Headframe Spirits blends old and new in historic uptown Butte
Story and photos by Ryan Dorn, Explorebigsky.com Contributor
BUTTE – John McKee lay in bed in Butte, Montana one winter night in 2010, wondering what was next. He was about to be laid off at a company he helped pioneer and build the technology for. It was already a very difficult time for his family.
His wife Courtney always encouraged him to dream and think big.
“What the hell are you going to do with your life?” she asked, going out on a limb.
He didn’t know.
“You know how to distill and you like hooch,” she said.
John got quiet.
Twenty-three months later, in March 2012, they opened Headframe Spirits, the first legal distillery in Butte. Despite their fondness for whiskey and a good cocktail, it was love of the city and its people that kept the McKees in Butte. They could have chosen to move when John was laid off.
“It was absolutely not going to happen,” Courtney said. “We want to be here, it mattered a lot less what we were doing, it mattered more where we were doing it.”
Butte has a friendly, supportive community, they say.
“There hasn’t been a day I can really think of in the last year we’ve been inside this building that we didn’t have friends stop by and grab a paintbrush” or help in other ways,” John says.
The first evening they were open, the community that helped through every phase of the McKees’ new business came out in droves. In their first week, the tasting bar was slammed every night.
Once it became so overwhelming that friends who were enjoying cocktails offered to jump behind the bar and help. They asked what they could do, and John said, “Grab that glass and make that guy whatever he wants.”
“It was cool, I mean, it’s Butte, that’s how we work here,” John said. “We’re all friends, and we all know each other. It’s really rewarding.”
Butte has always had a reputation for hard drinking. For decades it was known as the “wide open city” because a prostitute or a drink could be had 24/7. The brothels thrived. Boardinghouses hot bunked patrons. As soon as someone went to work, the bed would be filled with someone else who just finished a shift. In 1905, the Centennial Brewing Company claimed they sold a million glasses of beer a day.
Arguably the most famous drinking establishment in Butte’s history was the Atlantic Bar. The original Atlantic opened in 1902, was the length of an entire city block and had 15 bartenders working at any given time. During prohibition it served “soft drinks” and likely liquor under the radar. It operated in different locations on the same block until a fire destroyed it in 1969.
In 1906, a back bar came up the Missouri by steamship to Butte. It eventually found its way to the Rocky Mountain Café, which local business icon Teddy Traparish opened in the 1920s. Some of the breweries had closed during prohibition but the drinking didn’t stop, and the Rocky Mountain thrived, gaining national attention for its exquisite food.
“Butte didn’t shut down,” John says. “There were 100,000 people at the top of the hill and 80,000 of them were guys. They went down into the mines, and when they came up they didn’t want a sarsaparilla, they wanted beer and they wanted whiskey, and they got it.”
In the 1960s, Traparish donated the back bar to the World Mining Museum, where it was on display for 30 years. It was moved to storage in 2003, and started to deteriorate. Dolores Cooney, the museum’s curator, said five more years and it could have been ruined.
In January 2011 The McKees approached the museum and asked to borrow the 24-foot, oak and mahogany bar for their tasting room. They have been restoring sections of it, and have even met a man who remembers the bar from when it was at the Rocky Mountain.
“[He] walked in and looked at the bar and stopped,” Courtney recalls. “John walked over to him, and the guy told him he had his first drink at that bar. Butte took care of it for the first 100 years, we have to take care of it for the next 100.”
Today, behind the back bar in Headframe’s historic uptown location, you can get a cocktail made with fresh basil or one with cardamom pods, peppercorn and honey. Courtney has been creative with the menu, and their five spirits are named after Butte mines: Anselmo Gin, High Ore Vodka, Neversweat Bourbon Whiskey, Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liquor and Destroying Angel Whiskey.
The gin, made with 12 different botanicals, is unique and has been met with a good reception. And from a desire to create a sweeter, lighter spirit for folks that aren’t big drinkers, the Bourbon Cream Liquor was born. Add root beer to get a “dirty girl.”
“It’s a very popular drink,” Courtney says. “It’s also fantastic in coffee, and we have a lot of folks who just come in and have it on the rocks.” A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each bottle of Orphan Girl goes back to the World Museum of Mining.
“It’s exciting,” she says. “About a week before we opened I started looking at John saying, ‘we’ve built it, will they come?’ You can put your full heart and everything you have into something and not know. So far the response has been fantastic.”
This story was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine. Click here to read more.
Recipes from Headframe Spirits
1 part Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liqueur
3 parts root beer
Pour the Orphan Girl over ice and top the glass with root beer. Tastes like a boozy root beer float.
2 oz. Neversweat Bourbon Whiskey
8 oz. Cock n’ Bull Ginger Beer
Fill a copper mug with ice and add 2 oz. Neversweat Bourbon Whiskey. Squeeze a healthy chunk of lime in, top with ginger beer. For a spicier version, add 1/2 ounce of habanero simple syrup.
Lavender Lemon Drop
This drink works well with the High Ore Vodka and is stunning with the Anselmo Gin
3 oz. Anselmo Gin or High Ore Vodka
1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz. lavender simple syrup
Shake with ice and serve in a martini glass. We recommend rimming half the glass with lavender sugar.
Until new laws were passed in 2005, distilleries have not been allowed to operate in Montana since prohibition. Now, they’re all over the state. Below are some of those currently operating, with more sure to come.
vodka, coffee infused vodka, cherry infused vodka
Glacier Distilling, LLC
five different whiskeys
Headframe Spirits, Inc
gin, vodka, bourbon, bourbon cream liquor, unaged whiskey
Montgomery Distilling, Inc
gin, vodka, with whiskey in the near future
Ridge Distillery, LLC
dry gin, absinthe verte, absinthe blanche
RoughStock Distillery, Inc
five different whiskeys
Spirit of Montana Distilling
Cliffhanger Vodka, 40 Love Gin
Swanson’s Mountain View Distillery
unaged apple brandy and unaged honey spirit (similar to honey whiskey)
Whistling Andy, Inc
hibiscus-coconut rum, gin, vodka, silver rum, moonshine
gin, vodka, unaged whiskey