Only a few short years ago, Steve and Donna Nally were enjoying the retired life at their home in Kentucky. Family outings with grandchildren alongside humid Kentucky summers were all that dotted the horizon for this couple. Steve had retired from Makers Mark, a popular bourbon whiskey distillery, where he was known as master distiller, one who held a spot in the whiskey hall of fame.Despite this honor, becoming a master distiller was no easy process for Steve.
“When I worked at Makers Mark, I actually did every job that was down there. I went from night watchman, to sales clerk, to general operations, to master distiller.”
There is obvious passion as he speaks, a passion for the art form of crafting a premium bourbon whiskey. And it was through this dedication, and years of hard work, that would lead Steve to his next whiskey adventure, all starting with a cattle family from Wyoming.
Brad and Kate Mead, who hail from Jackson Hole, had always aspired to own the state’s first legal distillery. While Wyoming is known for its small population and wide open spaces, their goal would hopefully find it a place on the shelf. The Meads first employed David DeFazio, a logger from the Jackson area, to help them design and construct a new facility in the tiny town of Kirby, Wyoming. With the plans drawn up, David set out to acquire the materials needed for the distillery’s construction. From the start, Brad and Kate made every attempt to purchase as many of the needed resources locally, so it was important that they find someone to share this vision.
David began work on the construction of Wyoming Whiskey, while the couple searched for expertise. They set their sights on the bourbon capital of the United States: Kentucky. Famously known for such distilleries as Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Makers Mark, the couple hoped to employ a master distiller to take over the day-to-day operations and see that a fine, premium product be made.
“And that’s when they came to me,”
“I did not know them at all. I had retired from Makers Mark, and they actually came looking for someone to help them put it all together and that’s when they found me and told me what they were up to.”
Granted, few things will motivate most men out of retirement. It just so happens that for Steve being given the chance to craft a whiskey of his own was one of them. The challenge for the master was to come up with a blueprint that would use as many of the locally grown and sold ingredients as possible. So in the first year of Wyoming Whiskey’s conception, Steve set out to acquire said ingredients.
“They are all Wyoming grown; the water is pure artesian well water that comes out of the aquifer up in Manderson. I have a contract with the famers to raise the corn, wheat, and the malted barley.”
A few months later, in the summer of 2009, with the ingredients collected, the facility built, and the people of Wyoming behind them, the team at Wyoming Whiskey, flicked the switch.
“All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons,”
Steve tells his visitor.
Oddly enough, the thing that defines a whiskey’s type is the government. In order to have a whiskey classified as bourbon, the guidelines say that it must be at least 51 percent corn, must not be distilled over 160 proof, and it must be aged for a minimum of two years in a charred white oak barrel. Having the government lay out the framework to create bourbon seems that it could make duplication quite easy, but as with everything in life, it isn’t that simple.
“I could make this the same way I did at Makers Mark and because of the different water an’ different climate it’s gonna taste different.”
Distilling and creating bourbon really is all about the materials you use and that is how most, if not all, big name distilleries separate themselves from each other. A Jack Daniels or a Jim Beam could not be made to the same degree outside of their respective distilleries. As Steve explains these differences, he takes his visitor deeper into the distillery.
The still stands around 38 feet tall in what is the largest building as well as biggest landmark in the town of Kirby. Vendome Copper and Brass Works, the company used by many distilleries, custom-fabricated this still for Wyoming Whiskey.
“There is not another one like it in the world, and there will never be another one built like this,” Steve said.
The still really is a sight to behold but the actual process begins up a flight of stairs in the fermentation room.
“This room can get a little warm because at times it does get up to 200 degrees,”
Steve says as he chuckles.
Inside this oven of sorts, stand a couple of 2,500 gallon tanks, one of which is used to cook and blend the mash to be fermented. Gallons upon gallons of water are added to the tank and brought to 140 degrees before adding in the corn. Once the corn is fully blended in, the tank is heated to 204 degrees while large mechanical paddles continually stir during the cooking process. After the corn has been allowed to cook, the temperature is decreased to the point where wheat and malted barley can be added.
“What we are trying to do here is convert each grain at the proper temperature so we can get full conversion of the starches in it.”
After nearly three and a half hours, the mash is ready to begin fermentation and is pumped from the large cooker over to the open air tank. The mash will spend about four days in the large fermentation tank after which all the grains will settle to the bottom.
Steve now leads his visitor back out to the still where the alcohol is extracted from the mash through the process of evaporation.
“The water and the grain all go through the steel an on out to the holding tank or the truck. Each fermenting tank is about 2,500 gallons and we will get about 200 to 250 gallons of 100 proof whiskey off of it.”
In order to remove a lot of “undesirable” taste and odor, the whiskey is distilled twice before being placed in barrels and set to age in Warehouse A.
Stacked four high and carrying an aroma one could never tire of, Warehouse A sits just off the side of the main building. Donna notes that the entire holding system for the barrels was completed ahead of schedule by a team from the heart of Kentucky. The reason it was built ahead of time, according to Donna, related to the oh-so unforgettable Wyoming weather on an already homesick crew. All weather aside, it is here in Warehouse A. that the whiskey ages in silence only to be disturbed by the master and his eclectic palate.
“With what I am seeing so far, it’s excellent. It has some good aromas and a good taste to it already. But it’s still a little bit sharp on the grains being immature. I really think it’s going to be an excellent product.”
The team at Wyoming Whiskey hopes that at the earliest Wyoming will have its first taste of their many labors sometime in 2012, though it could be as late as 2013. The entire product will be hand crafted from conception to store shelf, with the team labeling and capping each bottle at the distillery. With such meticulous care being given to the whiskey, it comes as no surprise that it will only be released, in limited amounts, to Wyoming first, making this product truly cowboy through and through.
As the visitor ends his talk with Master Distiller Steve, it is clear that whiskey is not something one just makes or can create in his spare time. It really is a living, breathing being that must be cared for to ensure a pleasurable experience by all. Though whiskey may or may not have been distilled in the rolling golden hills and vast windswept mountains of Wyoming for years prior, rest assured that with hall of fame distiller Steve Nally at the helm, Wyoming’s first legal distillery will be an experience like no other.