Keeping the Supply Chain Local – Purple Prairie Barley Whiskey

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(Source: Gulch Distillers)

Like most good ideas, Gulch Distillers’ Purple Prairie Barley Whiskey started with a conversation and the question, “What if…?”

In late 2016, Tyrrell Hibbard (co-founder of Gulch Distillers) and I sat down to talk about the newly-renamed company. It had been called Triple Divide Spirits when Tyrrell and his partner Steffen Rasile bought it in 2015 and then re-branded it a year later.

The discussion wandered, as interesting discussions are wont to do, and we covered some of the fine details about making spirits. To distill spirits, you work with a biological process to make an appealing product and each ferment is different from the previous one and the next one.

These are “yeastie beasties” working in the vats and differences in environmental conditions, cultures, and grain batches are just a few of the variables in the equation. The distiller has to manage the delicate balance between living creatures and chemical processes that can challenge the skills of a distiller. It’s in managing that balance that the distiller truly demonstrates his/her craft. 

Like good bread and good beer, good spirits come from carefully managed natural processes. And the very best fermented food and drink comes from skilled hands using ingredients from known and respected sources.

Grain-based products – like whiskey – can be made with any cereal grain including wheat, barley, rye, and “wheat relatives,” like spelt and emmer. All of which are grown in Montana. However, Gulch Distillers uses only Montana-grown grains in their grain-based spirits.

Ripe purple barley heads

My next (logical) question to Tyrrell was, “How about making some whiskey out of purple barley?” And the only answer could be, “Sure, let’s see what happens!” Timeless Seeds, Ulm MT, has grown, processed, and marketed barley with deep purple bran and a dark kernel for more than 15 years. I’ve worked for the company for the last 5 years, so I had to ask (of course), “How about partnering with Timeless to make whiskey out of our Purple Prairie Barley®?”

And that was the beginning of the “Great Experiment.” After a quick trip to Ulm and back, we backed our Honda up to the Gulch’s door, unloaded a couple of 25-pound bags of glossy purple grain, crossed our fingers, and marked the calendar for a date in the fall of 2018.

Join me as we go “back to the future” and make another visit to the Gulch to taste the Purple Prairie Barley Whiskey.

Surrounded by stainless steel vats, copper tubing, wooden barrels, and odd-shaped pieces of equipment that looked like they had been lifted from Jules Verne’s imagination, a small group of Timeless “friends and family” gathered around Tyrrell eager to learn more about the long-anticipated whiskey soon to be sampled.

Max Milton, an investor in the company, and David Oien, Bud Barta, and Jim Barngrover (all co-founders of Timeless Seeds) joined me as we carefully stepped past a basket of apples waiting to become this year’s batch of apple brandy.

Introducing the 2018 Release of Gulch Distiller’s Purple Prairie Barley Whiskey

We ringed a tall table set with bottles of young whiskey, water for mixing, and tasting glasses. The air was filled with the heady scent of fresh alcohol dripping from a large still into a storage barrel – the base for another one of the Gulch’s offerings.

A small bit of whiskey was poured into each tiny glass – then raised in a salute to the makers. Inhaling the aroma and taking a taste, we deemed the experiment successful. Then a little splash of water in the glass and a second sip. Although eyebrows were raised when Tyrrell told us that water really does change the flavor profile, it turns out there is a chemical reaction that takes place and makes the whiskey a little more flavorful.

The Gulch Distiller’s Purple Prairie Barley Whiskey is an entire local grain economy in a bottle; made in Helena out of malted barley from a maltster in Great Falls, wheat from Townsend, and Purple Prairie Barley® from Timeless Seeds in Ulm. Not only is Purple Prairie Barley Whiskey made in Montana, it can be said to be “made OF Montana!”

Communities that support innovative small businesses like the Gulch Distillers benefit from local supply chains and close economic relationships that offer income – and jobs – to growers, processors, and manufacturers. It is important that we continue to build these relationships to strengthen our state’s agricultural security and our local small business networks.

We play a part, at GoodFood World, as we continue to identify and describe farmers, ranchers, and small food (and beverage)-related supply chains that make up local and regional economies throughout Montana and the Northwest US. The real strength of Montana’s communities is the healthy and growing relationships that connect us to each other and to our food and drink.  

Let’s all raise a glass and recognize Tyrrell, his partner Steffen, and the Gulch Distillery for a successful experiment and a job well done!


More about Gulch Distillers

Read our earlier piece about the Gulch: Beyond Bread and Beer.

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