Big Spirit Country

The rise of Montana’s microdistilleries



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Back in 2005, the microdistillery movement was only just beginning in the United States. Montana hoped to capitalize on the trend, but Prohibition had left much to change before the industry could take root in the state.

“A hundred years ago, the country was awash in saloons and public drunkenness, and the reason it was happening was that the national producers of both beer and spirits were basically running franchise bar operations,” Wiseman says. “You didn’t have to have any money to start a bar. You just needed to rent a joint and the beer company would come in, completely furnish it and provide you with beer. All you had to do was pay the bill. Same with liquor.”

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  • Cathrine L. Walters

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Montana handed the responsibility of pricing and distributing liquor over to the state Liquor Control Board. Eventually that duty passed to the Department of Revenue, which continues to control the sale of distilled spirits at the wholesale level. Every bottle of liquor sold in Montana passes through a state warehouse, where it’s inventoried, taxed and marked up for retail. The taxes leveled at that warehouse were one of the key hurdles to microdistilling in the state, a cost-restrictive system that Helena attorney Mike Uda—who had dreams of opening Vigilante Distilling—vowed to change in 2005.

Wiseman sponsored a bill on Uda’s behalf in the 2005 Montana Legislature. House Bill 517, better known as the Microdistillery Act, sought to establish a Montana distillery license and knock the high tax rates down for liquor produced in-state. Wiseman had come to Helena largely to improve Montana’s economy, and says he’d seen a friend succeed wildly in the craft brewing business in Bozeman. He simply saw microdistilling as “the next logical step.”

“From an economic standpoint, it just makes perfect sense that we make it for ourselves,” Wiseman says. “We grow the barley. Why would we ship in beer from St. Louis or Milwaukee or Seattle when we can make it for ourselves, and have a really virtuous economic cycle where those entrepreneurs are building equity and ownership and employment? So when the microdistillery bill got put in front of me, I thought, ‘Hell yeah. It’s the same thing.’”

The bill passed neatly in the House, 70 - 27, and went on to the Senate, where it was picked up by then-Senate President Jon Tester. HB 517 was revised and amended and passed 37 - 13. Then, in Wiseman’s words, “all hell broke loose” on the House floor. Former supporters turned on the legislation, Wiseman explains, after “a faction” of the tavern owners “went ape-shit.” Several provisions in the bill were altered. The number of bottles and drinks microdistilleries were allowed to sell on-site were reduced. But the bill passed, and newly elected Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed it into law May 6, 2005.

“Then, nothing happened for quite some time,” Wiseman says.


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