From the highway, it’s easy to write off Butte, Montana, as a dumpy old mining town. Leaning on an old bar at Headframe Spirits, sipping a rich Neversweat Bourbon Whiskey, there is a sense of being on the edge of something. It might be the fact that historic Old Town Butte sits on the hill, above the valley floor, and above 10,000 miles of underground mining tunnels. Or that the silhouettes of the mines’ headframes still interrupt the skyline. Or it might be something less tangible.
Butte, America: once, it was the melting pot of the U.S., the largest city west of the Mississippi River. Today, the mines that sit just below the continental divide are silent, and many joke that Butte is the “butt” of Montana. Visitors bypass Butte on I-90 as they drive through Big Sky Country between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. The hillsides are scarred from open pit mining.
But leave the highway and you notice it feels as though Butte might be building itself up again. Explore its nooks and crannies and you’ll find its heart thumping and a distillery that’s pushing it along.
The massive wooden bar in Headframe Spirits’ tasting room is on loan from Butte’s World Museum of Mining.
The massive wooden bar is the centerpiece of Headframe Spirits’ tasting room, but it isn’t theirs; it’s on loan from Butte’s World Museum of Mining. So is much of the artwork on the walls. The photos on their bottles also come from the museum’s archives.
The Anselmo Gin is lighter on the juniper, with citrus in the front. The Destroying Angel Unaged Whiskey (a.k.a. Montana Tequila), combined with ginger beer and lime, makes a fine Trussed Up Mule. Headframe’s bestseller though, is Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liquor, named (like all the other spirits) after one of the town’s mines. It’s outselling Bailey’s in both Montana and Idaho. Best consumed straight, or in a Dirty Girl (mixed with root beer for nostalgic root-beer float flavor).
Once called the richest hill on earth, $100 billion came out of the hills of Butte during its mining era, most of it copper ore. Likewise, thousands migrated to the western frontier to earn their fortunes. Butte, in many ways, fueled the industrial revolution (copper was used to make electric wiring). It was a city known for finding a way to get things done, innovating by necessity. The men worked (and died) in the mines. But it was whiskey distillation that gave pioneering women financial freedom and an alternative to another common profession: prostitution. In the prohibition, entrepreneuring women would bottle their spirits in milk bottles painted white. Today, Headframe Spirits’ bottles are a nod to the old glass milk bottle.
Innovation by Necessity
John and Courtney McKee were in need of a new plan when they decided to open a distillery in Butte. John’s employer was going bankrupt and he was facing a layoff from his job as a biodiesel refinery project and startup manager. “I think it was stunningly valuable to nurse a company in bankruptcy and to then work on his business plan each evening,” says Courtney. The moment John said “Headframe Spirits,” Courtney knew — with enthusiasm — they would name each product after a Butte mine. “To get to elevate Butte’s vision of itself, to elevate Montana’s vision of itself, it was an aha moment,” she says.
John, being familiar with distillation, knew he wanted a continuous flow distillation system. A few large distillers, such as Maker’s Mark, use the technology in place of traditional pot stills, but no one provided equipment for craft distillers. So John built it himself. The advantages: they recover more alcohol in less time and get greater consistency/quality. They now manufacture the design for other distillers. Headframe may also be poised to make a big jump in production, with plans for a third facility in Butte, appropriately located at a former mine site, that would significantly boost production.
With all their success, however, what this young company is known for is its infectious spirit of collaboration — lifting up other distillers, companies, and organizations. There is a passion for Butte and its people, but also a willingness to bet everything on a good story. “We go to bed every night feeling pretty darn good,” says Courtney.
Understanding Butte, Montana is possible once you know its long mining history.
The Butte Experience
Butte, with its Irish roots, has always been known as a drinking town — though often in a tumbledown kind of way. That’s changing.
Courtney admits that before she visited, “I thought Butte was a shit hole … As soon as I got off the highway and drove up Montana Street, I started to fall in love with Butte, with the people, the culture, the buildings, the way we all have each other’s backs.” (It didn’t hurt that she’d just fallen in love with John. “I’d have lived anywhere for John,” she says.)
On your way to Uptown Butte, you drive up the hill, past vacant storefronts, Irish bars, buildings being restored, and longtime businesses. You see the ornate architecture of a once-thriving city. You feel their losses. And you also feel a resiliency.
“Now, more and more people are coming from all over Montana to visit,” says Cassandra Sunell, chief marketing officer. Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liquor has served, in many ways, as an icebreaker.
If you go:
A visit to the Headframe Spirits tasting room is only part of the Butte experience. The State of Montana has some unusual rules around its tasting rooms, which include only 2 oz. of alcohol served and two bottles sold per customer per day (with last call at 8:00 p.m.). It’s best to forget the bureaucracy and consider it a nudge to explore; Butte is not shy on drinking establishments.
The full Butte experience might include: the World Museum of Mining (a portion of sales from every bottle of Orphan Girl Bourbon Liquor go to the museum); a visit to historic Uptown Butte; lunch on the patio at Fred’s; the Speakeasy Tour; evening drinks at Headframe Spirits; dinner at Park 217; after-dinner drinks at Hotel Finlen’s Cavalier Lounge; and a night at Maloney’s Irish Pub. More unusual attractions include the Dumas Brothel Museum and the Berkley Pit. Cast your eyes beyond town and you’ll find plenty of mountain biking, fishing, skiing, and hiking.
Like most things in Montana, it’s best if you get off the beaten path, leave your assumptions at the door, stay a while, and belly up to the bar for a few stories and a bit of advice.