David DeFazio first came to Jackson Hole in the summer of 1992, fresh out of St. Lawrence University and looking for a mountain escape for a year or so before he headed back to school for a law degree.
He had never been to Jackson before, but he had heard the skiing and fishing in the area was “as good as it gets.” He took a job as a liftie on the old Apres Vous chair and worked as a river guide in the summer. A year and a half later he set off for the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., thinking the only times he would see Jackson again would be on vacations.
As planned he summered in Jackson and, after graduation, set his sights on San Francisco, a city far from the East Coast and sure to offer the professional connections he need to jump-start his career. But a college mentor pushed for him to stay in Jackson instead, telling DeFazio he could find a way to “make it happen” if he just spent enough time in the town.
DeFazio was less convinced. He took the California Bar exam in July 1996 and packed up his truck for one last summer as a river guide.
“I was going to work a few months to make a little cash before I moved to San Fran,” DeFazio said, “and that’s when I met the Meads.”
Brad and Kate Mead soon hired DeFazio to work primarily in the law office but also occasionally as a ranch hand, pulling calves, rounding up bulls and moving the herd between grazing pastures.
“I was way into it,” DeFazio said. “I’m an East Coast kid and I love the outdoors, but I’d never worked cattle. I would not ever begin to pretend that I’m a rancher. I am not. I don’t know 1 percent of what they know. But I can listen and learn, and if they point I can go and do whatever it is they ask.”
He stayed with the Meads for three years, never making it to California.
“Luckily,” he said, “because I failed the California Bar.”
Several years after graduating from law school he hung his own shingle in Jackson and started navigating the legal waters on his own. DeFazio Law Office LLC has come to employ three other lawyers, an office manager and an assistant. DeFazio’s black lab, Ozzy, is also known to roam the halls.
DeFazio, 45, said the team has earned a reputation as “aggressive, competent litigators.” It is also known for coordinating elaborate photo shoots for client holiday cards. This year’s theme, for example, was Star Wars: “The Faz Awakens.”
Three years ago Sarah Tollison made partner in the firm, freeing DeFazio to turn more of his attention to a new passion: making bourbon. Wyoming Whiskey, a joint venture between the Meads and DeFazio, started as a casual conversation sometime in the mid-2000s and has ballooned into a distillery in Kirby, an office in Jackson and a growing demand for “Wyoming’s whiskey.”
While still a lawyer at heart and at the helm of DeFazio Law, DeFazio spends most of his time now promoting Wyoming Whiskey as the company’s chief operating officer.
The News&Guide met with DeFazio recently to talk about his lawyerly roots and his job as a professional whiskeyman.
Q: What made you want to be a lawyer?
A: My mom always said when I was a kid, “You’re going to be a lawyer because you argue with everything I say.”
That’s probably how it all started. I’ve always enjoyed a good argument.
Q: How did DeFazio Law come about?
A: I wanted to do more criminal defense, take some cases that were a little more controversial — things that the Meads weren’t necessarily interested in me doing. So I took a job with Dick Mulligan for one year, and I handled a completely different set of cases. These were manslaughter cases that were very intense and carried prison sentences with them. It was a really educational year for me, and at the end of that year I decided to go on my own.
Q: Were you nervous?
A: I was terrified at first, just because I have always been told, “Have a mentor.” The Meads had been great mentors, Dick was a great mentor, and I had some other mentors along the way who were more than willing to share their time and their mistakes.
Going out on your own, it’s like, “Holy cow, what am I doing here?” I called my dad and asked what to do. I was scheduled to go surfing on a mini spring trip, and he said, “Go on vacation, and by the time you come back you’ll know what to do.”
And by the time I came back, I knew.
Q: What’s challenging about owning your own practice?
A: The hardest period of my career was when the recession hit. Our work — it got better. All of a sudden everyone was suing everybody, thinking this was a quick money grab. So we got a bunch of cases right away.
But then you end up taking clients that don’t pay. And once the recession really set in about a year and a half later, that’s when we got hit with three pretty big clients that couldn’t pay us.
