By Ruffin Prevost
KIRBY, WYO. — In a community that is normally home to less than 100 people, more than 3,000 showed up Saturday at the Wyoming Whiskey distillery to sample, buy and celebrate the state’s first homegrown bourbon.
For faithful enthusiasts, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
It was the best of times because, for the first time since production began July 4, 2009, Wyoming Whiskey was finally available to a public that had been clamoring for it despite being told by the distiller that it would only be released “when it was good and ready.”
But it was also the worst of times, because after waiting more than three years, the first release of less than 20,000 bottles produced has essentially sold out, with only about 75 of the state’s more than 1,200 retailers getting any of the initial production run.
Consumers who don’t already have a bottle or who aren’t on a waiting list for one may be again facing another long wait.
“I think everybody was shocked the day it went on sale, and about how fast it went,” said Wyoming Whiskey co-founder Brad Mead.
On hand in Kirby to help celebrate the brand’s launch was Mead’s little brother, Gov. Matt Mead.
“All of Wyoming, I can tell you, has taken ownership of this,” Mead told the cheering crowd. “We’re so proud.”
Mead joked that he was asked, “When is the whiskey going to be ready?” more often than he was about health care or other policy issues. He said “it takes guts” to take a risk like making bourbon in Wyoming.
Another Wyoming political heavyweight, former Sen. Alan Simpson, said he thought the idea was a little strange when he first heard about it.
“Who the hell would be goofy enough to do this?” Simpson quipped Saturday, just before he helped auction the first few bottles of Wyoming Whiskey produced. Eager bidders paid between $3,000 and $7,500 for bottles, with proceeds benefiting Wyoming charities.
At the other end of the spectrum, hundreds stood in line for hours to buy up to four bottles each at the distillery store. Others across the state are already snapping up the last few available bottles, typically at a retail price of about $45.
“This is a first for Wyoming, so I think it’s great,” said John Hobbs, a railroad worker from Powell, Wyo. who showed up before 9 a.m. to be the first in line when distillery sales started at noon.
Hobbs said he preferred beer to bourbon, but that he knew even before tasting it Wyoming Whiskey would become his new favorite brand.
Like many others from the Cowboy State who are fiercely loyal to hometown favorites, Hobbs said he wanted to support the local brand. He planned to give some of his four bottles as Christmas presents.
Wyoming Whiskey’s founders figured their bourbon would receive an outpouring of local support, but they have also known that to become a viable and lasting national brand, it will have to stand on its own merits in an increasingly crowded field of boutique bourbons backed by million-dollar marketing campaigns.
Already, Wyoming Whiskey is winning over some discerning aficionados.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Dennie Hammer, a whiskey enthusiast who tried Wyoming Whiskey for the first time Saturday.
Hammer is the organizer of an informal whiskey tasting club of about two dozen devotees in Cody, Wyo. The group samples premium and exotic bourbons and Scotches from around the world.
“The aroma is very fresh and well-rounded,” he said. “The nose came across like warm, fresh-baked bread. I can smell the corn, and there is a floral element with a little oak and some cinnamon and caramel.”
Hammer said the overall effect was a “very, very good bourbon that I will drink at home.”
Bourbon journalist Mark Gillespie, a contributor to Whisky Magazine and host of the WhiskyCast podcast, gave Wyoming Whiskey high marks, praising what he said were flavors and aromas of wheat bread, orange peel, oak, honey and vanilla.
“It is one of the best bourbons I’ve ever tasted, and I’m scoring Wyoming Whiskey a 95″ out of 100 points, Gillespie told listeners of his podcast, recorded Saturday from Kirby.
Wyoming Whiskey master distiller Steve Nally said the response to his bourbon has been “overwhelming.”
“This is what we were shooting for,” said a smiling and emotional Nally, a 2007 Bourbon Hall of Fame member who retired from a long career at Maker’s Mark before moving to Wyoming in what everyone in the company has described as a leap of faith.
Nally said he was surprised how quickly the bourbon took on character, as it aged for just more than three years in the barrel. The state’s unique climate and low humidity combined with local grains and some of the purest water used in the industry to create a bourbon that Nally said was distinctive and unique.
The goal has always been to produce the best bourbon possible, said Wyoming Whiskey co-founder and chief operating officer David DeFazio.
Over the past year, DeFazio has obsessed over details like pricing, distribution, label art and bottle design, confessing at times to uncertainty and anxiety over how Wyoming residents and the wider world of bourbon drinkers would respond to the fledgling brand.
Saturday, those fears were erased, and replaced by a new problem of how to satisfy huge demand for a product that must age at least three years before its release.
“I knew we were going to be big, but I didn’t think it would happen this fast,” he said.
The company is working to release this month another 3,600 bottles that were to have been sold next year—a move that will do little to satisfy a demand that far outstrips supply. But after that, the aging process won’t be finished for the remaining inventory.
With such limited availability, the product is being sold only in Wyoming its first year. Small batches of additional product will be sold as it ages, but the next major release of about 250,000 bottles won’t come until late 2013. After seeing how the market responds to that offering, the company will decide whether to increase production, DeFazio said.
One industry insider who has tried Wyoming Whiskey expects the bourbon to find fans across the country.
“I think it turned out great,” said Craig Beam, a master distiller at Heaven Hill distillery in Kentucky, an industry powerhouse that holds the second-largest bourbon inventory in the world.
Beam, a seventh-generation distiller, is a longtime friend who has been consulting with Nally as Wyoming Whiskey has been aging through the state’s dry summers and cold winters.
“I didn’t know how it was going to turn out, because everything here is different, but it has really surprised me,” said Beam, who was among a handful of Kentucky supporters who came to Wyoming for the brand’s launch. Beam and other Kentucky friends even helped out on the bottling line last week during a last-minute rush.
“Steve takes a lot of tender love and care in making it. He has really nurtured this,” Beam said. “I think people in Kentucky will be open to trying it.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].