Glacier Distilling | Great Northern Brewing
Story & photography by Lido Vizzutti
In its elemental beginning, whiskey starts life as a beer.
They both are born of grain: corn, barley, wheat and rye, among the many. The grains are added to water and heated, extracting the sugars. The sugary water — now called wort — is filtered off and fermented.
There are nuances along the way, of course. Beer is refined through the addition of other ingredients like hops, while whiskey is refined through a process of aging.
In hindsight, therefore, when Glacier Distilling started filling stubby bottles in 2012 with Wheatfish Whiskey — a whiskey distilled from an un-hopped version of Great Northern Brewing Company’s Wheatfish Wheat Lager — the partnership from brewery to distillery seems obvious.
Seven years later, Wheatfish Whiskey is listed as Montana’s contribution in Esquire’s “The Best Whiskeys in Every State Right Now.”
Nicolas Lee, founder and head distiller at Glacier Distillery, refers to it as their “Montana version of a Scotch whiskey.” Officially, only whiskey from Scotland can be called a Scotch.
“We call it our Scotch-style whiskey,” said Lee of the single-malt. “We’ve always tried to do things a little bit rooted in tradition but with a twist.”
Lee said his distillery felt the Wheatfish Lager was a simple recipe to distill into a spirit while remaining unique because of the wheat malt.
“The base grain flavors were very nice, we thought, and would translate well,” said Lee.
“The wheat malt has a kind of sweeter flavor to it, butterscotch and honeysuckle. It balances out the barley malt really nicely and then, in that second use of the barrel, it just gives these more warm honeycomb, nice, easy and approachable flavors.”
Opposed to bourbons and ryes that legally require new barrels, Lee said when “you have a barrel you’ve used once, and it still has a lot of flavor but not that strong oak, it’s really suited for this Scotch style which features much more prominently the flavors of the malts and gives a light balancing of oak to the spirit.”
Distilling from a beer recipe that has its own objective of flavor, texture and aroma comes with challenge. The Wheatfish Lager itself is an amalgamation of styles.
“It’s clearly and obviously a wheat-based beer — in our case, about 40 percent wheat-based malt,” said Marcus Duffey, general manager at Great Northern Brewing Company. “Wheat really has that body contribution and that distinct flavor.”
Although the wheat ratio is traditional to German beer, Great Northern ferments it as a lager, which is not common among German hefeweizens.
“So we’ve kind of flipped that on its head,” Duffey said.
The third piece is the three separate additions of cascade hops as if it were an American ale.
“So it’s that triple-threat combination of brewing styles: traditional German wheat beer but fermented as an American lager and then hopped as an American ale would be,” Duffey said. “It’s, I think, pretty unique.”
To make the custom mash for the stills at Glacier Distilling, the brewery brews an un-hopped wort without changing malt bill.
“We just wanted that single-malt contribution to the whiskey,” Duffey said. “We didn’t want any sort of aromatics from a hop to come through. So it’s Wheatfish in a sort of un-hopped version of it.”
“That’s the collaboration,” Lee said. “To use their expertise in making a very nice fermented malt wash (like Wheatfish Lager) and our expertise in distilling to make the whiskey.”
In a shaker:
1 oz. Wheatfish Whiskey
1 oz. basil simple syrup
¾ oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
Shake and dump into rocks glass
Top with Wheatfish Lager
Garnish with spanked basil and lemon wheel
To make basil simple: In a pot, dissolve 2 ½ cups sugar with 2 ½ cups water. Bring to a boil. Turn off heat. Add 4 oz. fresh basil. Let steep for 30 minutes. Strain and cool for serving.
In a shaker:
Add 1 oz. Wheatfish Whiskey
Add two to four mint leaves
Add 1/2 oz. simple syrup
Squeeze one wedge of grapefruit and drop into shaker
Shake and pour into rocks glass
Add a dash of bitters
Top with soda water