Back in the old days, Apple Jack was known to pack a punch.
“It’s one of the oldest of American-made spirits,” said Jesse Spaulding.
The old-timers would brew up a batch of apple cider and then put it outside on a cold winter’s night to let it freeze. Each morning, they would chip off the ice and toss it aside.
As that ice disappeared and the cider level in the bucket dropped, the amount of alcohol in the brew left behind continued to climb.
“The issue with that method was it concentrated all the alcohol, including the methanol,” Spaulding said. “People who have it can usually remember the headache that followed.”
Sometime later this summer or maybe early fall, Spaulding and Hannah Weinert will add their own version of Apple Jack to their line of the apple-based spirits they are creating at their new fireRoot Distillery just south of Florence.
“Since we have a still, we are able to cut all that bad alcohol out and keep the good ethanol,” Spaulding said.
At the end of April, the couple began selling the distillery’s first batch of brandy that they named Apple Jill. Made from fresh apple cider, it’s a product unlike anything else being sold in the state.
“Everything that we’ll make here at the distillery will be made from apples, even our gins and vodkas,” Spaulding said. “That’s unique. We found a few others in the country using apples, but not many... apples are a more expensive product to start with, but it’s perfect for this valley where there is an abundance of apples.”
The couple’s journey of building a business based on the Bitterroot’s famous apple crop began a couple of years ago. First, they perfected the art of creating handmade ciders for the business they named betterRoot just off Sweeny Creek Road.
Last year, they invested in a handsome, custom-made, copper still with the plan of starting Montana’s only distillery focused entirely on creating a variety of fine spirits from apples.
They joined a growing number of custom distilleries that are appearing in both large and small communities across the state.
Erica Droge, secretary/treasurer of the Montana Distillers Guild, said the guild now has 30 distilleries on its list. None has been open longer than six years.
“I think it’s another one of those craft movements that has gained a growing interest from people,” Droge said. “People are really starting to care where their food comes from and the same thing goes about their drinks. It’s helping agriculture diversify around the state.”
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Almost every one of the state’s distilleries has its own niche.
Droge’s husband, Jeff, is a fifth-generation potato farmer from Manhattan. The Droge family use the oversized potatoes they can’t sell commercially to create a value-added product at their Four Corner’s Dry Hills Distillery.
“We’re a farm to bottle operation,” Erica Droge said.
That’s the dream of Spaulding and Weinert, too.
They have planted their own orchard with cider-variety apples they hope to use someday to create their ciders and spirits.
Currently, they are focused on distributing their Apple Jill brandy and other, soon-to-released gin, vodka, apple jack and a coffee liquor that was a collaboration between their business and Hunter Bay Coffee in Lolo
“I think we tried 20 tasters of coffee that day,” Weinert said. “We chose one that was a little more fruity than the others and not too dark.”
They plan to release their first batch of gin as soon as the labels arrive.
“It’s a good time of the year for gin,” Spaulding said. “It’s subtle, but our gin displays a little more of that sweetness of the brandy that people have told us they like. It’s softer and rounder and not as harsh. Like all of our products, it was distilled from apples.
“It makes a really good Tom Collins or gin and tonic,” he said, with a smile. “It’s the best gin I’ve ever had. It’s not as harsh as others.”
There’s been a lot of trial and error that first went into making a variety of good ciders and now a variety of apple-based spirits.
“That’s the fun and creative part of it,” Spaulding said. “Every aspect of it is definitely a craft. It’s almost like an art form to bring it all together.”
The couple has a line of bottled ciders that are available at the Burnt Fork Market in Stevensville and several stores in Missoula, including Lucky’s and the Good Food Store. Their Apple Jill brandy is available at most liquor stores in the Bitterroot and the Grizzly and Lucky Diamond liquor stores in Missoula.