The Whiskey Barons of Wyoming

Words by Ryan Waterfield 

It all starts innocently enough. An email exchange. Me: Hi, I want to write about your whiskey. (Ulterior motive? I love whiskey—especially whiskey of the bourbon variety. You can’t blame a girl for loving whiskey.) Them: Great. Let’s make it happen.

The thing is, I was writing to someone based in Jackson, Wyoming, a scenic and relatively easy (in the non-winter months) 4.5-hour drive from my home base in Sun Valley, Idaho. The next email came with the catch. Me: What do we need to do to make this happen? Them: Let’s meet in Jackson, then we’ll head over to our distillery in Kirby so you can see how it happens. Me: Perfect.

Ok, admittedly, I don’t have the best grasp of Wyoming geography, so I was thinking: “Great, I’ll see some of the country surrounding Jackson on our way.” Here’s the thing: Kirby is another 4.5 hours away from Jackson; 5.5 hours with the recommended stops at local watering holes (of the drinking and swimming variety).

But this is about love and you do anything for love, right? Even a love of whiskey.

David DeFazio, Faz to his friends, loves Van Halen. I find this out as we belly up to the bar at The Rustic Pine Tavern in DuBois (pronounced Doo-Boys), Wyoming, approximately halfway through our drive from Jackson to Kirby, in the middle of the afternoon. With a Wyoming Whiskey sipper in front of us, we chat about music, books (His next read? Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee—he’s unfazed by the Atticus/KKK controversy), the appropriate age range for his next girlfriend, and his upcoming road trip to Red Rocks to see Van Halen in concert. “But,” he adds, “I don’t want you to think I only like classic rock. I also like pop—the Taylor Swifts of the music world.” We go from Harper Lee and what it means to readers who grew up admiring Atticus Finch as a beacon of righteousness to see him in all his racist-addled humanity to Taylor Swift. It was that sort of day.1

And in the midst of it all, we talk about whiskey. Wyoming Whiskey to be exact. DeFazio is one of the three founders of this homegrown (the way whiskey should be) spirit. But he’s quick to say that Wyoming Whiskey has a story that is deeply rooted in the Wyoming landscape. And those roots start with Brad Mead. A fourth-generation Jackson rancher, Brad and his wife Kate dreamed up Wyoming Whiskey when they bought a ranch in Kirby, Wyoming, population 92. Mead, whose maternal grandfather was a U.S. Senator and Wyoming governor and whose younger brother is the current governor of Wyoming, has long run a successful law practice with his wife, a practice DeFazio once joined. But, as a family so closely connected with the land, the Meads wanted to do something more, and their Kirby property positioned them near all the key ingredients for making exceptional whiskey.

DeFazio and I also talk about the world of craft spirits. Craft “distilleries” are popping up all over the country with a high proliferation of them in the Mountain West. But the dirty little secret of the craft spirits industry is that most of these craft “distilleries” source their spirits from back East and do not operate their own stills. In other words—they don’t distill anything; they curate whiskeys and blend. That was anathema to the way the Meads and DeFazio wanted to operate. “Wyoming doesn’t produce any finished products,” says DeFazio. “We export raw materials like oil and gas and grains that go to beer producers in places like Colorado. Tourism is one of our biggest money-makers but it’s all about importing. We wanted to make something—something that was distinctively Wyoming. We didn’t want to import any of it.”

And so it goes. The corn, wheat, and barley are grown in Kirby and neighboring Byron and Riverton. They are milled onsite at the Wyoming Whiskey distillery. And the water—oh, the water. Their distillery sits near a limestone aquifer—the sort of water that made the bourbons of Kentucky famous. Why limestone water? Certainly you can make bourbon and whiskey without limestone water and many do, but limestone has a high pH, which promotes fermentation. It also has minerals like calcium that filter out impurities like iron, which will give the spirit a bad taste. And limestone water is authentic to good bourbons.

Another essential ingredient to a great whiskey is a skilled distiller. The Meads and DeFazio talked Steve Nally, a master distiller and Bourbon Hall-of-Famer from Kentucky who had long made the magic happen at Maker’s Mark, out of retirement and into overseeing this great whiskey experiment. Nally guided the crew through the first seven years of Wyoming Whiskey’s adventure and left the distilling in very capable hands. Hands that have been shaped by the Wyoming land—those of the Mead’s eldest son, Sam. The chapter of the master distiller is over; Nally made his mark but went back to retirement in Kentucky, and Sam Mead is now redefining the way things are done at Wyoming Whiskey. Mead, a soft-spoken mid-twenty-something, is at home on the Kirby ranch. “I grew up in Jackson,” he says, “and that’s home. But this is home too.” He’s also heavily invested in seeing the distillery succeed because it’s another chapter in his family’s Wyoming legacy. He may not have the Hall of Fame credentials—yet—but Mead has a fresh eye and a penchant for innovation on his side.