That hurt. I was the only partner at the time, so I assumed all risk. And if we’re not making payroll through the firm, I have to pump money in to float the firm until we do get paid or we catch up.
That’s the hardest thing: when you get hurt by a couple of clients who all at once don’t pay.
Q: When did you bring on your partner?
A: Sarah’s been a partner now for three years. She was with me as an associate for a number of years before that and unquestionably earned partnership.
Q: What’s the best part about having your own practice?
A: I don’t have to report to anybody. When you start your own firm or when you start a new company you get to pick how you do it. You can make your own mistakes, and you don’t have to answer to anybody else. I’m my own worst critic. I don’t want to hear someone else tell me how I messed up. I already know.
Q: Tell me about Wyoming Whiskey. How did that venture come about?
A: Brad [Mead] said, “Come over to our office, we have a proposal.” It was the weirdest thing. I was in this creaky room and Kate comes down the hall, closes the door, and it just goes quiet. And it was like, “What? What did I do?” And Brad says, just deadpan, “Kate and I have decided we want to make bourbon.” I laughed right in his face.
It was nothing I would have ever expected to come out of either Brad or Kate’s mouth. But he was dead serious. So I asked how the hell do we make bourbon, and he said, “That’s for you to figure out.”
Q: Why did they think you would be the best person to figure it out?
A: You should ask Brad that question.
I think there’s a trust between us and that’s the foundation of any good partnership. I’m going to look out for the Meads’ interests before my own in most cases.
I think they knew that I would be the right person to research it. I hope I proved myself as an attorney when I worked for them, and I’d like to think I’m a quick learner.
Q: How do you balance both jobs?
A: I am primarily working in Wyoming Whiskey at this point and managing the law firm. I’m not actively practicing law, although I do advise a few clients.
Q: How have these two professions influenced each other?
A: I think being trained as a lawyer you learn to identify what the question is. Once you understand the question, then you can find the answer more readily. So figuring out how to make bourbon was like, “OK, what’s the first question?” And you take it from there.
Q: Have you always been a whiskey connoisseur?
A: I am more so now than I was when we started. My dad likes bourbon and scotch, so he introduced me to bourbon. I cannot stand scotch myself. I have been given bottles of fantastic scotch, I’m told, but it’s lost on me.
Q: What was it like getting started?
A: One thing we never thought about was the ability to buy bulk whiskey from somewhere else and then just package it with our bottle and our label. That’s how naive we were to this whole industry.
But we never would have done that anyway. It was never an option to cut any corners. We had to make sure that whatever it was we were going to make, we were doing it right.
Q: What was the first batch like?
A: We probably should have waited a little longer to release our product. But there were factors and forces playing on us, and the demand from the state was crushing. Matt Mead was running for governor at the time, and he told me one of the first three questions at every stop was, “When is the whiskey going to be ready?” And he isn’t even part of the company.
From an internal standpoint we were also drinking the Kool-Aid. Literally. You can taste whiskey when it’s clear, the day it comes off the still. Then you put it in a barrel and you taste it a year later, and it has color and it’s starting to taste a little bit more like bourbon, and you start to see where this is going. At two years you really start to see where it’s going.
At three years, we thought it was great. But it was not great. It wasn’t ready. We should have waited another year.
It was just over 3 years old when we released it. Now everything is aged over five years. We’ve got older barrels that are sitting in the warehouse and we’ll come out with older products.
We’re looking at releasing a high rye whiskey this year, and we’re looking at a couple other products to release as well. What you’re not going to see from us is a cherry-flavored whiskey. That is not in our flavor profile. We want to make authentic whiskeys without flavoring them after the fact.
Q: How do you take your whiskey?
A: I usually like it with one rock that will melt and reduce the proof down to about 65 or 70 proof. I like it slightly cooler and a little cut.
Q: What is something people may not know about Wyoming Whiskey?
A: They may not know we use two different yeasts in our fermentation process. That’s somewhat unusual in the whiskey industry. Usually you use one type of yeast per batch, but we have both yeasts working together in the fermentation process.
Also, I think a lot of people don’t understand whiskey comes off the still crystal clear. It’s the char of barrel that gives it all of its color and most of its flavor.