Julie Legate was always brewing something. For more than 20 years, she crafted mead. She always loved spirits, but it was her first taste of absinthe that inspired her to learn more about the mysterious spirit as well as the distillation process. She quickly migrated from learning to crafting, creating her first absinthe in 2006 and a gin one year later. Already in the business of selling herbs for tea and skin care products, Legate found that both spirits were a perfect fit. Now, she has three spirits out of Ridge Distillery in Kalispell, Montana.
Essentially, Legate is a self-taught distiller. Reading historical texts and old distillers’ manuals, then expanding her knowledge by absorbing everything she could from other artisan distillers, not to mention lots of trial and error. She was dreaming of a profession that would allow her to work and play on the Ridge — legally. “I had the herbs and the knowledge to distill,” she said. “It only seemed natural to start distilling. Hobbyist distillation is illegal and it would be embarrassing for my husband, the school teacher, to get arrested for moonshining, so we decided the obvious route to go was commercial.”
Very much a family affair at Ridge, there are no official employees with the exception of Jules and her husband, Joe, who do everything from start to finish. They do get some support though from a group affectionately called Team Ridge, a few family and friends that help in the garden, with harvesting and also with bottling. At Ridge, gins and absinthes are crafted with different botanicals grown on the premises. Herbs are cultivated without chemicals through sustainable cultivation and wild harvesting. Everything at Ridge is distilled in small batches and takes nearly eight hours to craft from start to finish. Both spirits are distilled out of copper alembic pot stills from Portugal. The distillery electricity: hydroelectric. Water from the condensers is used to irrigate the distillery’s garden, and all leftover herbs are composted back into the ground.
“We strive to have as little environmental impact as possible,” says Jules Legate. “It is important to us to be good stewards of the land.”
Crafting an absinthe, much less one in America (and in Montana) was a big challenge for the distiller. Inspired less by the surrounding Northwest Rocky Mountain region and more by French and Swiss absinthe recipes from the late 1880s, Legate wanted to produce an artisan spirit using techniques from the heyday of absinthe. Once illegal, today absinthe is being crafted throughout the U.S.
Legate thinks Americans are becoming absinthe fans, but it’s a slow process. “The reality is that absinthe is a niche product with many misconceptions about its effects, history and preparation,” she says. “Absinthe is an herbal concentrate meant to be diluted with water to approximately 14 percent ABV [alcohol by volume] and sipped, not set on fire and not taken in shots.”
She also hates when she sees people drink absinthe straight. Only water can open the multiple flavors and aromas of the spirit. “Adding water allows absinthe to release its characteristic flavors and aromas,” she says. “Not adding water equals burnt taste buds.”
Ridge absinthe comes in Verte and Blanche, each its own unique blend and never a secret. In fact, all ingredients are listed on each label. Verte contains grand wormwood, green anise, fennel, coriander, angelica, elecampane, lemon balm, and roman wormwood. Inside each bottle of Blanche: grand wormwood, green anise, fennel, coriander, angelica, lemon balm, elecampane, roman wormwood, genipi, and costmary.
Legate knows there will always be drinkers who do not like absinthe just like those who don’t drink gin or tequila, as long as it is not by misconception alone. “Our absinthe is born out of love for the spirit itself,” says Legate. “We strive to use the finest botanicals and have the luxury of living in an alpine area perfect for growing the rare herbs specific to historical absinthe.”
Moving into 2013, Ridge is experimenting with their spirits and will release some new concoctions. “Each spirit we produce is a work in progress,” says Legate. “We continue to learn with each batch and use this information to create the best spirits possible.”