Men’s magazines have been giving Wyoming Whiskey some love.
GQ magazine praised its Double Cask — a standard bourbon finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks — as well as its Small Batch Bourbon, “a sultry smooth dram which would make even the good ol’ boys in Kentucky proud.”
Esquire put Wyoming Whiskey at No 2. on a list of the “best of the best” among the top whiskeys in each state. It is not, the magazine said, one of those “craft distilleries” that buys its “juice” from a mega-producer and then just slaps its own label on the bottle.
That’s a point that Dave DeFazio, who founded the business in 2006 with fellow Jacksonites Kate and Brad Mead, wants to drive home.
The distillery, located in Kirby in the Big Horn Basin, uses locally grown corn, wheat, barley and rye. Everything in the environment, from the sage fields to the dramatic daily temperature swings, combines to create uniquely Wyoming flavors.
“We wanted this to be a true Wyoming product from beginning to end without sacrificing quality,” he said.
Wyoming Whiskey offerings include Single Barrel, Barrel Strength and Private Stock bourbon whiskies, as well as the Outryder, which uses more rye than the Small Batch without actually being a rye. There’s even a special edition to celebrate the Aug. 21 eclipse.
“The state ordered 600 cases of the eclipse edition,” DeFazio said. “They sold out in six days. The state ordered 400 more, which cleans us out.”
DeFazio, chief operating officer and self-described grunt, sat down for an update on Wyoming Whiskey.
This interview and follow-ups have been edited for space and clarity.
Q. How many states is Wyoming Whiskey sold in?
A. We’re in 34 states.
Q. How many people are working for Wyoming Whiskey?
A. We have 14 full-time people. That includes the sales people. We have another 15 part time.
Q. How much whiskey are you producing a year?
A. Over 2,000 barrels a year. That’s approximately 240 bottles a barrel at five years. Older barrels will yield less, but the product is arguably better. Wooden barrels are porous, so we lose a percentage to evaporation each year. This loss is called the “angel’s share.”
Our sales have continually grown around 40 percent every year, with Wyoming leading the way. Wyoming is our No. 1 state in terms of sales volume.
Q. Has your business been helped by the overall popularity of craft and artisan products?
A. The American whiskey category is on fire right now, as is tequila. When we started this company back in 2006 there was very little, if any, conversation about American craft spirits. Our goal was to make America’s Next Great Bourbon. And I believe we’re doing that.
But we have encountered competition in a way we never expected, and that is because we had no idea that you could buy bulk bourbon from large manufacturers and merely just label it as yours and market it in the same way. There are hundreds of whiskeys on the market that are sourced from Indiana and Kentucky that have no provenance.
These people do not have the overhead of building a distillery, buying grain, yeast, new barrels, labor and waiting five years while whiskey ages before being able to bring it to market.
Imagine whatever widget you’re making, not being able to sell it for five years because it has to age. All the planning that goes into trying to determine what demand is going to be in five years and what trends are going to be important in five years.
These folks can simply buy bulk whiskey and have no delay in producing the product.
Q. How does that affect you?
A. It crowds the shelves and provides another hurdle for us. We have to make a point of differentiation, which is important to a lot of people these days.
Q. What is your provenance?
A. All of our grains are grown in Byron by Brent and Sherri Rageth. Their devotion to growing the absolute best grains for our needs benefits us. We decided to go the non-GMO route on Day 1 because we believed that was the right thing to do. Brent has taken that challenge and grows some of the best corn ever in terms of starch yield, which is what’s important to us, at high elevation, which is very difficult.
Water — limestone water, if possible — is critical to making bourbon. One of the best limestone aquifers in the West is found 40 miles north of our distillery, in Manderson.
Q. Why are sugar and limestone so important?
A. Starch equals sugar. Sugar provides the fuel necessary for fermentation. Limestone filters out all of the bad minerals but leaves the best in.
Q. What makes Wyoming Whiskey different?
A: Terroir and environment have a major impact on the ultimate profile of whiskey. A barrel aged in Wyoming is going to produce a whiskey that tastes very different from one aged in Kentucky because of our environment, local ingredients, limestone water, but most importantly the maturation process. Our maturation environment is one of the most unique in the whiskey world. Our warehouses sit in sage fields as opposed to bluegrass. And there are 50- to 60-degree diurnal temperature changes outside, which is very unusual and very helpful. Due to thermal mass, barrel temperatures won’t change that drastically in the warehouse, but heating pushes the whiskey into the wood and cooling pulls it back out on a molecular level every day. This ages whiskey more quickly.
And the Wyoming air that is drawn into those barrels, which causes beneficial oxidation, is unique to our environment. All the ambient differences between Kentucky and Wyoming play a role in the whiskey’s superior flavor profile.
Q. Has the “Wyoming” in the name been a marketing advantage? Has it created any challenges?
A. It has not been a negative for us. I believe that Wyoming as a state is cool now. Jackson Hole and Wyoming as a state at this point have a certain cachet that I believe we are capitalizing on, not by design but by timing.
To know my partners is to know our product is as connected to the state as any product out there. Brad and Kate Mead’s son Sam, a fifth-generation Mead, is our distiller. When we began this business it was made clear to me that we had to do this right because we wanted to take pride in our product and make sure the Hansen and Mead names associated with this product would be enhanced and not in any way tarnished.
Q. Why Kirby?
A. The Meads bought a ranch there so they could move cattle over there to decrease the chance of brucellosis exposure to cattle. When this idea was hatched Kirby was the obvious location because everything needed to make bourbon was grown in the Big Horn Basin. There was great water there. Land was plentiful, and the thought of trying to build this in Teton County died in about eight seconds when we thought of all the regulatory and government hurdles we faced, whereas in Hot Springs County we were welcomed with open arms.
Q. Is there way to describe the perfect bourbon?
A. No. The perfect bourbon is in the palate of the beholder. I think we appeal to a wider range of people and wider demographic of both genders because our bourbon is a light to medium whiskey that isn’t smoky, isn’t overly sweet but [has] vanilla, caramel, toffee and citrus elements that most people really enjoy.