Willie’s Distillery defies the odds

Story and Photos by Joseph T. O’Connor Explore Big Sky Senior Editor

ENNIS – The U.S. government closely regulates distilled spirit production, because making liquor can be dangerous. Opening a distillery is an expensive proposition.

So, when Willie and Robin Blazer wanted to open a microdistillery in Ennis, Willie, 40, reverted to his previous training. Having served as a U.S. Army Ranger after high school, and later in the U.S. Special Forces, Willie returned to government contract work at age 36, spending three years in Afghanistan working for U.S. government organizations that provided security and anti-terrorism details to the military.

“We were assessing different bases, their threat vulnerability and basically gathering all that data and relaying it to the military,” he said, a smile poking from under his red moustache, its corners twisted with wax. “[Ultimately] it was a way to bring some money to the table.”

With some cash in hand, and with the help of friends, family, associates, grant organizations, a small business loan from Ruby Valley National Bank, and local economic development councils, the Blazers opened Willie’s Distillery.

They bottled their first batch of Montana Moonshine last December in the 3,500-square-foot building on Main Street in Ennis. Behind its large tasting room windows, the operation resembles Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, with hoses running from the 400-gallon mash tun to fermenters, and dials and gauges measuring pressure and temperature.

But Robin says the process is simpler than it looks. “It’s basic elementary chemistry and eighth grade algebra.”

Microdistilleries in Montana

In 2005, Montana Legislators lowered excise and license tax rates for in-state companies manufacturing and distilling less than 20,000 proof gallons of liquor (20,000 gallons at 50 percent alcohol by volume, or 100 proof). This amended law opened the doors for small distilleries to begin slinging hooch.

Roughstock Distillery in Four Corners produced its first spirits in September 2009, becoming the first to make whiskey in Montana in more than 100 years and blazing a trail for Willie’s and seven others, with more on the way.

“It’s just progressively gotten better since 2005 – a lot friendlier business environment,” Robin said. “It’s been legal to distill since the end of Prohibition, but it’s just been really expensive to do.”

Growing up on a grain farm in Montana’s Crow Creek Valley, Robin knew barley and wheat, while Willie was raised in Canton, N.C., the heart of moonshine country.

Willie moved to Montana in 1997 to attend the University of Montana, and after stints in the military and fighting wildland fire as a hotshot and a smokejumper, he wanted a change. When they first looked into it in 2005, there were only a handful of microdistilleries in the country.

“Something just clicked with [Robin’s] background in grain and my understanding of moonshine and whiskey and brandy,” Willie said.

Willie’s Distillery now produces a variety of spirits, including Montana Moonshine, Montana Honey Moonshine, Bighorn Bourbon, Montana Wild Chokecherry Liqueur, pear and raspberry apple brandies, and distilled local microbrews, often referred to as “Hopschapps.” The process is different for each spirit, but it all begins with grain or fruit.

The distilling process

Master masher Terry Barsness dumps 50-pound bags of Montana corn, barley, oats and wheat into the 400-gallon mash tun, which steam-cooks the mix. This mash is then pumped into one of the distillery’s 410-gallon fermenters, where yeast and enzymes convert natural starches and sugars into alcohol.

The mixture is moved finally to the German copper pot still, heated to 172 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which alcohol boils. Fumes rise, are funneled through a condensing coil, and out flows the booze. But the process is far from over.

Head distiller Nick Yalon then separates the heads, hearts and tails. These terms refer to the alcohol produced from the condensing coil: “heads” are the methanol that comes out first, the clear, flammable, simplest form of alcohol you don’t want to drink.

Likewise, distillers avoid the “tails,” the bitter-tasting fusel oils that often cause headaches, according to Willie.

“You want the ‘hearts,’” he said, referring to the part of spirit distillers keep to bottle or barrel. “It’s one of the bigger factors in the process – what are you calling the hearts?”

For Willie’s Bighorn Bourbon, made from mostly corn, the hearts are then aged in handmade, hand-fired oak barrels for various amounts of time in large and small barrels before being blended with a more mature bourbon they source from an older distillery.

The results, so far, have yielded a strong sales margin. But Willie, Robin and their eight employees are their own harshest critics. They’re perfectionists, and they want return business.

“If someone buys our bottle because it looks good, we want them to re-buy that bottle because of the taste,” Robin said.

Popcorn’s mark

An old, faded Maxim magazine article sits on the wooden table in the Willie’s Distillery Tasting Room. David Kushner’s story, “The Last Hillbilly Hero” depicts legendary moonshiner “Popcorn” Sutton, a major influence for Willie, who grew up hearing tales of the legendary North Carolina bootlegger, and even drinking some of his moonshine.

“He was quite the character – a little bitty old guy,” said Willie, who grew up in the same county as Sutton. He and Robin tracked Popcorn down in Maggie Valley, N.C., in 2006, and bought a VHS copy of The Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make.”

The 2002 film – which won a Southeast Emmy Award – tells the story of the moonshiner who got his name from destroying a popcorn machine with a pool cue in the 1960s. Popcorn committed suicide at his home in 2009, after learning he faced federal prison for bootlegging.

Popcorn’s legend lives on at Willie’s Distillery, where the Blazers keep his spirit distilling with the drive to make traditional “likker.”