Craft in Bozeman: Bozeman Spirits Distillery

Ramona Mead

When you first step through the door of Bozeman Spirits Distillery, it’s obvious that something is being created there. Just like the local beer breweries, the smell can vary from day to day, depending on what’s being brewed. On the day I went in, the sweet smell of corn mash permeated every corner of the building. “You either love it or you hate it,” said the bartender as he wiped out pint glasses behind the massive wooden bar.

Like the craft beer movement, distilling is becoming more and more popular. Jim Harris and his wife are the owners of Bozeman Spirits Distillery. Harris is also part owner of White Dog Brewing, a beer brewery directly adjacent to the distillery, which opened on July 22. Harris states that Bozeman and other Montana cities are huge supporters of the state’s distillers, and the majority of local bars support the distilleries as well. He explains that distilleries bring something different to the community from other businesses, and his goal is to create a product line that is uniquely reflective of Montana.

Harris moved to Bozeman in 1992 to attend Montana State University “and ski,” he adds. He was one of the founders of Outside Bozeman Magazine in 1999, but exited the company in 2007. After fifteen years in the real estate business, Harris started working on the distillery in 2012.

His first product was the huckleberry vodka, which is one of the four signatures spirits the distillery now produces. Harris began work on the vodka with assistance from Headframe Spirits in Butte. Originally the idea was for the product to be 100% huckleberry, Harris explains, but the process simply doesn’t allow for that; it’s difficult to achieve a consistent flavor. Instead, natural huckleberry extract is added for flavor after the distilling process.

Harris chose huckleberry for his first product because it is distinctly Montana. “It created a great Montana drink that locals like, and it clicks with the tourists,” explains Harris. He says some tourists look specifically for huckleberry-flavored products because they can’t get them in other parts of the country. Along with the huckleberry vodka, Bozeman Spirits produces several other products including a non-flavored vodka called Cold Spring Vodka.

Their Ruby River Gin is named after the Ruby River, on which Harris has spent a lot of time. An avid fly fisherman, Harris explains there is a saying in the sport when describing a river, which goes “The water is gin clear.” So, he decided to incorporate that into the product. Ruby River Gin is made with twelve different botanicals and was developed by Bozeman Spirits’ Head Distiller Thomas McGuaine.

Their whiskey is named 1889 because that is the year Montana became a state. It is created with a blend of malted barley, rye and corn, and aged approximately four months. Whenever possible, Harris uses local ingredients to craft his spirits. All the malted barley and rye are Montana sourced. The huckleberries used in his vodka are gathered in Darby, Montana. Harris, himself, cleans and freezes the berries using specific methods to preserve their freshness. In addition to being incorporated into the vodka, the huckleberries also go into the Distillery’s signature cocktails.

After creating the spirits, the crew at the distillery uses them to create a menu full of unique cocktails. The drink menu, Harris explains, is a conglomeration of the ideas and preferences of all the people who work at the distillery.

Harris holds meetings where the entire staff is present and asked ahead of time to bring ideas and ingredients for new and different drinks. They all get together to make and sample the beverages so everyone gets a chance to give feedback. Suggestions and adjustments are made until there is an item that can be put on the menu. Harris’ children created several non-alcoholic, kid-friendly drinks so there are options for everyone.

In accordance with Montana State Laws, the distillery’s tasting room is open Monday through Saturday 10am-8pm and Sunday noon-5pm. Patrons can be served a maximum of two drinks per day or can purchase two bottles of spirits per day. Along with spirits, they also have a wide variety of merchandise for sale, including shirts, copper mugs, stickers, and gift baskets.

Although they’ve only been open for nine months, Bozeman Spirits is already building a reputation and gaining popularity. Their Huckleberry vodka won a silver medal at the San Francisco Spirits Competition this year. According to Harris, his distillery is the fourth largest seller in Montana in liquor stores. Harris accounts for this popularity by explaining that he and his crew “hit the road pretty hard in the beginning to get the word out.”

Bozeman Spirits is the fourth business to occupy the space at 121 W. Main, in historic downtown. It was originally Safeway, followed by Sears, then Schnees, and it now houses spirits. The wooden bar is the prominent feature in the tasting room. Along with tables and stools, it was made from reclaimed wood from the floors of the building. Harris gutted the entire building to create the space for the distillery. He credits Park Builders with using reclaimed wood from the floor of the building to create the bars, tables and stools.

There are fourteen spirit distilleries currently operating in Montana, so Harris started a distiller’s guild. He says that in general, all the distillers in Montana get along and they support each other’s efforts to create high quality products. “We don’t compete against Willie’s, or any other distillery,” he explains. “Instead, we all work together and we all make something different.”

According to Harris, the distiller’s guild is currently working with the state and the Montana tourism department to create a “distillery trail.” Similar to the “brewery trail” created by the Craft Beer Brewer’s Association, this trail will be a map showing the locations of the all the spirit distillers in Montana.

Bozeman Spirits Distillery can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and at    

This was made by

Ramona Mead

Ramona Mead is a freelance writer and jack of all trades. She is passionate about books, music, pets and living life to the fullest here in Montana. Her blog can be found at

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