It’s early April and I find myself being welcomed behind-the-scenes of Montgomery Distillery, in the heart of downtown Missoula, Montana.
Greeted by owner, Ryan Montgomery, I’m welcomed back past the main tasting room, through a hallway, and into a large, open area that they’ve converted into a motorcycle shop. On the main floor directly behind the tasting room, lies this space that represents and embodies the character of those working for Montgomery.
There’s a bottom end of a motor torn apart, lying on the bench and Ryan shares with me that the team is taking part in the competitions held at the salt dunes in Bonneville, running their custom-built bike.
Their unique advantage? The bike runs off of in-house, distilled methanol fuel. He shares his confidence in them getting the bike up to the 98mph mark that they’re striving to reach.
After taking in my surroundings and getting my equipment unpacked, Ryan and I settle in at a table next to the work bench.
Ryan begins telling me his story.
Ryan and Jenny Montgomery met while living overseas and initially bonded over single malt scotch. Little did they know, in those early days, that their journey would take them on such a spirited ride. These two have worked hard throughout the years, having now become the well-known duo behind the Montgomery Distillery.
Ryan pursued old-world training, going through an apprenticeship and being traditionally tutored in Scotland and Jenny attained a specialized degree in herbology. This pair is now an unstoppable force. Collectively, they’re passionate about giving back to the community that they live in and are using their platform as a way to spread goodwill and give back.
Ryan started homebrewing, while he and his wife Jenny were living overseas. He shared with me that he initially wanted to start a brewery in Missoula. His foundational and continually growing love of homebrewing at that time was what sparked this idea, yet he was hesitant. Back then, he didn’t know if the idea of opening a brewery would thrive at a point in time where only a handful of breweries existed in Missoula.
That’s where Ryan and Jenny’s foundational love of scotch and fine spirits came into play. A trip to a small distillery outside of Munich, Germany where they saw into the distilling processes, proved to Ryan that distilling small-batch spirits was actually a possibility for them. Something that they had been passionate about, all along, was about to bring them back to Montana after Ryan had learned all that he could about the processes of distilling.
The decision and subsequent pursuit into the craft of distilling spirits started with Ryan’s apprenticeship. The apprenticeship took place at Springbank Distillery in Campbeltown, Scotland. Springbank distills with the utmost attention to staying true to traditional, old-world styles and methods of distilling.
Ryan describes this scene: “They do things largely the way they were done one hundred years ago, in many respects. They floor malt all of the barley and instead of having buzzers or lights go off when things need to be changed, little bells ring. It breaks everything down to its most elemental form.”
Here, he worked under Frank McHardy, a renowned whisky legend. Frank has long-pursued the craft of distilling since the mid-twentieth century. Ryan’s takeaways from this time of being an apprentice to a master distiller has shaped how he and those at Montgomery now produce, create, and develop their spirits.
"We try to do as much in-house and by ourselves, by our own hand, as we possibly can. All the way to growing our own grain and our own grain varietals on our distillery farm in central Montana."
They’ve taken on, what he calls, a “farm to bottle” approach, starting with the growing and sourcing of their own grains on the family’s central Montana farm. Staying committed to the community and state that they’re in, they also get their malted barley from a source near Great Falls, Montana. This founder takes pride in having control and ownership over the ingredients, production, and processes of everything.
There are unique life skills that inevitably come from being raised on a farm and from growing up in an environment of hard, physical labor. His central Montana upbringing isn’t something that Ryan spoke to in great depth during our discussion, but in observing him, I could clearly see how this background has influenced and shaped him.
Makers who work with their hands and bodies, earn a unique sense of accomplishment when completing the day’s work. Something very authentic, accompanied by a deep sense of connectedness comes from this labor.
Founder, Ryan, is a genuinely original and authentic individual who is undoubtedly sure and confident in his company and their products, while humbly carrying himself and not boasting.
The craft of distilling spirits is similar, at least in its early mash stages, to brewing beer. With beer, you filter the spent grain and mash residue more carefully before fermentation. With distilling, though, the very specific wort that is formed will impart more flavor, transferring into the final product.
Our conversation takes us down the stairs, away from the motorcycle shop, where Ryan gives me a tour of the large still room. The room is really quite massive, again much larger than you might expect if your sole impression is of this distillery’s tasting room.
