From Spirits to Sanitizers
Summer 2020 by Brian D'Ambrosio photos by Stu Hoefle
A wild ride for Wildrye Distilling
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Wildrye Distilling of Bozeman was briskly meeting the demands of restaurants, bars and liquor stores statewide. Once the immediacy and severity of the virulent disease became the new reality in Gallatin County, partners Ben Ganser and Philip Sullivan decided they needed to responsibly recalibrate their mode of production.
Following a Facebook post on their homepage that referenced the distillery’s makeshift hand purifier formula, one Gallatin County agency requested an order of 500 two-ounce bottles — to be filled overnight, if possible.
“Staying at home isn’t an option for law enforcement or firefighters or ambulance drivers,” Ben Ganser said. “They have to be out there, just like critical industries like construction workers. We saw a chance to keep a piece of the economy running, to play a part of keeping the gears turning.”
Ordered to temporarily shutter its East Oak Street facility to patrons, Wildrye Distilling switched from making an array of sought-after spirits to the producing hand sanitizer, a hard set of scales initially. (I don’t know what he means by “a hard set of scales.”) Wildrye Distilling had a basic manufacturing infrastructure, but no supply chain to source the necessary raw materials. From plastic bottles and caps to spray tops and unrefined essentials such as glycerin, Wildrye had to compete with other companies hastily attempting to source the same components.
“At first, we bought all of the raw materials in our city and then our state, trying to service as many people as we could for a few days,” Ben said. “We made it, and we sold every last drop. We started making more, and about 10 days later we were making about 1,000 gallons on a day.”
Quickly, the need for sanitizer outstripped the company’s ability to produce it. More equipment was purchased; pumps, hoses, clamps and fencing equipment arrived from across the country and even Canada to extend capacity. Since none of the equipment that comes into contact with the sanitizer could be reused for other products, Wildrye Distilling constructed a separate tank farm for the decontaminator products.
In next to no time, Wildrye Distilling — granted an emergency exemption from the state, which outlined little more than basic formula and labeling requirements — was supplying hand sanitizer purifiers to a variety of essential entities, including the Montana Highway Patrol, local hospitals and even the railroads. A feature segment on Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh show led to Wildrye Distilling earning contracts with a few national companies.
The media attention increased the company’s presence in the hand sanitizer market, leading to a peak production of about 50,000 variously sized refillable bottles a week. Since the start of the pandemic, the company’s policies have balanced demand with a strong sense of accountability; they continue to give away two-ounce bottles to anyone who walks in the door and asks for one.
As demand for the sanitizer skyrocketed, including an order from AT&T for 25,000 gallons, Wildrye immediately outgrew borrowed space next to the distillery. By May 1, Ben and Philip were scrambling to find a larger place to operate. They landed in a 5,000-square-foot space in Belgrade.
“We will do everything in our power to produce every single drop so that anybody that needs it can get it,” Ben said. “We haven’t had to turn anyone away. We’ve increased production, though we expect it to dissipate. In the meantime, we will be doing everything that we can to keep our community safe, our neighborhood, our town, our state and our country.”
Ben estimates that by mid-May, 12 employees, including members of this family, were making about 10,000 gallons of hand sanitizer a week at the Belgrade plant. In the midst of this, Ben and his partner and their employees are making sure the distillery doesn’t slide into an afterthought. Attentive to the seriousness of the moment, they realize too that they cannot afford to neglect the momentum of their core business.
Herein, there is a division of expertise: Ben is overseeing the hand sanitizer operation and Philip is keeping a watchful eye and palate on the quality of the spirits, perhaps not surprisingly, since Philip has a close to innate sense for potion and beverage. Philip learned how to ferment and distill when he was a kid, and after experimenting with making bourbon out of corn with his grandparents in the Bitterroot Valley, he rented a small fermentation space to house his own still in Bozeman, in 2014.
Since then, Wildrye Distilling has crafted a line of savored products, derived from as many local agricultural sources as possible, including its famously distinct sweet corn bourbon. All its ingredients are from Montana — sugar beets grown in the Billings area, rye and malted barley from the central plains, and cherries harvested for vodka production from the orchards of Flathead Lake.
Such ingredients have made Wildrye Distilling products some of the most sought after of made-in-Montana goods. To be precise, its two top sellers, Five Drops Bourbon and Wildrye Premium Vodka, deliver a walloping prize of Big Sky quality. The richly flavored Five Drops Bourbon has been singled out in the industry for its sweet, pleasant taste of corn, its thick, caramelized texture and unique whisky smell. Wildrye Premium Vodka has been equally heralded for its smooth, clean taste, an attribute of a high purification process to remove every molecule of irregularity.
“Our vodka and bourbon and our spirits allow people to experience Montana in a way that’s different from how they would ordinarily experience it,” Ben said.
Located in a former pea cannery in an urban renewal restoration district, Wildrye Distilling is a small, intimate space with a seating capacity of 39.
One day, all the restrictions caused by the pandemic will be a distant memory; the bourbon and vodka will fully flow on-site, and perhaps the commercial wing of hand sanitizers might even be nothing more than a bittersweet memory.
“It’s been great slowly getting back to doing what we love to do, what we intended to do — manufacturing fine spirits — and to be able to be back to business,” Ben said.