, TX, MT, ID, UT, ND, SD, NE, OK, NV & NM with plans for rapid national expansion in 2015
Learn More: WyomingWhiskey.com