Business Feature: Gulch Distillers
PHOTOS by JASON O'NEIL
WRITING by CLAIRE BACHOFNER
INCLUDED IN THE LOCAL VOL. 1
I dare you to find a place more “local” than Gulch Distillers. Owned by two heartful Helena Natives, Tyrrell Hibbard and Steffen Rasile, every batch of grain-based spirits are made using only Montana-grown grains in a facility that was once the Montana Distillery and Bottling Warehouse. The names of the spirits are locally-inspired. Every cocktail incorporates locally-grown produce whenever possible as well as house-made syrups and shrubs. The artwork is local, the website is local, the locals are local. Okay, you get it. LOCAL. What’s more? It’s all really, really good.
The location of Gulch Distillers is perfect. It’s tucked on a little side street, just a bit off the beaten path of downtown Helena. Once you set foot in the tasting room, there’s no turning back. Your curiosity will pique as you smell the various spirits in process. You’ll hear cocktail shakers shaking, people having quiet conversation, light-hearted laughter, good music at a great volume. Watching the staff work their magic- measuring, stirring, mixing, pouring, it’s a bit like walking into the coolest chemistry class ever, and you get to drink the potion.
On the menu: a multitude of craft cocktails (and some really great non-alcoholic options) to suit every palette. Whether you prefer a sweeter beverage (like, the Lemon Drop or Rum and Cola) or a more savory option (like the best Bloody Mary of your life, or the Montini) there’s no shortage of choice here: vodka, rum, fernet, 3 types of gin, house-made amaro, bitters, cola, shrubs, and light snacks.
Montana can be a little wacky when it comes to liquor laws and there’s generally a lot of griping when the subject arises. However, Gulch Distillers owners have chosen to reframe things in a positive way on their website: “Montana law provides for the enjoyment of two ounces of alcohol on premise per person per day and the purchase of two bottles per person per day. You only get two, so we ensure that those are the best two ounces you can get. Our craft cocktail program features all house-made ingredients, from our spirits distilled and bottled on site to the mixers we make in house from fresh fruits, herbs, and spices.”
And, it’s true. The cocktails at Gulch are something to behold. Well balanced, freshly concocted, beautifully presented, each sip feels like a gift. It’s everything a cocktail should be. For me, anytime something tastes this good and has a great story behind it, I’m in. Such is the case with every cocktail ordered at Gulch Distillers and, as you look around the room, you can sense the intentionality of it all. Everything has been well thought out. Products are creatively designed, the names of each of the craft spirits are rich with meaning and rooted in local history, ingredients are chosen wisely and measured accurately, every time. As a patron, it feels good to know that so much consideration has gone into each decision. From various comfortable seating options to exposed brickwork adorned with gorgeous, original artwork hanging on the walls and pleasant lighting- the ambiance just really works. The decor is hip, modern, fresh, clean, cozy. The staff are friendly and welcoming but also intensely focused and dedicated to nailing every cocktail, every time.
Family and community are celebrated everywhere in Helena, even the distillery. Don’t be surprised to see young families hanging out here together, snacking on pretzels and pub mix, kids sipping on “fancy water” and mom and dad having a little breather. And, each and every Wednesday evening, the distillery hosts “Community Cocktails” benefiting different local organizations which brings awareness, collaboration, conversation and funds to important organizations in the area.
Gulch Distillers has gained national attention two years in a row by bringing home awards for their Burone Fernet and, just recently, Guardian Reserve Gin from one of the longest running and most respected spirits competitions in the nation- The American Distilling Institute.
So, go. Bring a friend, your family, a good book. Find a cozy spot and kick back. Treat yourself to a fine cocktail, in a fine town, made from the finest ingredients. You’ll be glad you did.
Q & A with Gulch Distillers
PHOTOS by JASON O’NEIL
WRITING by TYRRELL HIBBARD
Q: What are your favorite parts of owning this business?
A: Steffen and I were both born and raised in Helena. My dad, grandfather, and great grandparents were all born here. We grew up in this community and this community is very much a part of us and our identity, and that extends to the Gulch. Personally, building this business in Helena has created another dimension of engagement with the community, a new level of providing value to and playing a role within the community.
I most enjoy the creative process of our business: we start with raw, Montana grains--products themselves of Montana sunshine, soil, and water--and transform those grains into beautiful spirits. Sharing our product, in a bottle or in an intentionally crafted cocktail, with our friends and neighbors and visitors to Helena brings us a lot of satisfaction. The best part of this project is seeing people enjoy the fruits of our labors.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
A: One of our biggest ongoing challenges is cultivating a cocktail culture in Helena. Helena, like much of Montana, is a beer-drinking community. Cocktails and spirits haven’t had a very prominent role in this culture in recent history. Affecting that cultural shift is a significant and ongoing challenge.
Q: What about your biggest success?
A: Launching the Gulch brand stands out to me as the biggest highlight. Winning some medals and national recognition for our spirits is also right up there. We have some much-anticipated products coming out in the coming years that could rival those first successes though.
Q: Have cocktails and hospitality been passions of yours for a long time?
A: My appreciation for the art of distilling preceded my appreciation for the craft of the cocktail, though the two very much go hand-in-hand. I studied in Scotland while in college and was there introduced to pot distilled whiskey production. Over the centuries that industry has elevated the alchemy of transforming grain to spirits into an art form. I’ve been fascinated by that art ever since. Cocktails are more culinary in nature--using different flavors, ingredients, and processes to create something appealing to the eye, the touch, and the palate. And unlike distilling, anyone can mix cocktails in the home. That’s something we have both done for quite some time. Years before the distillery, Steffen and I co-founded a cocktail club with our spouses and friends. Through that club we have explored, created, and discovered many amazing cocktails that have not only furthered my appreciation for distilling and mixology, but also informed the profile we developed for some of our spirits.
Q: What is your go-to cocktail after a long day?
A: A Negroni, Manhattan, or a dry martini, depending on the day.
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