Keeping another generation farming may drive some people to drink. That’s certainly been the case for the Manhattan, Montana, Droge family. But the seed potato, small grains and pulse crop farmers aren’t imbibing the spirits, they’re distilling them.

It all started as a brothers’ night out joke. Every Tuesday, Tim, Terrence and Jeff would have a meeting of the minds and talk would often turn to the piles of oversized waste potatoes culled from their seed potato market. The standing jest was the extras should just be made into vodka.

“I think every potato farmer has made that joke,” Jeff says. The Droges, however, followed through. Jeff and his wife, Erica, started pursuing the idea of using distilling to add value to their waste potatoes which, due to the variety, were otherwise only suitable for cattle feed. After much research and many family meetings, they attended Moonshine University, an intern distilling course in Kentucky.

Jeff Droge checks the proof of a batch of vodka.

Jeff Droge checks the proof of a batch of vodka.

“We learned how to build a whiskey mash, make rum from molasses and vodka from grain,” Erica says. “They coached us in licensing, marketing, how to operate a distillery and introduced us to industry leaders from major players such as Jim Beam. It was inspiring to see how people in the industry were willing to share their knowledge and work together in the spirit of collaboration.”

Erica and Jeff returned from their experience inspired to turn a long-standing farmer’s jest into a reality.

While beer brewing and wine making are well established industries in Montana, distilling is still in its infancy. “It wasn’t illegal to distill spirits in Montana, but it wasn’t legal, either,” says Bryan Schultz, founder of Roughstock Distillery. When he started his venture a decade ago there were no regulatory systems in place, no tax schedules and many other issues. “We had to basically write the laws to allow for distillation,” he says. “It was like putting together a puzzle for which there weren’t any pieces.”

Erica serves up Dry Hills Vodka to Jeff, Tim and Terrence at their tasting room.

Erica serves up Dry Hills Vodka to Jeff, Tim and Terrence at their tasting room.

Opportunity. Schultz kept pushing as he saw an untapped market. He spent time in Europe where eating and drinking local is a centuries-long standard. Each town had their own wine, beer and spirits. Why not bring the only missing factor of that local equation, local spirits, to Montana? His passion and work opened doors for other would-be distillers.

Committing to distilling takes a big leap of faith, like planting in a dry year. “Legally, you can’t make a product until you construct your distillery, obtain a federal distilling license and receive state approval which includes a walkthrough of your facility,” Erica says. “It’s very cart-before-the-horse.”

Erica and Jeff devoted countless hours to developing a business plan, securing financing and getting their distillery and tasting room built in nearby bustling Bozeman. In 2015, Dry Hills Distillery, named after the region their family homesteaded five generations ago, got the go-ahead to transform waste potatoes to spirits.

It didn’t all go down smooth as a potato-based vodka, though. Mash production was a trial. “We worked with Headframe Spirits, bringing them whole potatoes to process in their high shear mixer. They thought it would take 5 minutes. It took a full day,” Jeff says. They then tapped a fellow producer who makes hash browns to cube the potatoes first with better luck. They refined their plans accordingly and secured a Montana Growth Through Ag grant to buy the necessary peeler and dicer.

The Droges are distilling Montana’s first and only farm-to-bottle potato spirits.

The Droges are distilling Montana’s first and only farm-to-bottle potato spirits.

Potential. While Erica and Jeff have taken lead on the spirit business, Jeff’s father, Glenn; Terrence and his wife, Calette; and Tim and his wife, Amber, all work to keep up farm production, are investors in the distillery and provide counsel along with Erica’s parents, K.C. and Karen Barnhardt. They’re excited about the future.

“We have the commodities on hand thanks to the farm, so we scaled our business model to accommodate making bulk neutral spirits for sale to other distillers,” Jeff says. “We’ve really found a niche. Potato vodkas are fairly rare, especially made with fresh potatoes like ours. Now we’re making a potato-based gin, which is extremely rare. Our potato spirits are also naturally gluten free.”

They’ve branched out into whiskey, using hard red spring wheat and are looking at their other crops, too.

“We can make spirits out of nearly everything we grow,” Terrence says. “We always joke if we could just get $1 for every potato we’d really have it made. We might just get there yet!”

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