Wyoming Whiskey’s Battle to Become Relevant in Bourbon

Cowboys drink two things: Coors and whiskey.

“Kirby’s actually a pretty cool town,” Sam Mead tells me as we stand at the dusty, literal end of town. Census reports 94 residents. That seems inflated. “There’s a ghost town across the highway,” he adds. Neighbors. The only thing in Kirby is Wyoming Whiskey which sits as a gleaming, white, five-story monolith at the end of this dirt road. Everything in town looks like it’s falling apart. Everything in Wyoming Whiskey is surgically clean, nearly new.

Wyoming Whiskey is a beguiling business, and it’s not just the contrast between location and distillery. It’s a company rife with contrasts, anchored by this: in a state that consumes whiskey only second to Coors, it’s almost universally disliked. Sam Mead, Distiller and son of the cofounder, Brad Mead, is aware. He thinks they launched too soon, after only three and a half years of aging. Now on Batch 29, five years aged, Mead thinks things are getting better. And while distribution is growing a lot (as of our visit, 25 pallets were shipped in the last two weeks, while the past two years, it was about a pallet a month), the general populace of Wyoming is still deliberating on the state’s eponymous company. Their decision may come down to two things — one, in a rodeo state, you see a hell of a lot more Crown Royal (a major PRCA sponsor) drank than bourbon; and two, the early Wyoming Whiskey wasn’t very good.

To sell bourbon, you need to make not-shitty bourbon. And the Meads are dead set on doing that, no matter the hurdles.

“Cows are so different,” Mead says, later in the day, as we stand in the kitchen of the WW visitor house. He has a bottle of Batch 28 out that he’s pouring into tasting glasses. His parents are lawyers in Jackson. The connection to cows isn’t obvious on the surface, but the Meads have always been a ranching family, and once you dig in a bit, the family tree turns up some surprises. Sam Mead’s dad is Bradford Scott “Brad” Mead, lawyer, rancher and cofounder, along with David DeFazio, of Wyoming Whiskey. Brad’s younger brother is Matt Mead, the current, 32nd Governor of Wyoming. Brad and Matt’s mother, Mary Mead, was a GOP nominee in 1990, but was unsuccessful in her campaign. Despite the political loss, she had plenty of personal success. She dedicated her life to ranching, mostly running the Mead Ranch, including an area known as “Lower Bar BC.” After she passed away, the family sold 1,200 acres of the land in 2004 — for nearly $100 million. Prior to the sale, the ranch was one of largest private land holdings in Teton County. Continuing back even further, Mary Mead’s father, Clifford Peter Hansen, was also the 26th Governor of Wyoming. The Meads are a Wyoming power family, and ranching is inherent in their blood. But beef ain’t bourbon.

“You could make the shittiest beef in the world,” Sam Mead says, “and it’s not like people are going to stop buying from you, because someone is going to buy it. Whereas, that’s not the case here.” We sip the bourbon. It’s sweet, strong on vanilla, light overall. It’s a pleasant sipping whiskey, if a still-maturing one. Mead is right about the dynamics between cows and bourbon. To sell bourbon, you need to make not-shitty bourbon. And the Meads are dead set on doing that, no matter the hurdles. It’s just that there have been plenty of hurdles.

Wyoming Whiskey came about after Brad Mead and David DeFazio went to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. The two liked what they drank and wanted to bring it back to Wyoming. They bought the equipment to get started and began setting up shop on land they owned in Kirby, in the center of the state, on what used to be the grounds of a roping arena. “We were so naive,” Mead says. So they brought Bourbon Hall of Famer Steve Nally, from Maker’s Mark, out east. Nally created the WW recipe, using local grains (everything except some of the barley comes from Wyoming) and a mix of a distiller’s yeast and a white wine yeast. “He was shooting for a lot like Maker’s Mark,” Sam Mead says. When asked if he sees similarities, Mead gives a declarative “No,” then, almost in a whisper, adds, “I would drink ours over Maker’s Mark.”

A rick house was built in Kentucky, disassembled, shipped to Kirby, and reassembled. The other two rick houses they built on site. “They’re much nicer,” Mead adds. Through the whole process, the crew at Wyoming Whiskey essentially learned by doing, but thankfully, bourbon is a limiting liquid — the particulars are definite and can’t be messed with. “We couldn’t really experiment a bunch, which probably would have been bad for us — because we don’t know what we are doing — we didn’t know what we were doing.”

To sell bourbon, you need to make not-shitty bourbon. And the Meads are dead set on doing that, no matter the hurdles.

