KIRBY, Wyo. — Barrels sit in a warehouse off a dusty dirt road in the town of Kirby, population 92.
Steve Nally regularly enters the building, breathing in the faint scent of liquor. He rotates the barrels, moving those on the top shelf, where it's 98 degrees, to the bottom, where the temperature hovers around 80.
In the world of distilling, temperature is a major factor.
Too hot and the barrels could explode. Too cold and the aging process slows.
For now the barrels sit in the quiet, far from the buzz they've generated across the state for holding Wyoming's first bourbon.
No one has yet tasted the homegrown booze, called Wyoming Whiskey, yet tours of the distillery fill each day, merchandise with the logo sells from the shop and people around the region call to ask how they can get the high-end bourbon on their shelves once it's released Dec. 1.
The hype surrounds the distillery because it is Wyoming's first of its kind and also because the product, bourbon, is so often associated with the South, specifically Kentucky. Wyoming Whiskey promises not just a drink distilled in Wyoming, but one made with the state's own products.
Why not bourbon?
Wyoming Whiskey started as a bit of a lark.
About 2005, Jackson residents Brad and Kate Mead bought land near Kirby for their cattle in an effort to decrease the animals' risk of contracting brucellosis. They contemplated a winery on part of the remaining land but thought the climate wasn't conducive.
Brad Mead always liked bourbon, often trading bottles with his friend and fellow lawyer David DeFazio. Barbecues, anniversaries, graduations, birthdays, they always gifted bourbon.
"It was like a bolt out of the blue," Mead said. "'What about bourbon?'"
They knew it hadn't been done in Wyoming, but that, they figured, didn't mean it couldn't be done.
The Meads called on DeFazio, their fellow bourbon-loving friend.
We'd like to make bourbon, they said.
Are you joking?
We're not joking.
How the hell do you make bourbon?
That's for you to figure out.
And so a partnership formed.
In 2006 at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, the partners met master distiller Steve Nally through a series of connections.
Nally had worked for Maker's Mark, the go-to bourbon of Mead and DeFazio.
"He was making the bourbon we were drinking," DeFazio said.
He would also soon be making the bourbon they planned to sell.
Starting from scratch
Nally grew up on a farm in Kentucky, down the road from the Maker's Mark distillery. When it became financially tough to make a living on farming alone, Nally walked into Maker's Mark and asked for a job.
He started working for the company in 1972 and during the next 15 years would perform every job from janitor to night watchman before becoming a master distiller in 1984.
Nally stayed with the company until he retired in 2003. His work landed him in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
He was retired when the Meads and DeFazio approached him about moving to Wyoming.
Nally had been to Wyoming once, a trip to Jackson, and said he always thought he'd like living in the state. He was intrigued by the idea of Wyoming Whiskey.
Mead and DeFazio were intrigued by the idea of creating a new recipe from scratch.
The two men told Nally they wanted a high-end bourbon with a smooth finish created from Wyoming products. The rest was up to him.
It's in the water
Some people mistakenly think it's the humidity that makes Kentucky the bourbon hub of the United States. Really, it's the water. Kentucky sits on a limestone shelf that produces water low in iron, Nally said.
There are many legends about Kentucky's distilling history.
The one Nally shares is among the "more believable," he said.
Kentucky was settled by Scottish immigrants who decided to raise a crop they knew, corn. With everyone growing corn, people had too much and didn't know how to get rid of it, so they started distilling and creating moonshine, another tradition brought from Scotland. They kegged the moonshine and shipped it on barges to places downriver. To rid the barrels of the scent of fish, they burned the insides. The burnt barrels started to color the alcohol, which aged on the ships, creating a new liquor. The alcohol was shipped from Bourbon County, Ky., so people called it bourbon.
Today, for alcohol to be legally called bourbon, it must be distilled in the United States and composed of at least 51 percent corn. It can't be distilled at more than 160 proof and it must be aged in charred oak barrels. When put in the barrels, it can't be more than 125 proof and when it's bottled, it must be 80 proof or greater.
Beyond the basic rules, the distiller's skill, creativity and patience kick in.
To create Wyoming Whiskey's distinct flavor, Nally played with yeasts, trying various combinations before coming up with a recipe for what he hopes will yield a fruity flavor with a smooth finish that can be sipped on ice or served neat.
In addition to using Wyoming grains, he found an artesian well that the distillery has been able to tap into, which will make this bourbon on par with the best in the business, he said.
Its exact taste will be a surprise to everyone. It's a new recipe and while the bourbon ages, its flavor develops.
How the bourbon ages was a bit of a variable because of Wyoming's elevation. So far, it's coming along faster than expected, Nally said.
The first batch will be released throughout Wyoming on Dec. 1, and the Wyoming public is eager.
"People who haven't drank anything for 30 years want a bottle of it to toss on a shelf," Nally said.
The product will sell itself, Brad Mead said. There aren't any marketing gimmicks. The bottle is simple. "It's no different than what you might see sliding down a bar in 1886," he said. "It doesn't have a velvet bag."
When the Meads and DeFazio started out to make bourbon, they didn't know exactly what they were getting into.
It's been an education, DeFazio said. He's gotten a chance to experience the evolution of bourbon. While his palate isn't one of a master distiller, he still remembers the harsh bite of his first taste of the young whiskey just starting to age. The second year the bite mellowed. Last December he could taste why Nally said it was getting close.
The loyalty to the unfinished liquor has been a surprise. While spirits like liquor seem to be surging in popularity, the biggest support has come from Wyoming pride, DeFazio said.
People feel like the bourbon represents Wyoming and themselves and they haven't even tasted it.
"People say they don't care what it tastes like, they are going to ditch their current brand and drink Wyoming Whiskey forever," DeFazio said.
Fortunately, he added, he thinks it will taste pretty good.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com