Saturday, March 7, 2015

Leading the Way--Backwards Distilling Company

            Step right up, folks!  Come see the newest attraction under the big top:  Backwards Distilling in Casper, Wyoming!  Definitely not a sideshow act, Wyoming’s first clear spirits distillery deserves the attention of the center ring.  Two and a half years ago, the Pollock family started its own “circus” when the four conceived the idea of making spirits in the center of big, wonderful Wyoming.
Backwards Distilling Company--cool logo and even cooler spirits.
            The name Backwards comes from the four members of the Pollock family:  dad Bill, daughter Amber, son Chad, and mom Kathy—BACK.  They began looking for words that had the root of BACK, and when they saw backwards, they knew it was perfect.  The route the family has taken to get the spirits produced has been a bit backward.   Instead of having the background, knowledge, and experience in distilling and then getting the idea to go commercial, the Pollocks decided to go commercial first, and then get the background, knowledge, and experience in distilling. 
The family that distills together--Chad, Kathy, Amber, and Bill.
            Chad is the head distiller.  He spent a year and a half traveling around the United States and Europe getting hands-on education while sampling vodkas, bourbons, and rums to decide what type he wanted to make.  Experts such as former Maker’s Mark’s distiller, Dave Pickerell, were invaluable to Chad’s learning curve.  Also central to Chad’s spirit production was his time spent in the EU.  Chad knew he wanted to create a vodka in a similar style to Russian vodka, but since travel to Russia wasn’t meant to be, he learned much on a trip to Belgium, where he was able to visit a bar with over 400 vodkas on the menu.
Chad enjoying a taste of his Ringleader Vodka.
           Amber is the head of, and in charge of, the tasting room.  Her most important job is crafting the cocktail menu, which uses Backwards Distilling Ringleader Vodka exclusively.  With no background training, Amber educated herself to make drinks using all house-made and fresh ingredients.  For instance, the Backwards Mule uses ginger beer made on-site and fresh lime juice mixed with the Ringleader Vodka.  This ever-changing menu will change to include other Backwards spirits once those are ready.  Amber also maintains the website and social media outlets.  She has even created an event schedule for the upcoming months that will include everything from infusion classes to yoga sessions. 
Amber behind the bar crafting one of her signature cocktails.
Though Chad and Amber may be the heart of production and tasting, Mom and Dad, Kathy and Bill, are the head, arms, legs, hands, feet, and veins of the business.  Bill is the maintenance head, distiller rat, cellar worker, compliance agent, and overall right-hand man of the operation.  He cleans the facility, supervises the still, helps with bottling, labels the product, etc.—and by etc. I mean a little bit of everything else that happens at Backwards.  Bill also works with the TTB on all government reporting.  Kathy could be considered the efficiency agent; she keeps everything organized and on schedule, or as Amber claims, “tells everyone what to do” (as moms should!).  Kathy also did all the decorating of the tasting room, which created an ambiance lightly based on the circus theme of the business but also heavily based on the theme of super, super cool place to hang out!  A small supporting cast helps the Pollocks with accounting and tasting room hours.
Super cool tasting room area designed by Kathy.
The initial mission of the family and Backwards Distilling is to make excellent spirits in their home state.  All four—mom, dad, and both kids—graduated from Natrona County High School in Casper.  Bill and Kathy attended the University of Wyoming at Casper College, Amber graduated from UW, and Chad graduated from Wyotech.  The business plan these Wyomingites created had the Ringleader Vodka as the first release; this was in early November of 2014.  The reason Ringleader was first so income could be generated as early as possible for the business since vodka doesn’t require any aging.  Also, vodka is the “king of spirits” and the best-selling spirit in most markets.  Future plans include a Sword Swallower Rum, a Contortionist Gin, and a Strongman Gin.  Another line of spirits called Milk Can Moonshine is also in the works.  The rum and future bourbons are already aging in barrel and will stay there up to four years.  Chad recently tasted the gins to evaluate their progress; they aren’t ready just yet.  However, this spring a new product will be launched.
Vodka doesn't barrel age, but Backwards has bourbons already in barrel. 
This truly Wyoming endeavor then expanded that mission to also educate residents of rural areas like ours about spirits and the cocktail culture.  This is no easy feat in the most sparsely-populated state in the nation, where most drink cheap beer instead of high quality cocktails.  Amber’s events are primarily to promote the knowledge of this cocktail culture.  She wants people to know that worthy cocktails should taste good and be enjoyed slowly as she helps elevate palates of Wyoming residents.  Her upcoming infusions class will teach not only to infuse Ringleader Vodka with different flavors, but also to make balanced cocktails that are delicious.  Other future classes will also work to support this second goal.
At the tasting bar, ready to promote cocktail culture. 
Yet a third goal is to construct a place for people to hang out and enjoy these great spirits created into wonderful cocktails, to build a source of entertainment for the Casper area.  The tasting room is open Wednesday through Friday from 3:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., Saturday from noon to 9:00 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m.  In-depth tours of the production and barrel area are given free on Saturday and Sunday.  Bottling parties are also available so consumers can get even closer to the process—to see, smell, and touch the products. 
Tour the barrel and production area.
The Pollocks have definitely met their first goal of creating quality spirits in their home state.  The Ringleader Vodka just recently won silver at the American Craft Spirits Association 2015 meeting.  A part of Chad feels as if he is “not happy unless it’s gold.”  He plans to keep working on the quality of his product, but the tasting notes from American Craft Spirits claimed Ringleader wasn’t “neutral enough,” and Chad wants a product that has some character.  Even though vodka is supposed to be colorless and flavorless, when one compares four vodkas in a side-by-side blind tasting, differences are obvious.  Chad wants his vodka to be a blank canvas for drinks but also have a flavor all its own.  He sees Ringleader as part of the renaissance of high-quality vodkas that have some character, a step up from the “cheap” and mass produced clear spirits out there. 
Ringleader is a great vodka!  Even people like myself—who once had a bad experience with vodka and tend to shy away from it—can enjoy this.  Though it isn’t how this spirit is meant to be enjoyed, a straight tasting of the vodka (in an adorable tasting glass) shows it has a very-slight sweetness followed by a warm, not hot, finish as it goes down. In a cocktail, the Ringleader is even better.  We tried the Backwards Mule, a wonderfully refreshing take on the Moscow Mule made with Ringleader, fresh lime juice, and house-made ginger beer on ice, served in the cutest Backwards Distilling copper mug.  Backwards’ entire cocktail list is very impressive.  The Punch of the Week is another option, served in an actual punch bowl with crystal mugs.  Still more choices include the coffee-based 24 Hour Man and the spicy Three Man High drink, Backwards’ take on the Bloody Mary. 
Backwards Mule--made with all fresh ingredients, including house-made ginger beer.
Not only does the product taste great and make great cocktails, the bottle is the coolest—and I mean the coolest—bottle I have ever seen!  Designed by Ignite Advertising in Portland, the embossed writing on the front label has the Backward Distilling logo (which is also super trendy in and of itself).  Turn the bottle to the back, and there he is—the ringleader peeking through the curtains with his whip.  Seriously awesome!
The ringleader peeking out of the back of the Ringleader Vodka bottle.
To buy Backwards Distilling Ringleader Vodka, the best choice would be to stop at the tasting room and production facility in Casper—actually in Mills—Wyoming at 158 Progress Circle.  The ability to see the stylish tasting room is unmatched.  However, also plan to go on a weekend tour to see the gin pot still made by Vin Dome from Kentucky, the gorgeous still made by Kothe all the way in Germany, and the barrels for aging made by Kelvin, also of Kentucky.  If a trip to the actual tasting room isn’t feasible, the spirit is available already in up to twenty liquor stores in Wyoming.  If your local store in Wyoming doesn’t carry Ringleader yet, it can be requested from the state liquor division and arrive quickly.  Plans for distribution outside of the state are in the making but are still quite far in the future.   
Being the first clear spirits producer in Wyoming might seem like a circus side show act, but the Pollocks have turned their plan into a performance worthy of center-ring billing.  The ringleaders of a craft spirit and cocktail movement in their home state, Bill, Amber, Chad, and Kathy turned a family dinner conversation into a high-quality product made in a facility all should visit.  Though they may have gone about their business venture in a backward way, they are definitely on a forward trajectory to build cocktail culture in big, wonderful Wyoming!
                                              Vodka for Dummies

