Spirits high at Willie’s Distillery

Willie and Robin Blazer in a warehouse full of aging bourbon. The company obtains white oak bourbon barrels from Minnesota. (G. Hamill photo)

Five years after Willie and Robin Blazer ran the first batch of brandy through their copper still in downtown Ennis, their small-batch liquor is flying off the shelves and the business has plans to expand.

Starting off with just Willie and Robin at the controls, Willie’s Distillery now employs 19 workers and the team is working hard to keep up with demand. Willie’s liquors are now sold throughout the Northwest and have gained traction with connoisseurs. The Ennis brand gained national attention when Fifty Best, a New York City guide to fine living, awarded Willie’s Bighorn Bourbon Whiskey a gold medal in Dec. 2017. The Ennis-made liquors have fared well in other regional competitions, as well.

Willie’s product line includes Montana Moonshine, Montana Honey Moonshine, Snowcrest Vodka, Willie’s Genuine Canadian Whisky, Huckleberry Sweet Cream Liqueur, Coffee Cream Liquer, Wild Montana Chokecherry Liqueur and the gold-medal-winning Bighorn Bourbon.

A circuitous career path lead the husband-and-wife team to a fulfilling and successful career as distillers.

Robin grew up on a 2,000-acre farm near Toston, just a stone’s throw down the road from Radersburg, in Broadwater County. Her family pitched in together to help on the farm, where they grew wheat, barley and hay and raised a variety of livestock. When she headed off to college at the University of Montana, she held a love for literature and planned to join the Peace Corps after graduation to help people in Africa.

Willie grew up on a farm in the mountains of western North Carolina, where his family raised corn, tobacco, hay, potatoes, goats and chickens. “We worked the land and I went to school,” said Willie. “I was always pretty big into sports and getting outside. My grandpa taught me how to fly fish. That’s probably one of the reasons why I’m here in Montana. I really like to fly fish.”

Willie’s dad transferred to a paper mill in the Florida panhandle when cutbacks hit North Carolina. Willie was a senior in high school when his family moved South. Fresh out of high school, Willie went to see an Army recruiter about being a helicopter pilot, like his Uncle Ronnie, whom his whole family admired.

The recruiter told Willie, “You can’t fly helicopters but you can jump out of airplanes.” So, Willie signed up to be a paratrooper and shipped off to Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga., where he earned his paratrooper wings. Following the graduation ceremony, two soldiers wearing black berets visited the new paratroopers, seeking volunteers to serve in the Army’s toughest fighting force – the Rangers.

“A few of us raised our hands and had no idea what we were getting into, ended up going through RIP and passing,” said Willie.

RIP, the Ranger Indoctrination Program, was a physically and mentally grueling, month-long program designed to weed out soldiers unsuitable for assignment in the Ranger Regiment, and to prepare them for an even harsher test – Army Ranger School. Blazer completed both RIP and Ranger School and served six years in the 3rd Ranger Battalion. (RIP has since been replaced by the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program) 

While still with the Rangers, Willie visited friends in Montana and loved it. “I said, ‘If I ever get out, I want to move to Montana,’ ” said Willie. “For a couple reasons – the fishing, the hunting, the mountains, the remoteness and smoke-jumping; I wanted to get into smoke-jumping.”

Willie left the service and moved to Montana in 1997. He attended the University of Montana and made the football team as a walk-on. He met Robin, who was attending UM, and the couple eloped to Idaho and got married.

Willie worked as a wildland firefighter for a few years before some Army buddies convinced him to sign up for the Green Berets. Willie and Robin moved to Fort Bragg, N.C., where Willie completed nearly three years of rigorous training to qualify as a Special Forces medic.

Willie was assigned to a National Guard SF unit at Fort Lewis, Wash., and the couple moved cross-country a second time. “We moved to Washington and we were literally homeless, because we had two dogs and we couldn’t find a place to live,” said Robin. “So, we were living at the KOA in Cashmere, Washington. My childhood pastor happened to live there, so we oscillated between living upstairs at his house and the KOA.”

Fortunately, the couple didn’t have to endure the unsatisfactory accommodations for long. Unfortunately, Willie’s SF unit was deployed to Afghanistan, and Robin moved back home to Montana.

Willie served a tour in Afghanistan and, after he returned, worked as a wildland firefighter, including a year as a smoke-jumper in 2005. Between 2004 and 2011, Willie also worked as a contractor for the U.S. government, providing technical expertise in counter-terrorism operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Naturally, the Blazer’s family life suffered with Willie’s frequent overseas trips and summers away from home fighting fires. Starting about 2006, after Willie’s contractor job sent him to Louisiana for several weeks to assist with hurricane relief, the couple decided to make a change. They considered several options for a family business they could operate together.

“That’s when I got the entrepreneurial bug,” said Willie. “I was kind of tired of moving around, whether it was fires or hurricanes or wars. I liked all that stuff, but I wanted to settle down and find a place where I wanted to live. We started getting business-minded.”

A major life event made the change more urgent when Willie and Robin welcomed daughters Josie and Ruby to the family in 2005 and 2006. “We started having kids, and that really changed our perspective on being able to fly around everywhere and work anywhere we wanted,” said Robin. “It changed our perspective on whether Willie wanted his summers for the family or for the Forest Service.

