Kirby (distillery) and Jackson (office), Wyoming
Privately owned by Brad and Kate Mead and David DeFazio
Wyoming’s homegrown whiskey brand taps a Maker’s expertise but finds inspiration, artisan ingredients, and fast growth in the Rocky Mountains
Wyoming Whiskey co-founder and Chief Operating Officer David DeFazio, an attorney in Jackson, worked for Brad and Kate Mead's law firm in 2006 when they had an idea for practicing something other than law.
During a meeting, DeFazio says the couple told him, "'We want to make bourbon.' I asked, 'How do you make bourbon?’ They said, 'That's for you to figure out.’ That's how it started"
So DeFazio enlisted the help of consultants before hiring legendary distiller Steve Nally, a longtime fixture at Maker's Mark in Kentucky.
After starting distilling in 2009, the company released its first 3,000 cases to Wyoming's state-owned liquor stores in late 2012. "They sold out in 26 seconds," says DeFazio.
The launch party in Kirby (pop. 92) was similar. DeFazio says 1,200 RSVPs mushroomed into about 3,000 attendees. "We were blown away."
Production has since been expanded sixfold to meet the demand, and move into new markets: Wyoming Whiskey debuted in Colorado in late 2013 and Austin, Texas, in early 2014.
"It's the neighbor thing," DeFazio says of the expansion map. "Colorado doesn't just share a border, it shares a lifestyle with Wyoming, everything from ranching to skiing."
"It's been great," he adds of the reception in Denver. "It's been very well received."
The response is in part due to authenticity, says DeFazio. "It's all over four years old," he says. "Every drop we sell, we make. We're not buying whiskey from back East and selling it under our brand."
The Meads are fourth-generation Wyoming cattle ranchers, and Brad's grandfather and brother have both served as the state's governor. (His brother, Matt, currently holds the office, while grandfather Clifford Hansen served as Wyoming governor in the 1960s.)
"They're very intertwined with the fabric of the state," says Defazio.
Not surprisingly, all of the grain -- corn, barley, and wheat -- used in the distilling process is sourced from within 100 miles of Kirby, as is the water.
"There's a mile-deep aquifer beneath the town of Manderson, Wyoming, about 40 miles north of Kirby," says DeFazio, describing a limestone shelf that's part of the Madison Formation. "If you go to Kentucky, they all brag about their limestone water."
As of 2013, the municipal water line makes it to Kirby, but DeFazio and company once used a 6,000-gallon tanker to ferry "the perfect artisan water” to the distillery.
And the whiskey world is taking note. The bourbon won a silver medal at the Denver International Spirits Competition in March. "It was such a validating award," says DeFazio. "It's a testament to all of the hard work put in by our production crew."
Challenges: "The challenge for Wyoming Whiskey right now is to distance ourselves from the distilleries who are not making a genuine product," says DeFazio. The keys to standing out in the crowd, he adds, are consumer and distributor education. "How do you set yourself apart with a distributor to devote the resources to getting it out into accounts and the public eye?"
Opportunities: Expansion into new markets. "Our goal all along has been to be be the Rocky Mountain whiskey," says DeFazio. "We're focused on the rollout in [Denver and Austin], but we want to gain a presence in the Rocky Mountain states -- that means Montana, Idaho, and Utah."
A less-expected target market for Wyoming Whiskey: Asia. "The Asian market is very thirsty for their 'brown water,'" says DeFazio, citing Japan-based Suntory's recent acquisition of Beam Inc (parent of Jim Beam and Maker's Mark) for $13 billion.
Needs: "Capital is a huge issue” for whiskey distillers, says DeFazio. "You've got operating expenses for five years before putting out a product."
Now that Wyoming Whiskey is over that hump, it has a new need: cash flow. "We just need to generate enough revenue to grow into new markets. You can't just launch in a new market without any money for marketing."