Distilling Local Products at The Gulch

While having a cocktail in Gulch Distiller’s tasting room, you might look through the glass to the distilling room and notice the unique elk mount with one antler drooping low over its eye socket, and then you might see the dried herbs hanging a few feet away.  And then you’d realize that the large tanks and urns in there are making what you’re sipping.  This business is definitely a local and unique treasure in Helena and across the state.

Steffen Rasile recently treated AERO staff to a tour of Helena’s only micro-distillery.  Steffen and business partner Tyrrell Hibbard purchased the distillery in 2015 with a shared passion for whiskey and quality spirits.  The two Helena natives own and operate the business, fermenting, distilling, and bottling on site.  They use only Montana grown grains in their grain-based spirits, and aim to eventually source as many of their products from Montana as possible.

Steffen attended one of AERO’s Growing Food Businesses workshops in 2016 on behalf of The Gulch, and we followed up with him and Tyrrell this winter to see what they’ve put into practice from the workshop, and how AERO can help with future resources and course offerings.  They went to the workshop to learn what equipment they would need to make infrastructure improvements and, eventually, new products.  They were curious about stainless appliances and sinks, and what their options are for sourcing local products to make syrups and liquors.

What the two found was that there are very few detailed rules written down, and product acquisition and legality is on a case by case basis due to the variable cottage food law requirements.  “There are no checklists for small businesses to follow in order to purchase and use locally grown or harvested products,” Steffen said.  “Can we buy lavender or basil from a Farmers’ Market vendor to use in our syrups or drinks?”  Or would that be illegal because the farmers have an exception under the food law, but Gulch does not.  We asked the Department of Public Health and Human Services for clarification, and Nina Heinzinger of the Food & Consumer Safety department provided some information.  Nina told us: “For retail food operations, the business owner must buy his food from approved sources.  Usually locally grown produce (such as from a CSA or farmers’ market) is approved, but the operator should check with their local sanitarian to verify this. Many operations use locally grown produce on their menus, and some contract with CSAs for produce.”  She went on to explain that an example of an unapproved source would be food prepared in a home kitchen.  “The main concern is that the owner maintains a record (i.e. bill of sale, invoice) to be able to track their sources of their food,” she told us.  More guidance and documents explaining the Cottage Food laws can be found on DPHHS website.

Another piece of advice when purchasing fresh produce is to ask the grower if he or she is GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified or if they follow the Good Agricultural Practices guidelines.  This helps demonstrate that the grower is carrying out on-farm food safety practices.  When performing updates to the Abundant Montana Directory, web designers added a “GAP certified” spot in our directory, so producers can be searchable that way!  

Steffen and Tyrrell aspire to use as many Montana products as possible, and are working on securing botanicals for products like absinthe, fernet, and aperitifs.  

Hanging in the corner of the shop are mugwort, mint, wormwood, and chamomile, which are used in the Fernet and test liqueurs and grown around Helena.  “We haven’t been able to find all the herbs and botanicals we want; somehow we need to tell farmers what to grow,” Steffen admits.  “For 40 cases of gin, we need about 60 lbs of botanicals.”

The distillery currently uses wheat from Townsend Seeds, and the Great Falls company MaltEurop (suppliers for Coors and Budweiser) reserves malt for Montana breweries and distilleries.  One of the appliances we noticed in the distillery room was a grain mill, where Steffen says they coarsely mill their own wheat and barley.  “I have a finer-grind mill at home for baking flour,” Steffen grinned.

During the process of malting and brewing, the liquid by-products left are rich in protein and fibers, and this spent grain is picked up by a Helena pig farmer.  “Otherwise I guess we would have to pour it down a drain,” he admits. This arrangement works out to be a good deal for both parties! Happy people, happy pigs.

Steffen mentioned he would appreciate AERO’s assistance in finding answers to their questions about local products and producers, and hopes we continue to build his supply of sustainable Montana items, which might help with their never ending needs for botanicals!

Gulch Distillery is mostly a local liquor provider, though they hope to expand out of Montana and onto craft distillery shelves around the west.  Right now you can find their liquors in Helena at The Windbag, On Broadway, Silver Star Steakhouse, and Miller’s Crossing.  Or head to their business location in the former Montana Distillery and Bottling Warehouse at the north end of Helena’s main, historic gulch.  They’re just downstream from the strike that turned a gulch into the mining camp that became a state capital.

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In researching Steffen’s food law questions, we are reminded of the clear need for a forum to answer questions about the laws, and using local products.  AERO manages the www.mtfoodeconomy.org website, and will continue to publish these discussions on there. Visit the forum to post your own question, and we’ll help connect you to answers!

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