It’s in the gin: Missoula distillery wins top honors at prestigious San Fran spirits competition

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Mark Hlebichuk simply wanted to create a gin that tasted smooth on its own and blended nicely with the right mixers. Now, the Missoula business owner and his wife are facing the need to increase production.

The Montana Distillery won a best-in-class for its local gin at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition last week, with judges saying the Missoula-made product is good enough to become an acclaimed international brand.

Two years in the making, the distillery’s Soiled Dove brand of gin was tested with more than 2,100 entries, receiving the coveted “Double Gold” award at the 17th annual spirits event.

Emerging as a top brand in what’s said to be the most prestigious and influential spirits competition in the country has left Hlebichuk and his wife and business partner, Sharie McDonald, facing a new reality: It’s time to increase production and embrace Montana’s growing presence in the world of brewing and distilling.

“Sometimes the old ways are the best, but other times we have to think outside the box and try to throw a creative twist into the mix,” Hlebichuk said Tuesday. “We only make about 10 cases at a time and we’re working on being able to process and make more. We’ve added a new still, which doubles our production. It’s exciting.”

The Double Gold designation is awarded to only a handful of entries that receive top ratings by every member of the judging panel – a panel that protects the top honor by giving it to the finest products in the world.

As spirits consultant and judge Stephen Beal said, “The best palates in the world come to this competition,” and they bring their expectations with them.

“Every panel is very interesting and every product gets its own special look from several perspectives,” Beal said. “This is why, if you win a Double Gold or Best in Class award here, you can become an internationally acclaimed brand.”

Mark and Sharie bought the Flathead Distillers in 2012, though they soon embarked on a plan to improve the brand’s struggling reputation. Part of their strategy included switching to the Montana Distillery logo and improving their growing line of products.

Despite the name change, the Montana Distillery remains the second oldest vodka and third oldest general distiller in the state, dating back to at least the Prohibition. The tap room on Woody Street in downtown Missoula has been open for three years.

After the brand switch, Hlebichuk began entering his flavored vodkas at random spirit competitions and netting good results. Montana Distillery landed Gold at last year’s Los Angeles Spirits Competition for their Woody Street Premium vodka.

It was then, Hlebichuk said, that a consultant encouraged them to enter their gin in the San Francisco event. If it scored well there, it would score well anywhere. Hlebichuk didn’t anticipate the Double Gold results – accolades that place it among the best gins in the world.

“This gin project took over two years to happen, and many hours of testing prospective recipe combinations,” said Hlebichuk. “I didn’t expect anything. When they wrote back saying we had Double Gold, I didn’t understand what it meant at first. Every judge gave it a gold medal rating, meaning they consider it to be one the best gins in the world.”

A week removed from the news, Hlebichuk jokes how the couple used an eye-dropper to test dozens of flavor combinations, realizing along the way that tens of thousands of variations were possible. Sipping and tasting all that gin left them tipsy, prompting Hlebichuk to “pull the trigger” and make a decision.

That decision included a recipe blended with juniper, coriander, lavender, rosemary, lemon, and lime peel. Introduced at last year’s Roots Festival in Missoula, the product has turned gin haters into gin lovers.

The brand is undergoing a name change from its current Soiled Dove to Fallen Dove, though the logo will remain the same.

“Gin is quite a proprietary thing in the distiller’s world,” Hlebichuk said. “All you really get is that an American gin must be juniper forward. After that, how it’s formulated is entirely up to you.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com