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Montana-made Spirits May Soon be in Highball Glasses All Over the World

Brian Anderson and Lisa Cloutier, the husband-wife creators of Whistling Andy, opened their Bigfork-based distillery on New Year’s Eve almost 10 years ago. They believe it’s the oldest operating distillery in Montana. That makes Lisa and Brian old pros at trying new things.

Named after Brian’s grandfather’s nickname in the military, Whistling Andy is working to put Montana’s craft distillery cocktail culture on par with the state’s well-known craft beer industry. But it hasn’t always been easy. For the first two and a half years after the distilling duo bought their 8,000 sq. ft. building in the middle of downtown Bigfork during the height of the Great Recession, Brian slept on the distillery’s floor five nights a week delving into recipes for making vodka. A hydrogeologist by training, he knew a thing or two about the water that goes into their award-winning spirits. The rest, however, was a mystery.

“We actually stopped making our vodka about three and a half months in,” Brian says. “It just wasn’t good.” 

Since then, however, they’ve refined, released and re-released many batches of spirits, racking up accolades from across the country and the world. Their spirits have been ranked in Esquire, Whisky Advocate, Wine Enthusiast Magazine and have earned medals in competitive tasting contests, including Sip Northwest’s Judge’s Pick for their Pink Peppercorn and Pear Gin (Lisa’s favorite). 

And they’re doing it all while keeping it local, with nine employees who produce and sell their 10 award-winning spirits.

“Every time you walk into someplace, ask for a Whistling Andy vodka or a Montgomery gin or whoever is producing their spirits inside of our state,” Lisa says. “That’s helping the Montana ag industry, which at the end of the day, is one of the big things that we try to do and that we adamantly believe in.”

In fact, aside from the molasses and sugarcane that go into their (also award-winning) Hibiscus Coconut Rum, 100 percent of Whistling Andy’s products are grown in Montana.

“We are a true grain-to-glass distillery,” Brian says at a recent presentation of his award-winning spirits at the Montana Club in Helena. “We know our farms. And we know our farmers.”

Being small has its advantages. For example, Brian and his staff can move barrels around the distillery floor to age them faster or slower based on climate conditions. “It gets ripping hot in the back of the building in the summer, which ages the barrels faster,” he says.

But as they look to the next decade, they’re focused on expanding to markets a little farther from home. As far as 6,000 miles from home, in fact. Lisa and Brian hope to soon put their Montana-made spirits in highball glasses all over the world.

With help from the Montana Department of Commerce’s ExportMontana team, the pair have applied for and received funding through the State Trade Expansion Program and Tradeshow Assistance Program. With ongoing technical assistance from Commerce’s ExportMontana staff throughout the process, Whistling Andy plans to expand to international markets like Taiwan, Japan and even South Africa.

“[Commerce has] been absolutely fantastic,” Lisa says. “I feel like we would not be able to grow outside of the country without their help.”

Some additional help came in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, when Lisa and Brian again drew on their ingenuity to adapt quickly to a vastly changed world. Whistling Andy partnered with Bigfork’s The Good Stuff Botanicals to add Top Shelf Sanitizer to its list of locally made products. The distillery has been awarded a Montana Innovation Grant through the Governor’s Office of Economic Development as well as a Business Stabilization Grant from Commerce – two programs created by Governor Steve Bullock in response to Covid-19 and funded through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Lisa and Brian hope to someday make and export enough of their spirits to make a noticeable impact on Montana’s agricultural industry, taking their dream from Bigfork worldwide.

“We’re employing people in a really cool industry. Our staff’s traveling around the country and the world getting our products out there,” Lisa says. “Bringing something that’s homegrown in a tiny little town in Montana – and seeing it across the world – is the end goal.”