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Friday, March 27, 2015

How Micro Saved the World

For those willing to pause long enough to look beyond the sensationalism and pessimistic oratory of mainstream media, it is easy to see we are in the midst of a truly exciting time. The world is smaller than ever before, and we are, in many ways, more connected than ever. Machines have nearly eliminated the need to toil constantly for our basic existence, leaving us time to luxuriate in an unprecedented era of edible, artistic, and cultural bounty. It isn’t a leap to imagine a rather swift transition to one of those leisure-filled technological utopias of mid-20th Century science fiction.

The current resurgence of craft culture is, most assuredly, a consequence of this prosperity. But what makes it remarkable is that it is also absolutely essential in our ability to leverage our present cornucopia into a stable, sustainable society.    

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, there was almost no such thing as unemployment. A person could literally not afford to be idle; if they were, they starved. Only the very young, wealthy or infirm were afforded the luxury of leisure, and even they to but a small extent.

Technology, over the past two centuries, has utterly transformed this paradigm, to the point that, today, one can find perfectly able-bodied people whose time is spent wholly engaged in leisure. In civilized nations of the world, which account for most, even the hardest working among us spend but a fraction of our lives at life-sustaining labor.

This, however, comes at a cost. Our system of centralized, petroleum based, macro production has created an excess of available labor. It has also equated consistency and abundance with quality. Micro production and craft culture is a societal rebuke to this phenomenon, as well as our best conduit to a lasting, secure economy.

The economy of the world is nearing a state of maturation, after which growth will largely be confined to reallocation among analogous points of interest. There is only so much wheat to make so much whiskey, and only so many people in the world to drink it; in other words, there is an absolute upper threshold for production that is limited by consumption. Soon the market will reach a point of saturation, when the only potential for growth will be confined to shifting market share between similar products. Or in simpler terms, the only variance will be whether the drink of choice is whiskey or beer.

At such a point, further division of labor becomes meaningless, and in fact counterproductive. The rebirth of craft is a function of our nearing this point. We have become so efficient at fulfilling our basic needs that people have begun to regress, to reverse the division of labor. They are once again making things by hand, simply because they have too much time on them.   

Decrease in growth is aberrant to the modern economic cognos, but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of. Zero growth economies have existed throughout human history, many for much longer than our current growth based model. That is not to say that a transition to one won’t have its challenges; it most certainly will. But every great leap forward has been spurred by the need to overcome some difficulty or another, and this is no different.

So what does this have to do with craft spirits?

What this means to craft spirits is that they are not a trend, or a flight of fancy, or a passing fad that will ultimately be absorbed by the mainstream. It is an entirely new way of doing business, one rooted in classic methodology yet predicated upon the potential created by the contemporary. The wildly successful model of fossil fueled and automated macro production has given us a platform from which to recapture the most enviable facets of tribal living, the bonds of community and interdependence, while retaining the leisure time afforded by technological advancement, even leveraging that luxuriant asset into the meaningful Pursuit of Quality.

To borrow a quote from Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant war opus  - These are great days we're living, bros!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Spirit of America - Headframe Spirits

reprinted from MicroShiner - Autumn 2014

Butte is as authentic as it gets.

Evel Knievel was born here, and that quintessential American daredevil, who dressed in a Stars and Stripes jumpsuit, held a Guinness record for most bones broken in a lifetime, and once said “pain is temporary, glory is forever,” could well be the poster child for the place. Perhaps not quite famous, Butte is at least notorious.

A mile above sea level, it sits atop a catacomb of mine shafts, some more than a mile deep. Old headframes rise above the buildings in the city skyline. An open scar called the Berkeley Pit, located immediately on the outskirts of town, is filled with water so toxic it borders on acid. When a migrating flock of Canada geese landed there to rest, they all died, garnering national attention and cementing Butte as one of the world’s premier venues for environmental research.

Like its prodigal son, Butte has a reputation for being tough. It might get knocked down, but the town, founded on the indomitable spirit of the miners who built it, seems to always persevere. By all accounts, Montana’s first electric light was lit at the nearby Alice Mine, only a year or two after Edison invented the incandescent light bulb. The mines of Butte quite literally supplied the copper that lit the world.

