Four working men in worn-out suits and dusty fedoras stare down from life-size black-and-white mounts on the west wall of the tasting room at the Montgomery Distillery.
It’s been almost a century since the drinking buddies posed for the picture near the railroad tracks outside Missoula’s Atlantic Hotel in 1915. It’s a safe bet they also shared spirits on barstools near what is now 129 W. Front St.
After all, 12 saloons called that block home during the late 19th century, said Jenny Montgomery, who owns Missoula’s first modern-day micro-distillery with husband Ryan.
“It was at a time when the Missoula Mercantile was right down the road, it was the banking center of the state,” Jenny said. “You could get imported champagne ... imported rum.”
Even the old Pipestone Mountaineering building the Montgomerys bought and renovated was originally built as a liquor warehouse and saloon.
The building officially returned to its former glory last week when the couple opened the Montgomery Distillery tasting room and debuted their first batch of Quicksilver vodka.
“We’ve planned on this for years, and to have people come in and enjoy our product, it just feels wonderful,” said Ryan, standing under the watch of the four men who lived in the time that inspired much of the tasting room’s Old West decor.
For now, Quicksilver vodka is the only spirit you can get at the distillery. Montgomery is offering free samples of its vodka, as well as bottles of vodka and several cocktails for sale in the tasting room, which is open Monday through Saturday, from noon to 8 p.m.
Many more spirits are on the way.
The Montgomerys came back to Montana almost three years ago to raise son Heath, and fulfill a dream of opening a micro-distillery. Ryan grew up in Florence and Lewistown, where his family has a long history of ranching and enjoying spirits.
In fact, Montgomery cocktails are mixed behind a mahogany bar that was built by local woodworker Jon Roske as a replica of the one that stood in Ryan’s great-great-uncle Bob Hamilton’s Kendall bar, circa 1910.
On Friday afternoon, Kris Jackson and Jeff Mathers sat at the bar and sipped Moscow Mules made with Quicksilver vodka. Neither are vodka connoisseurs, but both appreciated the taste of the cocktails and the new addition to downtown Missoula.
“It definitely fills a niche,” Mathers said. “It’s got a really cool ambiance.”
“It’s really tasty,” Jackson said. “I’ve never drank (vodka) solo, but I thought it was really good by itself.”
Patrons can “blame” Montana for the vodka’s smooth, buttery taste, as the wheat used to make the liquor was harvested in the Bitterroot Valley, Jenny said.
Montgomery’s spirits are distilled through a thoughtful, thorough and precise process overseen by Ryan and production manager Chad Larrabee.
The distillery’s custom-made copper German still is what produces the Montgomery spirits. The top of the still runs from the building’s basement up into the tasting room.
“It’s essentially a 19th century piece of technology,” Jenny said. “It gives us a great deal of control over the whiskey, brandy and white liquors we’ll be distilling.”
The Montgomerys are working hard to perfect their gin recipe, which will include Montana-grown ingredients, and hope to have gin ready for sale soon.
They’re also working on creating their own syrups and house-made liqueurs, which will be used in an ever-evolving cocktail menu.
Whiskey enthusiasts will have to be patient, though.
The Kentucky charred oak barrels that will age the whiskey sit empty in the distillery’s basement. Although the Montgomerys will soon begin distilling batches of liquor that will fill the barrels, the whiskey has to be aged for at least three years before it’s ready," Jenny said.
As is true for all Montgomery spirits, “it’s just like cooking, Jenny said. “It’s about the simmer.”