“Sam really shook things up when he took over,” says DeFazio with a not-so-subtle hint of admiration. “He has upped production by 95 percent while he’s been at the helm. His success, our success, is because he’s not afraid to try something new.” But it’s not just young distiller as upstart that has put Wyoming Whiskey on the map—the young Sam Mead is a quiet but diligent study. From enviable R&D trips to Kentucky’s finest distilleries to watching and learning from the masters, Mead takes his craft seriously. We visit one of the three rick houses on the ranch—the place where the barreled liquor ages—and he takes the whiskey thief (the tool distillers use to test barreled whiskey) to test some whiskey in progress. Distilling is an art of subtleties and nuances—you’d think that’s an old man’s game. But Sam Mead defies that logic.

Wyoming Whiskey is on the rise in the craft whiskey world now. But it wasn’t always that way. I’d heard rumors that the first release—a highly anticipated release that was met with much fanfare and jubilation—was actually a bust. When I take a break from talking about the ins and outs of Taylor Swift’s plan for world domination to ask DeFazio about the early missteps they made, he’s quick to fall on the sword. “That was my fault,” he says with a look of tired but honest resignation—like he’s all too familiar with this sword. “We rushed it. I rushed it. People all over the state were so excited about our first release, and the stakes were so high. But I pushed for the release and we’re still mopping that one up.” The clean-up was earnest and full-fledged. DeFazio himself drove all over the state saying the mea culpas and offering refunds and new whiskey to replace the old whiskey. In fact, the very bar we’re sitting at was one of the places where DeFazio had to visit and eat crow. He’s friendly with the bartender, and she’s happy to see him. It’s not hard to see that he’s gone a long way to repairing that relationship. And here’s the thing—people want their Wyoming Whiskey—sure, maybe at first because it is made in Wyoming and everyone loves an underdog story. But now? Wyoming Whiskey has earned its stripes.

“Our first home has always been and will always be Wyoming. That’s where we first distributed and we always want to take care of Wyoming. We learned a lot in those early years,” says DeFazio, “and we’re better for it.” To date, Wyoming Whiskey has earned a number of awards for their small-batch bourbon including: a silver medal at the 2015 Denver International Spirits Competition; a silver medal at the 2014 New York World Wine and Spirits Competition; a silver medal in the 2015 50 Best Bourbon Competition; and a silver medal (best in category) for their single-barrel bourbon at the 2015 American Distilling Institute’s Craft American Spirits Awards. And they are carried in 25 states and urban areas and recently added their libation to several establishments in the cocktail-crazy city of Chicago.

While Kirby may be a little out of the way, a tour of the Wyoming Whiskey distillery is more than worth the drive. The Big Horn Basin has a river that runs through it (DeFazio keeps a boat at the ranch so he can fish when he is onsite and he showed me the rewards of fishing the Wind River) and Thermopolis, the area’s largest town, is home to a Days Inn with a you-got-to-see-it-to-believe-it “Safari Bar” where the owner displays his lifetime of hunting trophies along the walls. It’s a veritable Guinness World Record collection of animals you’ve never heard of and all the big game animals most of us only ever really see on Nat Geo. Thermopolis also boasts “the world’s largest hot springs.”

My tour guide at the distillery was Char, a woman passionate about what Wyoming Whiskey is doing. Not a lifetime bourbon lover, she’s come to appreciate the balanced flavors of Wyoming’s version of the product. She certainly knows all there is to know about the process of making whiskey. I meet the team, from the distiller to the people who handle the bottling. The team works hard and is proud of their work—as they should be. As they bottle the whiskey, the folks on the line wash, fill, top, label, and package the spirit. Pallets of cases stand at the ready to be shipped to Cheyenne and processed by the state for tax purposes. Then it’s released to the general drinking public. And that’s a happy day.

I’m always a bit skeptical when it comes to bourbons made outside of Kentucky—that’s my birthright. I grew up in Kentucky—the land of single-barrel boubons, legendary bourbons—and we feel about our bourbon like we do our basketball; no one does it better. But I have to say, Wyoming Whiskey has made me a believer. At the root of the project has to be a commitment to every step of the process—growing the grains, milling them, ensuring the water is as good as the product you aim to ma ke, and surrounding yourself with people who are as committed as you are. The Meads and DeFazio have managed just that.

1DeFazio would like the following clarified, understandably: “While I’m a product of classic rock, I like almost all music other than Bluegrass… or R.E.M. They should both be deleted from the American musical catalogue. But I am a sucker for female pop vocalists. And, Taylor Swift is the current queen of that world. But let’s not forget about Rihanna, Pink, and all the other talented ladies.” Sorry, Michael Stipe. Thanks for playing.