It is a city of extremes, with fortunes founded firmly in the cycle of boom and bust. Since the end of mining’s glory days, Butte’s population has hovered around thirty thousand, but prior to 1900 it was the largest city between Chicago and San Francisco, and likely the most ethnically diverse. Immigrants from the world over flocked to this frontier town, perched high upon the spine of the Rocky Mountains, to work in the dozens of copper mines that dotted Butte Hill, the Richest Hill on Earth.

Headframe Spirits, like all of Butte proper, is located on the hill’s southern flank, on the corner of Montana Street and Galena in one of many brick buildings that stand testament to the city’s heyday. It is odd to see so much capital standing idle; a legacy so palpable and well preserved as to appear ready to take up where it left off. Butte is the perfect Industrial Era ghost town, impatiently awaiting another influx of industrious immigrants willing to re-imagine its Gilded Age glory. The allure of the city, its magic, is its authenticity.

The tasting room at Headframe appears to have been built at the turn of the 19th century, because the building that houses it most likely was. The exquisite back bar is a treasured Butte artifact on loan from the World Museum of Mining, and a portion of the profits from Headframe’s popular Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liqueur are donated to that area attraction. Pieces from a local artist adorn the walls, flanked by a variety of tributes to the city’s storied past.

Like most good saloons, the tasting room is long and narrow, dominated by the bar along its north wall. Its south wall separates the hospitality side of the operation from the production side, dividing Courtney’s realm from John’s. Metal stars adorn the partition, engineering novelties that actually serve to hold the distillery together. They are a metaphor for Courtney and husband John, their leadership and the thing they are trying to accomplish, which begins with making spirits but is ultimately about much more.

Justin Aden, a former head distiller at Headframe who has since left to start his own distillery in Michigan, studied microbiology and ethanol fermentation at Michigan State University. As a grad student he was instrumental in developing that school’s Artisan Distilling Program, and it was there he met John McKee, who was prototyping spirits in a two week program. John lured Justin away from the ranks of academia the way he secures all his protégés, with clear genius tempered by humble confidence. That, and his still.

This unique still is, in Aden’s words, the “holy grail” of micro-distilling. It is a game-changer; a scaled down, more practical version of an ethanol refinery. Unlike the stills found in many micro-distilleries, Headframe operates a continuous distillation process that is not limited by standard pot still methodology. The stripping, or low wine, run is eliminated in John’s still, making it capable of “just rolling.”

What this means in lay terms is that Headframe’s production capacity is greater than most micro-distilling operations by several factors. “With this still, we can produce more in a week than all of the other distilleries in Montana combined,” Aden said. The company’s strategic plan calls for letting the business grow organically until it exceeds the production capacity of the still, which as Aden put it allows for “plenty of expansion”.

And expand it has. In August, Headframe Spirits made news when they announced plans to become the largest distillery west of the Mississippi. They have since opened a second facility with the capacity to produce 24,000 bottles every 8 hours.

How many proof gallons a distillery can produce and still be considered micro is determined by the laws of each state, which in the case of Montana is twenty five thousand. Whether production at Headframe Spirits will one day eclipse that mark is yet to be determined, but John and his crew don’t spend much time worrying about it. They are much more concerned with distillation science than with “craft” or “micro” labels.

For an artist, the creative process is special and unique. The same can be said of Headframe Spirits; however John is unwilling to take the analogy beyond the initial spark of inspiration. After that, he relies on science to mold his art into something palatable to the public.

“Operating craft as art, can you survive the expense of gaining experience for fifty years?” he asks. “It doesn’t matter how much passion or love you have, it’s about the science,” says John. “It’s hard for craft people to understand this. They want it to be learned, experiential. But the economics leave no room.”

“We started from the point of ‘if we distill it, they will come’,” he adds. “But that is not the way we wanted to play in the game.”

Consistency of product will always hit a nerve, he explains, and better allows Headframe to share what it is they are trying to say.

“Selling the first bottle is easy. We concentrate on selling the second,” John says. “We have a goal of making Neversweat taste the same next time as it was two years ago.”

In order to do this, the team at Headframe, like many makers of premium whiskey, blend their barrels. They test them with the usual organic techniques, sniffing and tasting the barreled spirit, but back it up with a gas chromatograph and what John refers to as the “craft of science.” It’s an approach that has allowed Headframe to produce a whiskey on par with those of master blenders who have thousands of barrels at their disposal using only a handful of barrels, analytical equipment, and some real smart guys.

