A family-run distillery near Missoula, Mont., was recently recognized by the Montana Department of Agriculture (MDA) for their innovative business practices that have continued the farm’s legacy into the fifth generation.
Montgomery Distillery focuses on making vodka, gin, and whiskey from grains grown on the family farm in Heath, Mont. Ryan and Jenny Montgomery are the fifth generation that started the distillery business and work with family members Chris and Tom Montgomery who grow the hard red winter wheat and winter rye that is made into the craft spirits.
Christy Clark, MDA director, recently visited the distillery that has been in operation since 2012. The business has a tasting room and also sells its products at liquor stores throughout Montana and other states.
“We strive to highlight and celebrate those Montana businesses that are modeling innovative and creative practices to add value to their product as well as Montana agriculture. It is very impressive what Montgomery Distillery has accomplished thus far. They continue to add value to a family-based ag business with Montana roots five generations deep,” Clark said.
Switching gears from a conventional wheat farm to a farm that produces the grains needed for alcohol production was what helped Ryan Montgomery come back to the farm.
“My dad worked for USDA when I was growing up, but he always had a hand in farming and ranching. After he retired, he took over Grandpa’s farm,” Montgomery related. “I was one of those farm kids who initially left for the big city and went to California, the East Coast, and overseas before I decided I wanted to come back home and so I started looking for a way to do it. I had first thought about a brewery in Missoula, but then started working on this idea.”
To refine his skills and knowledge about distilling liquor, Montgomery went to a whiskey-making school in Scotland and also paired up with Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Wa., to get more knowledge of how to operate a still.
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“We ended up using the same German still maker as Dry Fly and they helped us put it all together when it came, which was really helpful,” Montgomery said.
In addition to learning about the craft of distilling liquors, Montgomery said the business had to determine how to overcome some unique timing challenges.
“For some of our products like the vodka and gin, we didn’t have to work through an aging process. But for the whiskey, we had to age it in barrels for a few years until it was ready to sell,” he said. “But during that time, we also had to make expenses on the unaged products. We were breaking even for a while, but when we were able to bring the whiskey out, it became profitable.”
Due to the high level of interest, the distillery has been able to focus on their whiskey production and are working to keep the product longer before it is released.
“We currently have whiskey that is 3-6 years old, but we are only releasing 25 percent of our product each year,” Montgomery said. “It’s very tempting to sell it all, but we view aging the whiskey longer as an investment.”
To help the business get going, the farm also took advantage of funding opportunities available through the MDA, including a loan to buy their initial still. The business is also receiving a $50,000 matching grant from MDA to add another still to the production equipment.
Montgomery said the tie between the farm and the distillery is “a version of magic.”
“Seeing the winter rye come out of the ground and watching it over a four-year period turn into an award-winning whiskey is some version of magic,” Montgomery said. “It is mind-blowing to see the life cycle of this whole product.”