The bar was crowded, as you’d expect it to be on a Friday night. We were sweaty and we stunk. It had been a long day, slogging out of the backcountry on one of those sloping roads that aren’t quite steep enough to slide on, but not quite flat enough to skin. We poled and pushed and coasted and cursed our lack of wax. It took us a couple of hours, but we’d make it out. I was last, broken by the effort and trailing behind the others, dehydrated, sore and growing slower and slower by the second.
Montana would be fun, they said. It was a place full of wonderful mountains and spacious skies. It had cowboys and honest-to-God Indians. There were authentic mining towns and simple ski areas. And there was whiskey, the water of life according to some… but for me, an unpalatable substance I hated with all my soul.
But here I was, four hours down the road from that miserable trek of a ski, sitting in a bar, drinking whiskey and watching the cowboys hit the dance floor. Suddenly the whiskey didn’t taste so bad, so I decided to have another. And then a third. And then “just one more.” We all know how that goes.
e’d planned the trip to mix it up: some backcountry huts, some in-bounds resort skiing and, to the certain dismay of our livers, visits to several of the players in Montana’s fast-growing distillery scene. Almost everyone reading this story will already be familiar with America’s micro-beer boom. Like micro brewing, micro distilling is a “back to the future” phenomenon. Research by Max Watman, author of Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine, says that in 1800 there were more than 14,000 distillers in the United States. The do-gooder moralists of Prohibition killed nearly all of them and by the end of that sorry period in American history less than 15 distilleries had survived.
Over the past two decades microbreweries have exploded across the American landscape and now you can hardly find a town that doesn’t have at least one brewery. Distilleries are following on the heels of this movement. And like mushrooms after a rain, they’re sprouting up everywhere, even in unlikely spots. According to the American Distilling Institute, there were approximately 70 craft or “micro” distilleries in 2003. In 2014, that number has boomed to 400, with more on the way.
But it was the skiing that brought me here. Montana certainly has wonderful mountains: crenellated ranges with jagged peaks and rounded humps with hidden valleys. And everything between. Our first stop was the jagged steeps of the Tobacco Roots, a chain of peaks approximately one hour west of Bozeman, a hip and happening college town that retains a bit of red on its neck. We didn’t stay in Bozeman long, but we promised to come back. Main Street’s bars were full of noise and action and girls—and we liked girls almost as much as we liked skiing.
Our host in the Tobacco Roots was Drew Pogge. The former editor of Backcountry magazine, he’s a multi-talented guy with a heart of gold and a yurt that sits high in the Bell Lake basin, a centerpiece of the range, with a fantastic mix of terrain from treed steeps to high alpine chutes. The yurt he rents out here is simple and warm and we were happy to find it as a storm started to spit cold flakes of snow through the whitebark pines and darkness loomed. The woodstove made quick work of our damp clothing and a simple pasta dinner went down easily. As the wind moaned outside, sleep came easily too. Tomorrow, we’d ski.
Montana is a natural home for the rebirth of the American craft distillery tradition. In the state’s rugged towns, filled with hunters, ranchers, farmers, miners and other sturdy, self-reliant souls, farm-to-table is not some urban hipster trend, it’s always just been the way you eat. People here still pickle the vegetables they grow in their gardens and make jerky out of the deer and elk that they hunt in the mountains they can see from their front yards. Distilling your own hooch in Montana is just another exercise in self-sufficiency. Although—unlike your buddy’s homemade vodka—the products served at distilleries opening up all across the Treasure State are world class.
We started to figure this out pretty quickly after the aforementioned slog out from Pogge’s yurt and made our first distillery stop. Willie’s is located in Ennis, a true blue western town just south of the Tobacco Roots in the Madison Valley. The Madison and surrounding rivers are hallowed fly fishing waters and the valley is the de facto northwestern gateway to Yellowstone Park. We arrived at the tasting room still in our ski gear, starving and thirsty. A happy hour of sorts, with canapés, was in full swing at Willie’s and it felt more hipster than hunter.
We mingled uneasily with well-dressed couples, scarfing down the hors d’oeuvres while sampling the distillery’s products. The Honey Moonshine and Bourbon Whiskey lightened the mood, and by the time the food was gone and the party winding down, our legs were wobbly and our heads were light. Still we retained enough good judgment to leave with a few bottles tucked under our arms. They’d come in handy later.
he best thing about Montana isn’t its history, or the diverse geography of open plains and mountains that scrape the skies. It’s the emptiness—open roads disappear into a vast nothingness of trees and forests and endless valleys, where the hand of man has been light and there really is nothing for miles. But as empty as this state is, there are sudden, sometimes shocking reminders that people have been here, a lot of people.
One of these places is Butte. This town on I-90 was once was a big time destination. One of the largest cities west of the Mississippi in its prime, the town’s population peaked at 60,000 in 1920. Today a mere 34,000 live here. Like most boom to bust stories across the west, Butte’s saga is one of mining. Copper fueled the influx here, and the headframes—large timber structures that stood on top of countless mining shafts that dot Butte’s post-apocalyptic landscape—provide a haunting visible evidence of good times all emptied out.