John includes the craft of blending, the craft of science, in his definition of what entails craft distilling. He avoids the divisive camps arising from the use of neutral grain spirits or such industry demarcations as “grain to glass”, subscribing instead to the old adage that a rising tide lifts all ships.

“There are lots of people making things you’d want to drink,” says John. “If it’s booze worth drinking, tell your friends.”

Such unassuming manner provides a glimpse into the real key to Headframe’s roaring success. More so than craft or science, the actual stimulus has been John and Courtney’s thoughtful brand of leadership. A philosophy of stewardship, of the brand, the process, the business, the employees, even of the city and legacy of Butte itself, is built into their company plan. Their management style is to create the infrastructure of success, then allow their team to achieve it.

“We’re really smart at knowing what we don’t know,” John says. “Our thought was to hire people who are better at this than we are, give them the tools to do things, and get out of their way.”

“I am the person that makes sure things get done,” says Courtney. “It’s like I have 26 children to encourage, support, and be stunningly proud of. I really love that job.”

Courtney’s official title is that of ‘go-to girl’, a designation she applied to herself deliberately. It provides her with both the latitude and the authority to take responsibility for every facet of the Headframe operation.

“My responsibility is to use myself and Headframe to better my place and the world. We want to use our company to put a face on this community.”

Headframe Spirits was born, to a certain degree, out of necessity. The company that John and some fellow engineers had created, erecting commercial biodiesel plants onsite from a design they invented, had folded. He and Courtney were lying in bed, discussing what he wanted to do next. When the best he could offer was ‘stay at home dad’, she called bullshit.

“You know how to distill and you like hooch. How about opening a distillery?”

The idea galvanized John, so much so that he immediately got out of bed and began penning a marketing plan. It was built on the premise that distilling was the easy part, and intended from the outset to serve as a way for people to see beyond the Berkeley Pit.

“Headframe Spirits was born out of passion for this place,” Courtney says. “That’s why we didn’t call it McKee Distillery.”

Living in Connecticut after earning her degree in English from the University of Montana, she remembered the Big Sky State as romantic and far-away.

“Butte wasn’t on my radar before I moved here, but it’s an amazing place to be,” she says.

Butte is a snapshot of 20th century America, so much so that it has assumed the mantle and calls itself, simply: Butte, America. Its story parallels that of the greater nation at large, tracing the country’s path through the Industrial Age in bare bones, heart on the sleeve, all caution to the wind fashion.

The city itself stands as testament to a bygone era, one that Headframe Spirits celebrates loudly in its branding. References to local mines such as Destroying Angel and High Ore adorn their labels. But John and Courtney’s love for the town, much like the shafts of the mines themselves, runs much deeper than that.

“I want us to be mindful of where we are. The second we forget we are a Butte, America company we lose our integrity.”

Integrity is Courtney’s craft. Her job, as she explains it, is to ensure Headframe remains authentic, in product, message, and deed. Authenticity, integrity, attention to detail, and imparting that to the future, is her utmost concern. As she points out, there is no clear consensus on what makes a micro-distillery, but the same cannot easily be said of integrity.

“What is more important to me is maintaining integrity and authenticity over size,” she says. “We all have our roles and if my job becomes to be the gut check, I will embrace that.”

For John, maintaining that authenticity is purely a function of the production methods they employ. The unyielding logic of scientific method, he argues, ensures Headframe is always authentic.

“What is our flavor profile? We go to a gas chromatic graph,” he says. “No matter what we are, what we become, the one thing we must always do is put something worth drinking in a bottle. If we don’t do that, this will be employee owned, but there will be nothing worth owning.

“My exit strategy isn’t to sell out to Diagio. It’s to sell it to Audrey, and Heidi. I come to work smiling. Maybe we grow, maybe we don’t. If we keep doing what we’re doing, that’s enough.”

Butte has always been a socialist stronghold in otherwise conservative Montana, and that idealism is apparent in John and Courtney’s approach. They allow their vision to be shaped by employees and customers, which makes the scope of the enterprise larger than they ever could have imagined. Their business has scaled much faster than they expected. The plan called for having 14 employees at the end of the first year; they ended up with 23, because they were needed.

Rather than find it a source of anxiety, the couple revels in the prospect. They dig into each employee’s talents and interests, capitalizing on opportunities to engage them in a special way. They require that their permanent employees set tangible goals, and then help them achieve them. One was to learn Microsoft Excel, another to run a 5k.

