Don’t ever let anybody tell you Westerners aren’t persistent. When business partners Brad Mead, Kate Mead, and David DeFazio met Max Shapiro, head distiller of Heaven Hill, at a whiskey fest, they told him they were planning to build a world-class bourbon distillery in the wide-open spaces of Wyoming. Max looked them in the eye and said: “Don’t do it. It will cost three times as much, be three times as hard, and take three times as long as you imagine.”
Fortunately for whiskey lovers everywhere, the three didn’t take that advice. “Don’t ever tell me I can’t do something,” laughs David. “I will do it just to prove you wrong.”
And they did. With help from world-class distillers like Lincoln Henderson and Steve Nally, family-owned Wyoming Whiskey in Kirby, Wyoming, is making award-winning whiskey inspired by Kentucky but with an undeniable allegiance to the windswept ranges and ridges of the Big Horn Basin.
Building a Team
Driven by a shared love of great bourbon, cattle ranchers Brad and Kate partnered with David to launch the company in 2006. While the three had the vision, drive, and business knowledge to make Wyoming Whiskey a reality, they knew they needed help when it came to the technical side.
Fortunately for them, they were able to hire two of Kentucky’s most respected bourbon luminaries to help. In the early days, Lincoln Henderson of Woodford Reserve and Angel’s Envy signed on as a consultant, helping to select the right equipment and build out the distillery. Wyoming Whiskey uses a continuous column still built by Vendome Copper & Brass, the oldest and most famous still manufacturer in the nation.
Then, Steve Nally, former master distiller at Maker’s Mark, decided retirement was a little too boring after all. He signed on to be Wyoming Whiskey’s first master distiller, taking on the challenge of designing the very first recipe for Wyoming Whiskey’s flagship bourbon.
The Right Stuff
At first glance, it seems like whiskey’s ingredients are simple. Grains, yeast, water, oak, and time are all it takes, right? Of course, like many simple things, the closer you get to the process, the more complicated it becomes. With Steve’s help, Wyoming Whiskey set about fine-tuning each of these ingredients
“We wanted to make a light to medium-bodied bourbon,” says David. “And when we sat down with Steve and told him what we were looking for, it was right up his alley.” Steve and the team designed a bourbon recipe that used wheat instead of the more common rye for its third grain alongside corn and malted barley. Wheated bourbons tend to be a bit sweeter, smoother, and lighter in body than bourbons that use rye, making them particularly easy to sip neat.
Mash bill settled, it was onto the yeast. “Yeast makes a massive difference,” explains David. “Lincoln Henderson once said to me that if you were to look at a flavor wheel for bourbon, 10% of its flavor comes from its grains, 30% comes from the yeast, and 60% comes from maturation.”
In the beginning, Wyoming Whiskey used just one strain of yeast, but after making about 600 barrels worth of whiskey they began using a second strain in addition to the first. “Even though the bourbon that came from those first barrels was good, after adding the second yeast, it really improved,” says David. “Without question, yeast plays a prominent role in the flavor profile.
Then there’s the water. “When I first started and everyone was talking about Kentucky limestone water, I thought it was such a crock,” laughs David. “Well, I was dispossessed of that misconception.” All the water at Wyoming Whiskey comes from a mile-deep limestone aquifer just about a mile north of the distillery, where it’s used to supply municipal water to the small town of Worland. According to the University of Wyoming Geology department, this super-pure water probably hasn’t seen the light of day since the Bronze Age.
“It was the luckiest find,” says David. “We couldn’t believe it.” At first, Wyoming Whiskey loaded tanker trucks with the water and drove them to the distillery. Then, the water utility extended the water via pipeline to the town of Kirby, so now Wyoming Whiskey can literally take it right out of the tap.
After all that attention to grain, water, and yeast, maturation provides one of the last opportunities to make—or break—great whiskey. It’s hard to overstate its importance (remember Lincoln’s 10%-30%-60% rule?), but fortunately, Wyoming Whiskey was able to design a maturation system that takes maximum advantage of Wyoming’s unique climate.
Following the lead of Kentucky greats, Wyoming Whiskey uses barrels from Independent Stave Company, the most important cooperage in bourbon country. Most have a #4 char—a very heavy char—but David says they’ve been experimenting with some slightly lighter char levels and the occasional toasted head to add complexity and depth.
The warehouses where aging whiskey is stored aren’t particularly tall, but they still get blazing hot in the summer, up to 130 degrees at the top. Winter, on the other hand, brings freezing temps to Wyoming. “In winter we’ve reached five degrees,” says David. “As soon as it gets below 40, there’s no real maturation, so it really stunts it in the winter when it’s that cold. Fortunately, we make up in the summer what we lose in the winter.” All of Wyoming Whiskey’s products are at least five years old, and many, like the Outryder Whiskey we shipped to club members this month, are even older.
The past ten years have been busy ones for the American whiskey industry, and Wyoming Whiskey has grown to be one of the most award-winning whiskey makers of its generation. It turns out that the same qualities that make a good rancher—hard work, persistence, and a little bit of luck—work in the whiskey industry, too.