I'm no stranger to Headframe's tasting room, a cozy and old-fashioned lounge that pays tribute to the history of Butte with authentic Anaconda Mining Company artifacts, not to mention some really good drinks.
One of them, the Kelley Single Malt, is a particular favorite of mine.
Between you and me, sometimes I’ll celebrate having finished an article for the magazine with a shot or two of Kelley.
But Headframe also produces well-known products like Orphan Girl bourbon cream liqueur, Neversweat bourbon whiskey and more.
I've been to the Tasting Room many times before, and every time someone visits me in my adopted town of Butte, I always take them there. But somehow, I never paid much attention to the bar before now. It is a long, gorgeous hardwood number that looks as if a hundred years or so of cowboys and miners have rubbed it to a reflective polish.
After introducing myself to Courtney McKee, who owns Headframe Spirits with her husband John, I ask her about it. She tells me that it's the bar from the Rocky Mountain Cafe, which used to serve folks in Meaderville, a suburb of Butte destroyed in the creation of the Berkeley Pit. The World Mining Museum had it in storage for years.
"They still own it, but we're its caretakers. People have met, fallen in love, and gotten engaged in front of that bar. It's great that the people of Butte get to touch the bar again," she says.
Looking at the stools arranged in front of it, I notice that they have small plaques attached to them. Examining one, I see it has someone's name on it, so I ask Courtney what it means. She tells me they're members of the community that they want to know always have a seat there.
The more we speak, the more apparent it becomes that making very tasty spirits from high-quality and locally sourced ingredients, while noble as all heck in my book, isn't all they've got in mind for Headframe Spirits. For one thing, they're one of only seven B Corp certified companies in Montana, which means they met the highest standards of overall social and environmental performance. They also manufacture stills that blend the cutting edge with timeless tech, one of which I had the pleasure of examining up close before they ship it off to a distillery in D.C., where a few Headframe employees would also go to help set the still up.
"Aren't you just arming your competitors?" I ask.
She smiles. "We're helping our peers build the tools to succeed." She pauses, then adds, "we succeed when we help others do the same."
I'm beginning to suspect that Courtney and John are boozy superheroes, saving the world one drink at a time but Courtney reminds me that Headframe defines success not by a return to the shareholders but by the value they create for their community.
Headframe Spirits opened on leap day of 2012, and now every time their leap/birthday comes around, they throw a big fundraising extravaganza to benefit four different non-profits, all nominated and voted on by their employees. There's also "Drink Like You Mean It," month-long fundraisers for non-profits and causes like the rebuilding of Butte's legendary M&M Bar, which, sadly burned down recently. Headframe, working with Montana Broom and Brush, matched donations, resulting in thousands of dollars in aid. Courtney sums up Headframe's many efforts to help succinctly: "we need to be a successful business, but we aim to be as strategically philanthropic as we can."
We then go to their second facility, an enormous warehouse overlooking the town. Appropriately enough, the warehouse lies in the shadow of the Kelley headframe herself.
Inside I am greeted by a sight that I can only really compare to the scene in Willy Wonka when they finally get into the factory and see the chocolate river. I go agog when I see the hundreds of barrels, pallets of malt and grain (all ingredients sourced in Montana, she tells me), and further in the back, the elegant lines of stills under construction. I briefly entertain the fantasy that at the end of the tour, Courtney will hand me the keys to the whole place ala Gene Wilder, and then I'm reminded of a line from that classic film: "Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker."
Walking through the warehouse, Courtney shows me a certain set of barrels set apart from the others. She pulls the bung out of the top and invites me to put my nose to the aperture. It smells fantastic, bringing to mind Autumnal colors with a sophisticated, delicate balance of scents. I lean in for another sniff as she tells me that it's one of their latest projects - Good Deeds Whiskey. It's a product of John's quest to connect with values-based distillers across the country. He helped form the Good Guy Distillers, who undertook a project in support of the American Craft Spirits Association to provide scholarships to women and minorities interested in the distilling industry. Good Deeds Whiskey is a blend of seven single-malts contributed by the Good Guys to support ACSA’s goal, and let me tell you, I'll be first in line for a bottle.
As we wrap up the tour, Courtney makes her love of Butte clear but also expresses a need for a new narrative about the once-and-future boomtown: "If you're completely focused on looking back, you're not doing a great job of looking forward. Butte does an incredible job preserving and telling stories about our past. But we need to tell ourselves better stories about our present and future, we need to tell them to everyone else, and we need to hear those stories reflected back to us."
Headframe, along with their many philanthropic collaborators, are creating a new story. And from the smiles I saw around their tasting room, their evident desire to help and support their community, and, of course, the fine spirits that they lovingly manufacture, I think it's safe to say the story they are telling is a good one.
Now to enjoy my customary shot of Kelley.
This one is really simple, on purpose. Because a great whiskey doesn't need a lot of dressing up.
Grab your favorite whiskey glass (rocks, nosing, whatever you prefer)
Add 1-2 oz of Kelley Single Malt Whiskey
Hold it in your hand so your hand warms it just a bit so you can smell it even better.
Add an ice cube or a tiny splash of water. Either of these will proof it down a little bit more and change the character.
House Old Fashioned
An Old Fashioned is a great whiskey cocktail. It's of broader appeal than straight whiskey for some people, with a little extra sweet making it more enjoyable for some. Headframe's House Old Fashioned incorporates the flavors of Earl Gray Tea and extra real vanilla bean to create a richer, more complex Old Fashioned.
In a rocks glass, combine
3/4 oz Earl Grey infused simple syrup (Headframe sells this in our Tasting Room and at shop.headframespirits.com. Simplified recipe below.)
3 good dashes of angostura bitters
A small splash of water
Swirl until combined
Add 1 oz bourbon, then top with ice
Garnish with an orange slice and a good cherry. We recommend Bada Bing Cherries (also sold in the Tasting Room and at shop.headframespirits.com).
Earl Grey Simple Syrup Recipe
In a small saucepan heat 1 c. water. When it boils add 2 c. sugar and 2 bags of your favorite Earl Grey tea. Simmer 5 minutes, then let cool. Store in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.
Note: This isn't quite the House Old Fashioned. For the real experience, you'll need to come to our Tasting Room and let us make it for you ourselves. Or experiment at home. Old Fashioneds, while there are formal recipes, also do really well with experimentation. Try other flavor bitters, other types of whiskey or other infused simple syrups to achieve your own favorite variation.
Grab your favorite cocktail glass
Fill it with ice
Fill it half full with Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liqueur
Top it with Root Beer
Add a scoop of ice cream to turn it into a grown up root beer float
or: Replace the root beer with club soda if you like it a little less sweet.