Billings, Montana. It’s a place that most of us have heard of but few have been to. Joan Rivers once asked her audience if anyone had been to Billings. You can hear what she thought about it here: Billings is not for Joan. It’s not really on the beaten track but serves as a stopping point on the way to Little Bighorn Battlefield NP and further east. This was one of the few times that we were staying in a CBD whilst touring and I was looking forward to walking around and taking in some local culture. Arriving at 4pm, the city was eerily quiet. Many shops had already closed for the day and the few places open for a drink or meal were unappealing sports bars and Irish pubs. Hmmm….maybe Joan was right.
The Only Bar in the Village
We continued our walk around the city and towards the railway line. This area has been revitalised with a few bars and galleries but was also very quiet on a Monday night. Not being a beer drinker, I wasn’t that interested in visiting one of the many local breweries that have tap rooms. And then I saw it. A sidewalk sign for Trailhead Spirits in one of the old railway sheds, open for tasting and cocktails until 7pm. They had an unbelievably fabulous tasting room right alongside the distillery area and completely empty on this Monday evening. Replete with dark wood and retro fittings, there was an excellent cocktail menu designed to showcase their Great North Vodka and Healey’s Gin.
Trailhead is a small batch distillery going for quality over quantity. Montana is wheat country so the Great North Vodka is a distilled grain vodka using water from high altitude peaks. It had an incredibly clean, almost neutral taste with no hint or residual after burn. It certainly did a splendid job of showing me just how much of the commercial vodka available really is firewater. The Healy’s Gin was light and floral with the very local additions of sweetgrass and bitter root in the botanicals.
Barrel Aged Gin
Licensing laws in Montana are such that you are able to taste the spirits on offer and purchase up to two cocktails and up to two bottle of spirits a day. The two drink limit is no doubt about making sure that people behave responsibly and to possibly prevent distilleries competing with bars. There were so many re-worked cocktail classics to choose from but with a two drink limit, you needed to make your selections count. A Salty Dog and Moscow Mule served in a tin mug were our first choices.
We settled on a Yellowstone Martini and a simple G&T for our second round. They were all great but my word!..that martini. Essentially a dirty martini with blue cheese olive, it was outstanding. If I had known it was going to be so good, I would have had two. A taste of the Healy’s Reserve Gin rounded out the evening. A very unusual gin that fools the eye into thinking you are drinking whiskey. It is distilled then aged in used oak whiskey barrels, where it draws its tea stained colour. It combines the light florals of the gin with a sweetness and slight smokiness from the barrels. I’ve not tasted a gin like it. Worth seeking out as a rare and unusual treat for the gin connoisseur.
It was a shame we used up our two drink allocation. It was a fabulous venue and it would have been very easy to spend the night propping up the bar, working our way through the bargain basement cocktail list. Probably just as well as the drinks were incredibly potent, in part due to the fact that bartenders in the US free pour the spirits rather than using a measure. As Trailhead shut up shop, we drifted out into the evening, traipsing through the empty streets in search of sustenance and thoughts of how Joan Rivers would never have a chance revisit Billings and see it in a different light. She would have loved a Sioux Charlie.
2314 Montana Ave