They also provide the brand inspiration for Butte’s Headframe Spirits. We arrived at Headframe’s tasting room in the early afternoon, brains foggy from the night before. Some hair of the dog is deemed a proper Montana cure so we indulged as owner John McKee gave us a quick tour of the facilities. Based in a historic building that once housed a Buick dealership, the production facilities are dominated by the still, a continuous flow system that was developed by McKee himself based upon knowledge he gleaned working for a biofuels company.
McKee’s distillation system, he tells us, is a game changer. It allows Headframe to continuously distill their whiskeys, ryes and other spirits, without stoppages or interruptions in production. It’s so innovative, in fact, that McKee sells the system to other distillers. When I ask him about giving his competition a leg up, he’s quick to downplay the transfer of his “proprietary” technology. “There is plenty of room in this industry right now,” he says. “Craft distillers are like an extended family.”
With hangovers suitably dogged, we wander out into the bright afternoon sun to check out Butte. The old city center has a rough beautiful patina, and the diners, bars and other establishments seem trapped in time. It’s hard to tell if Butte is still dying or if it’s poised for rebirth. But one thing’s for certain, we’re not going thirsty. McKee has seen to that, sending us on our way with several bottles of his strongest stuff as we head off to our next stop.
isco Basin is what the locals call Discovery Basin. But in reality it’s less disco and more family, which is why we’re finding cold smoke at 11 in the morning on a Saturday. There are a handful of locals on fat skis, including Ben Hupp, who gleefully starts showing us the resort’s secret stashes, including a series of open, windswept glades that may or may not involve dropping a ropeline. We lap it all afternoon, the boot-top-deep snow creamy and soft, each run as good as the first, until we finally cash it in for the day.
Discovery is part of the Flint Creek range. Unlike the Tobacco Roots, these mountains seem more weathered and rounded. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t quality skiing terrain tucked into the folds and gullies. You just need some local knowledge to help you find the best bits. Like Hupp, Denison von Maur is a local. But rather than skiing Disco, he spends his time ski touring the open bowls and steep glades of the “backyard” surrounding Altoona Ridge Lodge, a small collection of cabins he’s built himself on a mining claim north of Discovery Basin.
Altoona is the perfect backcountry destination. Von Maur shuttles us along with our gear (which by now includes six bottles of whiskey, rye and other libations) into the huts via snowmobile. From there, it’s an easy ski tour to the best terrain, which in this case is a series of steep chutes that sit just off the back of the ridge behind Altoona. At the bottom, we hit an old logging road back to the ridge and do it again. And again. It’s fast and it’s fun and before we know it, it’s starting to get dark and it’s time to head back to the cabins.
That evening we start to sample the fruits of the trip: The whiskeys, the ryes and the vodkas. The wood stove crackles and pops and laughter comes easily. In two days we’ll be headed back to Bozeman and a final day of lift served skiing at Bridger Bowl. But here, up on Altoona Ridge, with the wind moaning through the pines and high clouds scudding over a moon that’s nearly full, we’ve found something special. Montana’s whiskey trail isn’t endless, but tonight it feels like it will go on forever.
WANT TO HEAD OUT ON YOUR OWN ODYSSEY OF HOOTCH AND SOFT SNOW?
Book your flight from Denver into the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport and plan to spend at least one night in Bozeman, a hip, happening town with breweries, eclectic dining options and affordable hotels (look for options at visitmt.com); then drive out into those big, open spaces. Don’t miss these spots:
ALTOONA RIDGE LODGE
Plan your stay early, then drool over the terrain here. The snowmobile-accessed cabins are warm and the chutes are tasty. Don’t forget to bring your whiskey. altoonaridgelodge.com
BELL LAKE YURT
Former Backcountry magazine editor Drew Pogge’s little slice of paradise is more than a yurt: You and your buds (or family) can rent out to explore the trees, bowls and chutes around Bell Lake and Branham Peak. You can book guides to bring you to the goods and, what’s more, Pogge also runs an avalanche safety course and other events on site. If nothing else, go to the website to check out the fantastic photos.
If you want to find the opposite of I-70 ski areas with their crowds and trappings, head here. Disco is surprisingly varied and fun mountain, with an amazing backside featuring steep tree skiing and lots of powder. Come on a weekday and you have the place to yourself. skidiscovery.com
Located just outside Bozeman, this famed Montana gem punches above its weight with great terrain for all abilities and light snow. Experts will scurry up to The Ridge, a playground. that rewards a stiff hike with deep lines. bridgerbowl.com
Located in fly-fishing-crazed Ennis, Willie’s whips up two types of moonshine complemented by a bourbon whiskey and a chokecherry liquor. williesdistillery.com
Butte, Montana’s Headframe Spirits distills gin, whiskey and vodka using a revolutionary continuous flow process capable of processing 1,000 gallons of fermented wash each day. It’s so innovative, they sell it to other distillers. The tasting room is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. headframespirits.com
—Ski industry veteran Tom Winter has been a keen observer of all things snow related for three decades. He currently oversees operations in the Americas for the Freeride World Tour, is a member of the Board of Directors for the Mountain Rider’s Alliance and likes to go skiing in Italy as much as possible.