“I am fortunate that things in my work day, things that are my responsibility, are things I enjoy,” Courtney says. “I am grateful to be in a position to encourage success.”

Under such palpable leadership, it is hard to imagine a limit to what Headframe Spirits might accomplish. Courtney loves the idea of partnering with local college Montana Tech to make Headframe an educational outlet and the thought of using the label to help promote Butte as a destination for preservation tourism.

There is significant interest in his still, and John spends a great deal of time working with other craft distillers to advance the industry. Still, the couple remains committed to a simple measure of success, which Courtney verbalizes as: “I want you to have a fabulous cocktail, hopefully a bottle in your hand, and a greater education and appreciation of what Butte is.”

They do that by steadfastly adhering to their doctrine of science and stewardship, creating a label that is as much the breadth and depth of Headframe as that namesake is to the mineshaft it serves.

“I am very proud of it. It has been a life-altering experience,” Courtney says. “So well executed, like a symphony. It’s humbling to be a piece of that. You cannot account for love, and passion and joy, in a spreadsheet.”

Friday, March 20, 2015

Daily Pour

Journeyman Distillery - Humdinger Jalapeno Spirit

Jalapeños grown in our own Three Oaks community organic garden are macerated in our organic rye neutral spirit and then distilled. The definition of small batch as each Jalapeño run produces less than 50 bottles of spirit.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Colorful Cocktails to Revive Your Inner Leprechaun

While many enjoyed St Paddy's celebrations over the weekend, March 17th is the traditional date set aside for observing the death of Ireland's patron saint.

With this in mind, and for the diehards who may or may not be fortunate enough to live in such Irish strongholds as Boston, Butte, or Dublin, we offer up a couple of festively colored cocktails, compliments of our friends at Privateer Rum.

St. Patty’s Smash
2oz Privateer Silver Rum
1oz Fresh Lime Juice
1oz Simple Syrup
10 Mint leaves
In a rocks glass combine all ingredients and muddle to extract mint flavor.  Fill the glass with crushed ice to hold the mint leaves at the bottom.  Garnish with a mint sprig and enjoy!

Aloha Leprechaun
2oz Privateer Silver
1oz Pineapple Juice
1oz Orange Juice
1oz Blue Curacao
1/2oz Fresh Lemon Juice
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and give a quick shake.  Pour cocktail into a glass and garnish with a pineapple wedge.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Daily Pour

Syntax Spirits - Powder White Rum

Powder [tm] White Rum is Syntax Spirits' modern Colorado take on a spirit that dates back to the 14th century.  We make our rum from traditional raw ingredients and don’t add sugar back after distillation.  Each batch of our award-winning rum starts with 100% American dark cane molasses from Florida. We combine that with pure Rocky Mountain whitewater from the local Wild and Scenic Poudre River and ferment it on-site in our distillery. Finally, we distill it in unique, handmade copper-and-stainless-steel fractionating column stills.

We distill our rum to let the natural, rich, malty flavors of the molasses shine through while keeping it smooth enough for sipping straight or on the rocks.  Look for flavors of rich vanilla, nougat, meringue, smooth caramel, malt, sweet cereal, and brown sugar.  It’s equally at home in a mojito, caipiriniha, or hot buttered rum...try it in any of your favorite rum drinks.

Powder won a prestigious Good Food Award in 2012 for great taste and responsible production, and was also featured nationally in Wine and Spirits magazine in 2013.  In 2014, Powder won a silver medal for taste and a bronze medal for packaging in the MicroLiquor International Spirits Awards.  Label art is designed by well-known pinball artist Greg Freres, and depicts what distillery owner Heather Bean looks like in her head while tele-skiing in the Rockies...if only she looked more like Rihanna, knew how to snowboard, and saw the sun much more often.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

2bar Spirits Announces Whiskey Collaboration

2bar Spirits has announced the release of the “2bar Whiskey series”, a collaboration with local Seattle breweries that will have 2bar making one of a kind whiskeys based upon local beers.

The first whiskey will be made in partnership with CounterBalance Brewery, which is located in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. The whiskey will use the mash bill for their full bodied Kushetka Russian Imperial Stout.

