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Booze, with love: Distillers get together to help diversify their industry — and make a great whiskey
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Booze, with love: Distillers get together to help diversify their industry — and make a great whiskey

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It is a thousand bottles of giving back.

Really, you could say a thousand bottles of love are being produced in Butte.

Very, very drinkable love.

Seven years ago, a couple of craft distillers decided their industry needed a group of professionals who were willing to share their knowledge and support the industry, as a whole and specifically when someone in the industry needed help. It would be a place of learning, a place of vulnerability. But it would also be a common foundation of trusted sources around the subject of making damn good booze.

Those two were John McKee, co-owner/distiller at Butte’s Headframe Spirits, and Johnny Jeffery, now master distiller at Bently Heritage Distillery in Nevada.

So more or less on the spot they created Good Guy Distillers. The group now has more than 100 members, distillers from all over the world. They insist on one thing: To be a member, you have to actively contribute, to give back to the industry. Every year, they cull the group of those who join but don’t contribute.

Good Guy Distillers’ latest project is happening in Headframe’s Kelley Distillery this week.

They are in the process of creating something called a “vatted malt,” a blended malt whiskey made from multiple whiskeys from multiple distilleries around the country, with the goal of sponsoring increased diversity in an industry currently dominated by “old white guys,” as McKee says.

Here’s how it works: The whiskey they make will fill a thousand bottles. Each will sell for $50. That $50,000 will be seed money for STEP-UP, an American Craft Spirits Association diversity foundation. STEP-UP’s goal is to train two people a year in starting a distillery, thus diversifying the industry in terms of “races, genders, disabilities and sexual orientations,” according to the ACSA. The internships will include all aspects of the industry.

For the project, 10 single-malt whiskeys were donated by distillers from around the country, and at Headframe’s Kelley facility this week, master distillers and whiskey-filled oak casks gathered like the ravens who roost there each evening in the winter.

Johnny Jeffery drove from Reno. Randy Hudson, master distiller at Triple 8 Distillery, maker of The Notch, repeatedly judged the best malt whiskey in America, drove from Nantucket. Reade Huddleston drove … from his house on West Broadway Street. That’s because he’s master distiller at Headframe.

Whiskey was drawn from each cask and tasted individually. McKee, too, participated in the initial tasting, but deferred to Huddleston to “do the heavy lifting,” he said.

Together, with no preconceived idea about what the final product would be, the distillers began exploring how the flavors combined, what each gave to the blend.

They began bouncing assessments off of each other, then began to “cherry-pick” the blend, Hudson said, deciding “what might be too heavy, what might be lacking.”

Finally, a “recipe” was agreed upon — how much of each whiskey would be used in the blend — and the work moved into the warehouse, where the barrels waited. Soon, they were tapped in turn, and the aromatic amber fluid began filling a huge container.

“We’re making something weird enough to make people think it’s beautiful,” Hudson said with a laugh.

Hudson had shipped a barrel of The Notch — no small donation when you think that, while some of the Notch is sold at 12 years old, by the time it is 15 years in the barrel, the whiskey sells for $500 a bottle, and the donated barrel contained enough for 250 bottles.

Only problem was, the Notch barrel didn’t arrive at the Kelley along with all the other donated whiskey. Hudson was on edge, to say the least. Finally, the shipper located the barrel — in Butte — and it was available for the blend.

For Jeffery, the barrel he donated will mark Bently Heritage’s whiskey debut. The distillery in Nevada’s high desert, which grows its own grain and mills it on site, put the whiskey back last year and won’t sell any until 2024 at the earliest. But it will be a part of the blend.

Also in the blend is Headframe’s Kelley malt. The Irish-style malt, aged eight years, made its debut last year to rave reviews.

The whiskey will be marketed as “Good Guy Distillers Lot No. 1.”

McKee says the distillers have donated far more whiskey than is needed for Lot No. 1, so it will be barreled and released in subsequent lots. Each lot will have a different blend and therefore a different taste and character. “We have enough for three lots, so that will mean $150,000” for STEP-UP, he said.

McKee added, "The blending is being done by three 'old white guys,' and we see that irony. But we all run our own distilleries that actively encourage diversity, and we hope that our efforts allow for graduates of the inaugural STEP UP to participate in the next blend in 2022."

After the blend for Lot No. 1 is completed, the whiskey will be returned to barrels while other work around its release — label-making, marketing, etc. — is done. That process will probably take about four months, meaning the whiskey could be released this summer.

For this period, Jeffery said, they will use not the Spanish wine barrels often used by whiskey distillers, but rather barrels that previously contained bourbon.

“That’s what you use when you don’t want the wood affecting the flavor,” he said. “The bourbon already took the flavor from the wood, so the wood won’t interfere with the barrel chemistry we want.”

Then the whiskey will be disgorged, diluted, and bottled.

A message in a thousand bottles.

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