“At the beginning of our entrepreneur phase, we thought about raising goats, outfitting, porta-potties, all kinds of ideas, even cowboy coffins,” Robin added. “Every idea we had, I’d write up a one-or-two-page business plan. I’ve got a whole file folder full of them.”

“We started looking at brewing; we’d always made our own beer,” said Willie. “I grew up around homemade brandy and whiskey and moonshine. Grandpa played around with it. It’s more common in North Carolina. I can’t say I grew up making it, but you understand how it’s made; you understand if it’s good or bad and what it’s made of. There’s still a lot of people out West who don’t know what moonshine is. Everybody back there does.”

Willie noted many Montana “shine” stills operated in mining camps during the boom days, but the appreciation of and knowledge of the moonshine-making process are greater in the Appalachians, with their long history of backwoods stills, ridge-runners, chasing off “revenuers,” and the birth of NASCAR, which traces its moonshine-soaked roots to hot rods hauling illegal whiskey during Prohibition.

One thing the couple agreed upon quickly was where to live. “We’re both outdoor and recreation-minded,” said Robin. “If we could both be outside all day, every single day, we would. That’s why we decided to live in Montana. It became important to us – what can we do in Montana, where we can work hard – we’re both extremely hard workers – let’s give it a shot, let’s work for ourselves and see what happens. Let’s bring our kids up together.”

Settling on a plan to distill spirits, the couple attended workshops at regional distilleries, researched learning materials online, and got advice from the Small Business Administration on running a new business. “A lot of this stuff was self-taught,” said Willie. “With the internet age, there’s a lot of stuff you can look up. Terry, our chief distiller, has never been to a school for this. He’s learned by doing and he’s been with us for four-and-a-half years.”

The couple’s first major investment would be a still of sufficient quality and size to serve a small market – not a homemade contraption like the ones in the old mining camps. As luck would have it, a German still manufacturer became one of their greatest sources of knowledge.

“At the time, there were only four manufacturers in the world that made stills for commercial use for a small distillery,” said Robin. “Our still is made in Germany and it’s made of copper and really well done.” Willie’s nine-foot-tall copper still is a remarkable example of German craftsmanship – what some might consider a metallic work of art.

Before making a final decision on distilling, Willie attended a three-day class in Arizona by the Bavarian still manufacturer, and Robin attended the same class a year later. Robin also attended an intense, two-week distilling course in Spokane, Wash., and took a tour of small distilleries on the East Coast.

Local banks helped the couple finance the business venture, and the Montana Small Business Development Center extended a Patriot Express loan, thanks to Willie’s veteran status. The Blazers said banker Cleve Witham and SBDC manager Julie Jaksha were particularly helpful during the process to obtain funding.

Prepared with sufficient knowledge, capital and confidence to enter the world of spirit-making, the couple ordered a Bavarian still. “It came in four big crates,” said Robin. “It was almost like getting a Ferrari in a lot of different crates; you’ve got a race car and you’ve got to put it together. But something that we’re good at is finding people smarter than us to do things.”

The smart person the Blazers found to help construct the still was Ennis builder Josh Vujovich. “He helped and had everything laid out,” said Robin. “He was a pipe-fitter and he was an engineer and he knows how to do all that stuff. He basically put our entire still together for us.”

With the magnificent German still assembled, the big day for the first batch came in October 2012. “I was on the phone, directly with the guy in Germany the whole time,” said Robin. “We fired it up and off it went and it went really well. The first thing we did was brandy.”

The couple operated the still with just one helper for the first six months, initially making brandy and moonshine. They hired a distiller, Terry Barsness, in 2013, who learned on the job, just like Willie and Robin. Barsness said making liquor is a science and an art. “You’ve got to have good grains and be patient and things will pay off,” he said. “The art is just kind of being imaginative and coming up with different flavors and ingredients you want to try and play around with it, tweak it and get it right.”

Denie Amberson is the office manager and jack-of-all trades at Willie’s. “I absolutely love it,” she said. “Willie and Robin are the greatest people to work for. I have learned so much more about whiskey than I ever thought I would.”

Robin and Willie’s backgrounds prepared them well for operating a small business.

“Just growing up with a strong work ethic and working on awesome teams helped me,” said Willie. “I worked for some great managers, whether it was in the Forest Service or the military, and you learn from that. Sometimes, it might not be the greatest leader or manager, but you learn from that too. But I’ve had awesome leadership examples throughout my life.

“Plenty of times, we could have given up and quit –  and other people would have. That competition and that drive, like the Outlaw Josey Wales, the spirit to persevere, that’s always stuck in my head. Just like Ranger School –  we’re too stubborn to quit.”

“I grew up on a third-generation family farm,” said Robin. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but a family farm is a small business. My parents worked together all the time and we hired people to get jobs done. My grandparents lived nearby ad we all worked together. I really learned there are jobs to be done and it doesn’t matter who does it -it just needs to be done. I was up on combines with my sister when I was seven or eight because it had to be done. We were all a big team.”

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