It’s a common misconception that distilling is a male-dominated industry. You might be surprised to learn that there are a lot of women making whiskey, bourbon, moonshine and other spirits today. Robin Blazer, president of Willie’s Distillery in Ennis, Mont., is one of those women.
“It’s just like farming,” says Blazer, who grew up on a wheat farm not far from Ennis. “Nobody cares if you’re a man or woman, as long as you get the job done well.”
In fact, the history of women making spirits in Montana goes back more than 100 years. During prohibition, women often dominated bootlegging because it was illegal for police to search them. Male bootleggers often sought out women to do business so they wouldn’t get searched, and many women opened their own operations. A woman was even behind the now iconic design of the Maker’s Mark wax-sealed bottles.
Yet, Montana’s women have also made history in another realm: politics. Women in Montana got the vote in 1914, five years before it became legal on a federal level. A Montana woman was also the first female in Congress in 1917.
Blazer and her husband, Willie, opened Willie’s Distillery in Ennis in 2012. Today, their spirits can be found all over the West including Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. They’re also available for purchase and shipment online, but to really experience a drink made with Willie’s, you have to head to Ennis.
“You can’t put a finger on what makes Ennis so special,” muses Blazer. “This place is magical. You can’t understand it until you drive through it.”
Blazer is adamant that Willie’s wouldn’t have succeeded and grown the way it has in the last seven years without the Ennis community.
To experience the magic of Ennis, you’ll want to start at Willie’s Distillery. Time your visit to coincide with the annual pig roast that usually happens in June and which started as a thank-you to the community and has grown to more than 1,000 visitors each year. There’s a 5k, live music, and of course, whiskey. Schedule a distillery tour to see how the spirits are made and then head to the tasting room. There, your bartender will show you how to craft a simple cocktail out of spirits. Why go the extra mile? The staff at Willie’s focus on education and want customers to know how to mix their own drinks when they get home.
Blazer suggests trying the Bee Sting, a concoction of their Montana Honey Moonshine and lemon San Pellegrino with a fruit garnish.
After an afternoon of tasting at Willie’s, the next morning is definitely going to call for a good breakfast. Head to Yesterday’s Soda Fountain in the Ennis Pharmacy building, 124 E Main St, and try the breakfast burrito. Don’t forget to order an old-fashioned soda.
To learn more about Willie’s Distillery, head to www.williesdistillery.com.