10% of all proceeds from this first whiskey will be donated to Children’s Hospital, with proceeds from subsequent whiskeys being donated to other local charities.

“I am very excited to be able to partner with some of the best breweries in the Northwest as well as to contribute to some very important local charities” said Nathan Kaiser, founder of 2bar. “I am excited to see how these whiskeys age and taste!”

2bar Spirits recently expanded its capacity, and plans to make a new whiskey each month. When they become available, they will be sold out of the 2bar tasting room, which is located in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A TOAST from the Leftbank

It was a dark and stormy night.

Actually, the weather was picture perfect in Portland, Oregon, and people flooded the streets and parks of the Rose City to celebrate what from all appearances was winter's end. As the sun slowly descended in the west, a small queue began to form at the entrance to the recently reimagined Leftbank Annex, and the unusually warm spring day gave way to what looked to be an equally spirited evening.

The crowd in question were what could be considered MicroShiners, enthusiasts of craft spirits, and the event they were lining up for the fifth iteration of TOAST, Portland's annual artisan spirits tasting hosted by the Oregon Distillers' Guild and the Oregon Distillery Trail.

With over 40 micro-distilled and craft labels assembled, the event offered attendees access to a selection of spirits that dwarfed even the most ridiculously well-stocked bar, serving up samples of some hundred or more individual tastes and flavors. Included in the price was an unlimited number of tastings, a souvenir sniffter, and hors d'oeuvres prepared by several shining stars from Portland's renowned culinary scene.

Upon entering, we were greeted by Ted Pappas of Big Bottom Distilling and current president of the Oregon Distillers' Guild. Ted shared with us some details about the event, ending with a dissertation on the highlight of the evening, an unveiling of the Oregon Starka Project.

"Write this down," he said. "A rye, pinot barrel; a zinfandel; and a rye barrel with French oak staves and applewood."

Starka is unique even in Portland, a city renowned for its expansive craft spirits portfolio. It is barrel-aged vodka, a style of crafting that spirit nearly unknown outside the borders of its eastern European motherland. The Oregon Starka Project is only the second such launch in America, following the recent release of Cardinal Sin Starka by St. Louis Distillery.

The uniqueness of the spirit itself is only amplified by the fact that the Oregon Starka Project is a collaboration between three local micro-distilleries. Its the type of thing that can only happen in Portland, a town nearly notorious for harboring a quasi-socialist sentiment.

"To my knowledge its the only collaboration between distilleries," Pappas adds. "Breweries and distilleries; there's lots of that. But this is something unique. We're really supportive of each other here."

The unveiling was scheduled for later in the evening, and Pappas hopes it will become an annual event at TOAST. Until then, there were plenty of other delicacies on hand ready to be sampled.

Indio Spirits, one of the distillers collaborating on the Starka Project, had an extensive portfolio on display, a highlight of which was their Hopka hop vodka. The spirit is dry hopped using local Cascade hops, resulting in what amounts to an incredible tasting experience.

Vinn Distillery was another notable stop. Offering a blackberry liquor, vodka, whiskey, and traditional Chinese baiju, Vinn is unique in their use of rice as the basic building block of their spirits. Produced locally in Wilsonville at their family owned distillery, Vinn's product is likely the only craft baiju in America, although Michelle Ly of Vinn believes we will soon see an influx of this rare (at least in the US) spirit from Chinese producers. Support the local effort and ask for Vinn instead!

Another unique taste being sampled was Cascade Alchemy. One of several micro-distillers at the event from Bend, Cascade Alchemy's selection contained a number of interesting flavors including Apple Pie and Barley Shine.  Of particular note was their Chai Tea, made from corn and distilled eight times before being infused with chai from My Chai in Bend. Refreshingly smooth, it would be sublime strengthening an Arnold Palmer on a summer afternoon.

Of course, this is only a few of the notables to be found at TOAST. With time running out on a tie score in the night's match between the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake, the wealth of the assembled craft spirits only increased in value, providing some needed respite for a few of the home team's more hardcore fans.

As the evening progressed, attendees narrowed down their favorites, with many purchasing a bottle for home, another aspect of TOAST that makes this particular tasting event unique.

Still, all things must end, even those as remarkable as TOAST, and so it did, closing with a VIP after party on the mezzanine. Clearly a success, this year's event set a high bar that will only be eclipsed by future iterations in scope and scale. We look forward to seeing you there!