Photo by Eric Kiel
After a 33-year career distilling for Maker’s Mark in Kentucky, Steve Nally picked up and moved to the wild west—specifically to Kirby, Wyoming—to run the state’s first legal distillery, Wyoming Whiskey. Since releasing his first batch in December 2012, the demand for Nally’s whiskey has far exceeded supply. So just what makes this whiskey so special? We had the chance to find out.
Imbibe: You were a retired Maker’s Mark master distiller when Brad and Kate Mead and David DeFazio invited you to leave Kentucky and help them build a distillery. How did they convince you to make that move?
Steve Nally: It was not too hard to convince me to come to Wyoming. It was a chance to create a new brand and develop the recipe from the ground up. It was an opportunity of a lifetime—the chance to place equipment where I wanted it and develop the recipe for the product. And I was able to do this in a part of the country where bourbon had never been made before—something that very few, if any, master distillers have the opportunity to do.
Imbibe: What is behind the concept of a Wyoming bourbon?
SN: People think bourbon can only be made in Kentucky just because it started there and about 98% of bourbon is produced there. But bourbon is the American spirit, and according to federal law, it can be made anywhere in the United States.
Imbibe: Do you feel like there is a Wyoming terroir that comes through in the whiskey?
SN: Wyoming Whiskey is very smooth, and that is attributable to where it comes from. We use a pure water source, custom-grown grains and yeasts that I personally select. The water source is especially critical in making a great bourbon. Kentucky’s ground water is filtered through limestone, which removes iron that would otherwise give the whiskey a bitter taste. I was able to find a water source 42 miles north of the distillery [in Wyoming] that comes from a mile-deep limestone aquifer. For the first three and a half years the 12,000 gallons of water required for production was trucked to the distillery. Luckily, the water is now piped in from the source. We use two separate yeast strains. One of them is intended to yield as much alcohol from fermentation of the grain as possible and the other accounts for the flavors and aroma that sets Wyoming Whiskey apart from other bourbons.
Imbibe: Why do you think the whiskey was such an instant success?
SN: The support was there because it was a Wyoming product and the people of Wyoming were proud of what we were doing. Local support has been incredible ever since.
Imbibe: What goes in to making each bottle?
SN: The grains are ground fresh each day and augured over to the cooker where we convert starches into sugars. The mash is then cooled and pumped to one of four fermenters where yeasts are added and allowed to sit for three or four days while alcohol is produced. When this process is complete, the fermented mash is sent through our 18-inch distillation column and our doubler, yielding a 130-proof unfinished whiskey. The alcohol is than reduced to 110 proof with pure water before being poured into 53-gallon barrels. The barrels then are entered into one of three warehouses where they are mature for at least four years. When ready, our bourbon is removed from the barrel, reduced to 88 proof and bottled on site.
Imbibe: What’s ahead for Wyoming Whiskey?
SN: We will be releasing Wyoming Whiskey into select national markets this winter. Once somebody who enjoys a premium sipping bourbon tries it, they'll come back for more.