             I asked Chad to give me the "how to make vodka for dummies" lesson. This is a truly over-simplified description of the production process; however, I’m the dummy who needed an easy lesson.

1. Water is brought to a boil in the mash tank. Grain is added. The boiling water breaks down the starches in the grain.
Grain and boiling water in the mash tank.

2. Enzyme or barley is added; this turns the broken-down starches into simple sugars.
3. Mash tank is cooled to ready for fermentation.
4. Yeasts are added to start fermentation.
5. Fermentation takes place for up to seven days in the fermentation tanks.
Fermentation tanks. 

6. The first pass through the columns of the still takes place; this boils off the liquid to concentrate the alcohol. First pass usually gets the alcohol to about 85%. This can take about eight hours.
Column still distills the spirit.

7. The low run drips spirit out of still.
8. Back to the still for the second run to concentrate alcohol. This second run takes substantially longer than the first—up to fifty hours!
9. After second run spirit should be 190 proof to be a legal vodka.
Vodka dripping from still.

10.  Light carbon filter to take out impurities.
11. Cool to proof slowly.
12. A second and different filter process takes place from the chill filtration—takes out more impurities and makes vodka clear.
Cold filtration tank.

13. Once down to 80 proof, goes straight to bottle.
14. Now is ready for consumption and sale.