Ryan shows me the various stages involved in the distilling process. We walk from the pallets that are loaded with grains, barley, and corn into the room where these grains are then ground into a very specific and particular coarsely-ground fashion, producing grist, and on through to the mash tun and fermentation towers and then to the German-made copper still and filtration towers and systems.
Though not as involved in the distilling process as he once was, he shares that when one of his two distillers are out on vacation, he’ll gladly step in to help. As well, when new products and spirits are being worked out and produced, they take an all-hands-on-deck approach. In the still room, Chris Conley is working on a new batch of whiskey, which they’ve deemed the Sudden Wisdom Rye. Chris is simultaneously seeing another batch of gin through to completion. Chris is the assistant distiller at Montgomery Distillery, alongside head distiller Chad Larrabee.
I can smell the distinct aroma of juniper in the air, as we approach the barrel holding the nearly-ready batch of gin. Montgomery’s Whyte Laydie gin is a dry gin that Ryan explains incorporates juniper, fresh citrus, and a medley of other herbs and spices.
Climbing up a ladder to view into the top of a very large mash tun, he explains this is nearly-ready wort of another batch of spirits. As we continue onward, Chris pokes fun at his boss, Ryan, saying “I left you the best part”, referring to the dirty job of cleaning the charcoal filters after they’ve been used.
A straight, clean vodka called the Quicksilver Vodka was their flagship spirit shortly after opening their doors to the public in 2012. Ryan explains that the towering, copper rectifying column to the left of the still is where the vodka’s alcohol vapors are brought to an ideal concentration: a straight, clean, and consistent spirit. After opening, the vodka was quickly followed suit by the gin.
Montgomery Distillery at 129 W Front St, in the historic heart of downtown Missoula, has an amazing history, one that serendipitously connected with the Montgomerys.
It’s obvious that Ryan enjoys sharing the history of this building that was built in the 1880’s. The building was erected by an individual by the name of Edward Schilling who had immigrated to Montana from Germany. The location has a colorful history, having served a variety of patrons as multiple businesses and storefronts, overseen by a number of different owners.
In the early days of Ryan’s researching of this Schilling building and checking the census data of owners throughout the years, he came to find that this building was owned in 1910 by the same individual that owned the house that Ryan and his family now live in. Discovering this ultimately solidified it for the Montgomerys, they knew they were on the right path, pursuing the right thing.
You’re able to see the exposed rock foundation in the still room, on the building’s main floor. The beams supporting the main, upper floor are extremely stout. Ryan explained to me that in the mid-twentieth century this building served as a tractor and tractor supply store and warehouse. Thus, it was reinforced to hold the sheer weight of an 12,000+ pound tractor.
From a traditional, western saloon to the tractor and tractor supply store to a gentlemen’s attire and accessories store and other retail storefronts to the iconic Montgomery Distillery, this building has a unique history and ambiance about it.
The business of running a distillery is much harder than one might initially expect. Between the varying rules, state and national tax, shipping, and production regulations that must be followed, this establishment needs Ryan’s and Jenny’s expertise, guidance, and overseeing of the logistics. They truly do a wonderful job of this.
Again, though Ryan does miss the hands-on nature of the act and the craft of distilling, itself, he does gladly step in, getting back to his roots from time-to-time. This craft and these processes of distilling that brought them into this business in the first place, holds a fond place in his heart. He speaks to it as one might speak of a loved one. The majority of this maker’s time is now spent running this thriving establishment and business.
Ryan’s advice to other makers, to other individuals seeking new growth or new opportunities while operating a business, is this:
"With any business, when you get to the point that you're profitable... you have more opportunities than you could possibly do. Take chances, but make sure that your failures are survivable. Simply, don't ever bite off more than you can chew."
He shares and refers to the chances and calculated risks that he has taken throughout the years and reminisces on these experiences. Do take the leap, as he promotes, but make sure that you have planned out a soft landing.
In their efforts of giving back to the community, the Montgomery Distillery hosts weekly Moscow Mondays, during which they redistribute the wealth to a different nonprofit each week. I highly encourage you to check out the distillery in Missoula and to try and make it in on a Monday, where one dollar from each cocktail goes to a variety of nonprofits. On any occasion, though, you will not be disappointed!
Ryan and my conversation has been released as episode no. 02 of the Makerviews podcast. Listen to this episode, recorded in their motorcycle shop to learn more about the beginning stages of his journey and hear amazing advice from Ryan to other makers, entrepreneurs, and those looking to run, open, or take their business to the next level.