If a single core idea characterized Headframe Spirits, it would be that success is measured in the success you create for your community — and if that’s the case, the Montana-based distillery has been indisputably successful. By building stills designed to give micro-distillers a leg up and forging connections that tie the independent distilling community together, the unique ideas and values of Headframe co-founders Courtney and John McKee are shaping craft spirits both locally and nationally.
Previously, John McKee was in the business of distilling something else entirely: biodiesel. It wasn’t until his refinery company went bankrupt that the married couple lit on the idea of opening a spirits distillery. Vigorous research helped the two pinpoint the biggest challenges they would face as small-scale distillers: consistency, quality and production capacity. A continuous-flow distillation system would best address these issues, so when they learned that no one was making that sort of still for small-time producers, they stepped in.
The McKees built their own still, reasoning that if it worked, other businesses might need the same thing. As it turned out, they were right. Today, Headframe Stills — high-tech, American-made devices complete with touch screens and remote accessibility via app or website — are already used in over 10 other independent distilleries, where they maximize spirit output and reduce time required for distillation. These improvements make it that much more feasible for small-time operations to make it through the tricky first few years of running a distillery.
“There’s so much art and craft involved in what we do… that it’s easy to get distracted by the beauty of our storytelling,” says Courtney McKee, explaining why many micro-scale producers have trouble getting off the ground. “We need to put our business hats on and think about [efficiency]. Stills should never impair your ability to get product out into the market.”
Thus far, responses to the stills have been overwhelmingly positive, and Headframe will release an updated setup with increased distillation capacity in early next year.
In the interest of helping kickstart other new distilleries, John McKee (along with industry consultant Johnny Jeffrey) also founded The Good Guys, a 100-member, community-oriented distillers’ group meant to facilitate cooperation and mutual support between like-minded producers.
“We don’t compete against each other,” says John McKee. “We go and we paint when new distilleries open nearby, and if someone needs a piece of our equipment we’re going to loan it to them… We prop each other up and we all compete against Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam. [Some] people see an opportunity to make more money, but helping others is just so much more rewarding. I feel good when I go home at night.”
This story originally ran in the fall 2016 print issue of Sip Northwest magazine. For the full story and more like this, click here.