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Headframe Spirits, a distillery located in Butte, has been honored as the 2024 Montana American Single Malt Distillery of the Year. This accolade recognizes Headframe’s outstanding contributions to the American Single Malt Whiskey industry and its commitment to excellence.

“When you think of single malt whiskeys you probably think of Scotch or Japanese single malt whiskeys,” notes John McKee, owner and founder of Headframe Spirits. “Headframe would like to introduce you to American single malt whiskeys with the Kelley American Single Malt Whiskey.”

This announcement is confirmed as Headframe’s Kelley American Single Malt Distiller’s Select whiskey also received gold marks during this year’s spirits competition, scoring 95 points. 

“It’s an honor to receive a gold for our Kelley Distiller’s Select,” said Blake Mueller, head distiller at Headframe Spirits. “Each Distiller’s Select barrel is hand-picked by the distilling team and sold exclusively in our Tasting Room. Not just with our tastes in mind, but with attention to the differing pallets of everyone that comes to Headframe.”

The awards, bestowed by the New York International Spirits Competition, highlight Headframe’s innovative spirit, superior production techniques and the unique flavors that distinguish its American Single Malt Whiskey. 

With over +1400 spirit entries from 39 countries and 38 states across the US, Headframe notes it’s rewarding to see their spirits stack up against some nationally recognized distilleries – especially because whiskey production is a waiting game.

“We opened this distillery to make an American Single Malt,” said McKee. “At the time, 12 years ago, no one was doing this. As the largest American Single Malt distillery west of the Mississippi, Headframe is so proud to have won this award and we can’t wait for you to experience our American Single Malt whiskeys for yourself – both in the Kelley American Single Malt and a new release set for later this month.”

In celebration of this milestone, Headframe will release a new American Single Malt – the Copper King. Aged for 5 years, finished in Cognac barrels and crafted in honor of Modern Mavericks, the Copper King will be released during a special event at Headframe on Thursday, June 27th. The event will feature a tasting of their award-winning American Single Malt Whiskeys plus the first taste of Headframe’s new Copper King American Single Malt they are adding to their spirits profile. 

“Barrel finishes are always fun, they give us a playground to experiment with different flavors and create fun relationships with other people doing interesting work,” said Mueller. “It also helps keep the creativity and passion at the front and center of our efforts by giving us something unique we can share with the world.”

Headframe Spirits has quickly established itself as a leader in the American Single Malt category. In 2016, Headframe Spirits joined 8 other distilleries to found the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission to address the growing need for an elevated American-based product protected by federal category classification. 

An American Single Malt is classified as 100% malted barley, distilled entirely in one distillery and mashed, distilled and matured entirely in the US. Headframe noted their success lies in the unwavering commitment to using Montana-sourced products from start to finish. By partnering with Montana farmers and a neighboring malt facility, the distillery ensures that the grains used in their spirits are of the highest quality and sustainably grown. Every spirit Headframe creates not only supports the local agricultural community but also guarantees a unique and authentic flavor profile that is true to Montana.

I love the legislative process in Montana. For 90 days every other year, representatives of Montana—rural and urban, native and non-native, young and old, all genders, all backgrounds, all career histories—come together to write and revise laws for all Montanans. I don’t always love the outcomes of the work, but I do love the very democratic process.

Headframe has participated in the legislative process since 2011, before our distillery was open, because John was out of work and had time to lobby on behalf of the Montana distiller’s shared interests. At that time there were only a small handful of distillers in Montana and it was easy to build an agenda and go after it. Time has passed and that process has changed quite a bit. It’s gotten much harder in some sessions but this last session was fantastic. And while distilleries, and opinions, in Montana continue to evolve, we all share the ability to come together around shared goals. 

Some back story: when Headframe opened our Tasting Room in 2012, we believed we were beholden to the same operating hours as breweries which can serve until 8pm and allow people to consume what they’ve been served until 9pm. After a couple years in operation, we learned we were mistaken about the parity in hours. The distiller’s laws were written in a different section of the code and the associated rules were interpreted differently. All of a sudden, we needed to stop serving early enough to kick our customers out of the Tasting Room by 8pm. It wasn’t a feel-good experience, but laws and rules are written for a reason and I’m a big believer that (most) laws should be followed and if we don’t like them, we should work to change them.

SB 209, a bill introduced and passed this last session, gives distilleries the consumptive hour we thought we’d had all along. Now, customers are allowed to be served until 8pm and enjoy their cocktails in the Tasting Room until 9pm. And, as an added bonus, the bill also increased daily bottle sales from 2 bottles to 6 bottles (more specifically, from 1.75 liters to 4.5 liters per person per day). Senator Greg Hertz from Polson sponsored the bill and Governor Gianforte signed it last week. The Montana Distiller’s Guild and our lobbyist Jen Hensley were instrumental in getting this bill introduced and keeping it alive despite challenges. 

12 years ago, it was enough for some scrappy distillers to show up and work on behalf of bills we wanted but time has passed and the landscape changed. Now, showing up with some savvy and some expertise is beneficial. It’s great to have a lobbyist who understands our business and our interests and knows how the process works well enough to navigate the politics on our behalf. It’s also great to have a woman represent our industry in a way that speaks to our shared industry values of job creation, value-added agriculture and economic impact.

Being able to serve until 8pm is wonderful. Being able to sell 6 bottles will be great for tourists and for special release products. And these rules aren’t beneficial only for Headframe but for all distilleries, their customers and communities.

So here’s to a success at the 2023 Montana Legislature. While we may not love all of the change that’s come out of this session, it’s pretty great to celebrate this bipartisan win and the people who came together to get us here.

In 10 years and almost 900 miles apart, John McKee of Butte, MT and Johnny Jeffery of Reno, NV have become close friends. Close enough that you could actually ask one about the other and hear their entire life story verbatim. 

McKee recalls when he first got into the industry. Jeffery was the one to show him the tools of the trade. In fact, the first barrel of whiskey that ever entered Headframe doors was made by both McKee and Jeffery.

That first barrel created the award-winning Kelley American Single Malt Whiskey – a brand heavily influenced by John and Johnny’s first collaboration.  

“I found Johnny at Michigan State University when he was there as a graduate student,” says McKee. “They had this artisan distilling program and I went to him. He taught me how to mash and ferment properly so I could make whiskey. I’ve known him since before (Headframe) was open.”

In the year previous to April 2022, John McKee and the team at Headframe made 1,000 barrels of whiskey from Montana grain and plan to make 4,000 barrels in the coming 12 months. “If not for that first meeting with Johnny, who knows if we could have accomplished all we have at Headframe,” McKee notes.

Now, Artisan Spirits Magazine recognizes them both as co-recipients of the 2022 Artisan Spirit Distillers of the Year. 

“I don’t care what kind of mountain man or hermit you are, somebody made your axe blade. You can’t do it alone. As soon as you think you can, you’re doomed to fail. You need collaboration,” said McKee. 

This becomes apparent in every work the two create together – from the Good Guys Distillers group formed to share accurate information for the industry, to the creation of Good Deeds Whiskey, where profits from each bottle sold are donate 100% to charities.

If you’d like to recognize John & Johnny in some way, consider helping us sell out Release #1 of Good Deeds Malt Whiskey.

McKee tells us that there are already similar future collaborations in the works. The next being Release #2 of Good Deeds Whiskey. “In 10 years, Johnny and I have done nothing but collaborate. It’s just sort of our ethos – it’s how we work.”

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