By Joseph T. O’Connor ExploreBigSky.com Editor
BOZEMAN – The smell of sawdust fills the air, dim light muted by dark wood and brick walls in Copper, Bozeman’s only whiskey bar and grill. A thick wall divides the long bar and lounge from the dining room in the large space below the Sweet Chili Asian Bistro at 101 East Main Street.
Employees sweep, roll silverware and wipe down the tables, some reconstructed from old wooden pig troughs from a ranch in Big Timber. Each table is branded with a capital C.
Although the establishment opened its doors March 25, the crew is preparing for Copper’s Grand Opening on April 12, when the Dirty Shame will break in these burly, refurbished walls.
Managing partners Jay Thane and Jon Slye, both 34, sit at a tall bar table, talking plans for the fully renovated, 4,000-square-foot basement room on the corner of Main and Black in downtown Bozeman. It feels like a Montana whiskey bar.
“We wanted a place where locals would feel comfortable,” Thane said, “and a place where tourists would say, ‘Alright, this is Montana.’”
Thane and Slye, who both appreciate good whiskey, noticed the bars popping up around the country, catering to connoisseurs from New York to Seattle.
“Whiskey itself has obviously been around for a while, but people are getting into it more now than before Prohibition,” he said.
Lew Bryson, managing editor at Whisky Advocate, a whiskey magazine out of Emmaus, Penn., noticed the trend as well. “There are many more whiskey bars in America today than when we started covering whiskey in 1996,” Bryson said. “[And] there are more than there were in 2005.”
The name Copper was one Thane and Slye came up with based on its importance both in Montana and in the distilling process.
In the 19th century, copper mining was a major industry in Montana, due to the advent of electricity. Boomtowns popped up and some, like Butte, played major roles in state history. The metal continues to be used today for whiskey distillation, because it reacts to molecules in the alcohol, keeping the distillate sweet.
RoughStock, Montana’s first whiskey distillery since Prohibition, is located in Bozeman; it uses copper stills for its whiskey mash.
“We had never been to a distillery until we went to RoughStock in 2008,” said Slye, who recalled sitting at the Bacchus with Thane discussing the idea of a whiskey bar. “We were talking about how whiskey is awesome, and it’s such a growing trend.”
Between them, Thane and Slye have more than 30 years of restaurant experience. They worked together previously as managers at the Bacchus Pub, and felt it was time for a change. They made it quickly.
In December, they signed a lease for the space and began the demolition process on Jan. 1.
“The kitchen had to go down to studs, and we had to install new sheetrock,” Thane said. “We [basically] tore everything out of the front of the house.”
They added a 45-foot-long bar they say could be the longest in Bozeman, and a private whiskey room, which seats up to 14.
Copper’s feel is upscale-casual, and the bar and grill offers everything from Rainier beer in a can for $2 to Scotch whisky for $30 a glass.
“We want this balance [of customers],” Thane said. “[Copper] is like the bar in your basement – it’s a giant man-cave.”
The new establishment currently offers 77 different types of whiskey, including variations on Thane’s favorite, rye, and Slye’s, Scotch.
Try a taste of High West Double Rye, a smooth and spicy rye whiskey, or jump on the Scotch train, for an Oban or Macallan single-malt.
The partners plan to have 100 whiskey options before long, training their staff of 55 in the elegance and complexity of the spirit that spurred the establishment. Both rare and common whiskeys grace the bar, including RoughStock, Bullitt, Caol Ila and hopefully Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, the rare, small-batch bourbon from Frankfort, Ky.
In addition, Copper offers a wide menu including burgers, steaks, salmon and barbeque. Chef Scottie Burton even prepares lobster roll sliders and deviled eggs topped with lobster and caviar, and smokes his own barbeque for brisket sandwiches and rib specials.
But for Thane and Slye, it all comes back to the whiskey, and they’re enjoying the ride.
“We are going through so much whiskey right now – bourbon and rye, everything,” Thane said. “People are just loving it. It’s really fun too, that Bozeman is into the concept.”
Whisky or whiskey?
Whisky made in Scotland is called Scotch whisky, as it is today. After the English Malt Tax of 1775 forced many Scottish distilleries to shut down, the Irish began more distilleries and translated the word, adding an “e.”
The U.S. kept the “e,” making American whiskey spelled as such. Canada’s spirit is “whisky.”
Different distillation processes also separate the styles.
The Dirty Shame
The Dirty Shame will take the stage at Copper Whiskey Bar and Grill’s Grand Opening at 9 p.m. on Friday, April 12, for a free show. Thane says it was a no-brainer to bring in the Bozeman-based band with an outlaw-country sound.
“They’re the perfect fit for our grand opening,” he said. “They’re a whole bunch of fun and just fit the whole whiskey/Montana theme we’re going for.”