Making whiskey in Wyoming was big news, and for the years while the liquid aged in the barrels, everyone was anxious to see the result. Governor Matt Mead told Yellowstone Gate that he was asked about the whiskey more than healthcare or other policies. In 2012, the bourbon, according to Nally, was ready. Nally told Wyofile, in December 2012, “The process has actually been a little faster than I thought it would be.” He also made clear that he wouldn’t sell a product that wasn’t ready. When the whiskey launched, 3,000 people showed up (only 1,200 were initially invited) to the launch party. The selection sold out. Bourbon greats like Craig Beam, Master Distiller at Heaven Hill Distillery, were in attendance, and lauded the whiskey (Beam told the YG, “I think it turned out great”).

But while the launch kicked things off in grand fashion, the excitement quickly tapered off. In talking with people around the state, everyone we talked to — except the guys at Blacktooth Brewery, who partner with Wyoming Whiskey — was less than enthused. Most reported that they were excited at the idea, but didn’t like the delivery. The flavor (or the cost) didn’t resonate. Again, this could be symptomatic of Wyoming whiskey drinkers’ proclivity toward sweeter, milder, more affordable Canadian whiskeys like Crown Royal. Or, it could have been the early batches were just that bad.

In April of 2014, Nally left WW, replaced by Elizabeth Serage. Serage stayed on for under a year, then left, and Mead took over distiller responsibilities. Wyoming Whiskey also initially used an algorithm for blending barrels, but they’ve since left that practice and turned to the services of Nancy Fraley, known commonly as “the Nose.” Fraley’s been instrumental in improving quality at WW. “She’ll taste 100 to 120 different barrels a day when she comes out here,” Mead says. “And she’ll put together 40 barrels for a batch. And I can’t hardly tell a difference between the two.”

Five years aged, the bourbon seemed to have now matured properly. Mead anticipates they’ll land at blends between six and eight years, mostly due to Wyoming’s extreme temperatures — especially the cold winters.

We came just after the company finished bottling batch 29. Mead felt confident it was the best batch they’d produced. Five years aged, the bourbon seemed to have now matured properly. Mead anticipates they’ll land at blends between six and eight years, mostly due to Wyoming’s extreme temperatures — especially the cold winters. Because of these swings, the bourbon takes longer to age than it does in Kentucky. Below 40 degrees, oxidation slows down, and oxidation is imperative to adding flavor to the liquid. “A four-year-old Kentucky barrel would taste older than a four-year-old barrel out here,” Mead says. “On the other hand, your ratios of oxidation to wood contact are going to be way different than Kentucky. So you get that Wyoming terroir.” The Meads do not heat or cool their rick houses (beyond capturing the region, HVAC is also cost prohibitive — the property is on propane; natural gas lines don’t run to Kirby). Mead adds that this makes their whiskey “different than anything you can make in Kentucky. It’s kinda younger, and a bigger time investment, but you get something unique.”

The hope is that that something unique is now unique enough — for Wyomingites, and for the larger population. WW moved into Colorado in 2013, Texas in 2014 and has since expanded distribution into more than a dozen other states. While Wyoming is still their top consumer (Mead qualifies that this is largely due to tourism), they hope to become a national brand on par with the whiskey distilleries in Kentucky. The quality of their grain, water and techniques will hopefully get them there — once the kinks are worked out.

If so, the distillery will be a point of pride for the state and the family. And they’re not giving up on that goal anytime soon. “I guess we’ve won some awards. A lot of silvers. No golds yet. We’ll keep trying,” Mead says. In 2015, they won Silver Medals for Straight Bourbon — Small Batch Bourbon at the Denver International Spirits Competition, Single Barrel Bourbon at the American Distilling Institute’s Craft American Spirits Awards, Single Barrel Bourbon Up To 10 Years at the North American Bourbon and Whiskey Competition, and Single Barrel Bourbon at the 50 Best Bourbon Competition. The second spots aren’t deterring them; this is Wyoming — an earnest can-do attitude, even in the face of difficulties, tends to prevail.

That, and, as much as beef and politics run deep in the Mead family, so does whiskey. Cliff, Sam Mead’s great-grandfather, passed away in 2009. As the story goes, a few days before Cliff — known for his good humor and wit — passed away, he was looking parched and was offered water. Struggling to speak, Cliff hesitated a bit, then mustered one word: whiskey. For the Meads, that spirit lives on, now aging in rick houses 6,000 barrels full.

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