Meet Lauren Oscilowski, the ringleader and artisan behind the "Spirited Startup" : Spotted Bear Spirits, located in the Railway District of Whitefish, Montana.
She has created the ultimate Montana experience with her spirits distilled from local botanicals, cocktails crafted from local produce, and her gorgeous tasting room that boasts art and furniture handmade by Montana folks, (of course).
It was a pleasure photographing her tools, and capturing a behind-the-scenes look at her fresh perspective on Spirits. Below is a q&a session where she dives deep into her education, learning experiences, inspiration, and collaborations. ENJOY.
When you're done reading this, go check out her tasting room and indulge in a cocktail. I recommend the NAILED IT.
WHY COCKTAILS :
We take a fresh, culinary approach to our cocktails. Specifically when working with vodka—our vodka is clean and crisp with little attributable flavor—we draw on our culinary explorations when developing recipes to create balanced acidity, spice, and bright flavors.
HOW DID YOU LEARN THE ART AND SCIENCE OF DISTILLING SPIRITS :
I took some online coursework in fermentation science through the Siebel Institute (they are based out of Chicago) which certainly provided a solid base. But I attribute much of my enthusiasm for distillation and knowledge of the craft along with my technical skill set to Nic Lee. During my four years of employment at Glacier Distilling I was afforded to the opportunity to learn all aspects of small business and encouraged to wholly pursue my passion for fermentation and distillation. Together we tried fermenting all manner of fruit, honey, grain, sour mash—distilling hops, botanicals, wines, meads. The biggest takeaways: Do not fear failure - there is always a takeaway, learn through that experience, positive or negative - stay playful. I try and bring these into our approach at Spotted Bear Spirits. I have a small, modular setup with a variety of stills specific to different spirits and I encourage my staff to play. Always play. If all of this stops being fun, what’s the point?
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN PRACTICING YOUR CRAFT :
Since 2011. A solid 5 years of playful experimentation and many, many barely drinkable spirits before arriving on recipes that really shine our local ingredients and my personal style. We leave a piece of ourselves on the table, or in the bottle. Like any craft or art, you pour your heart and soul into your work and that passion inevitably comes through. There’s a current ‘authentic’ movement sweeping the nation, perhaps more prevalent among millennials, and this idea of a search for the source, and the driving factors motivating that source. Many craft 'distilleries' are buying bulk spirits that they rebottle and sell under their brand. There’s no heart in those spirits, no soul. Some have a great story-sure, but they somehow fall flat. We will not go down that road. For me, distilling is passion and extension of spirit—I pour myself into every product and cocktail we create and hope to instill the same in our staff. We have a phenomenal team of people—enthusiastic, creative, passionate. So thankful to have them here.
WHAT'S BEEN THE MOST REWARDING PART OF YOUR "SPIRITED STARTUP" :
Collaborating with local artists who are equally passionate about their respective craft. We have a wealth of talent in this little valley of ours. Our furniture (Vinoture), cocktail menus (T-Bird Leather), tasting room art (Danielle Taylor - Local Color Studio) (Mandy Mohler - The OCD Photographer), design team (! Wheelie Creative is so flipping talented!), our cocktail shakers (Jack Minnich - Arborvitae) (Jacob Comber - The Woodworking Incident), our cocktail ingredients (Two Bear Farm) (Wicked Good Farm) (Sweet Peaks Ice Cream) (Glacier Ginger Brew), our screen printers (Bushy Tail Screenprinting) ALL SOURCED LOCAL. Our bottles and labels are made in the USA. We strive for sustainability in all aspects of our business. We have a reusable glass bottle program. This awareness that I think many Montanans have for their home, their surroundings-an awareness that extends beyond themselves-we reflect that spirit. That makes me proud. We’re cultivating community and creativity.
YOU STARTED OUT WITH VODKA, AND RUMOR HAS IT THAT YOU'RE ABOUT TO DISTILL A BATCH OF GIN. WILL YOU CONTINUE TO BREW YOUR VODKA AS WELL, ADDING THE GIN - OR WILL YOU CONTINUE TO SERVE SPIRITS ONE AT A TIME :
The rumors are true! We will continue to tease out our lineup of spirits. Vodka - Gin - Coffee Liquor - Agave Spirit - Limoncello/Mandarincello/Limecello and a variety of seasonal infusions with vodkas and gins as base spirits. We are working on a gin that will use only locally foraged and cultivated botanicals to reflect our alpine flavor and lifestyle. Playful!
SPOTTED BEAR SPIRITS HAS A VERY OUTDOORSY "TRAIL CREW" VIBE. EXPLAIN YOUR INSPIRATION FOR THE DESIGN CONCEPT :
I visited Montana and fell in love with the mountains. That story isn’t unique—saddle up to a local bar any time of day and you’ll find someone who shares a similar background. They moved out here and a year turned into 5 turned into spouse, house, kids—we get delightfully stuck. What held me was the people, the lifestyle, the heart and soul. Once you live here for a while, and I am far from local-absolute transplant, you find the gems-the trails and rivers less traveled. For me that was the Spotted Bear Ranger District, point of entry into The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Heading into the wilderness with a group of friends—each spending their day in a different way (river running, fishing, hiking, reading) and regrouping in the evening around the campfire to sip whiskey, share stories and create new memories. I want Spotted Bear Spirits to be a place of congregation—for memories to be made and stories shared—a meeting place for our community—and a place of creativity.
YOU USE A LOT OF LOCAL INGREDIENTS. TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR PARTNERSHIPS AND HOW THIS INFLUENCES YOUR BUSINESS :
The community drives our business. We look around at what our friends are creating and say how can we contribute—how can we help promote what you’re doing, because what you’re creating is pretty amazing. And if we work together we can build something incredible—we can give back to our community through cultivating creativity. We can make an impact, however small, on how people approach their lives. The other piece of the equation pertains to our bodies. We are crafting alcohol, true, but all in moderation. And what you put in your body is important. We use organic ingredients in our cocktails, which means higher cost, but we want you to feel bright and healthy so you can keep shredding powder lines and logging miles on those hiking boots. We have wonderful farms in the valley turning out fresh, heirloom produce and have partnered with Two Bear Farm and Wicked Good Farm for our cocktail ingredients. These farms are impacting how we approach food and nutrition and providing us with wonderfully nourishing options. They take a risk, to pursue both a passion and a value that weaves through their business as an extension of themselves. Pretty awesome. So all the produce for our bloody mary mix will be sourced through Whitefish farms this summer—and we hope to can enough mix this fall to get us through the winter months. We get the opportunity to source locally and support our friends. How great is that?!
YOUR BUSINESS USES REFILLABLE GLASS BOTTLES AND PAPER LABELS THAT ARE EASY TO WASH OFF. HOW DOES THIS BENEFIT YOUR BUSINESS AND THE ENVIRONMENT :
I was always stuck by the amount of waste in the restaurant/bar industry. So much bubble packaging. So much unnecessary plastic. So much trashed glass. Our Canteen Program helps reduce our waste and in the process we save on cost, which we pass along to our patrons. I worked with a small label company in California (Grog Tag) that started creating labels for beer growlers that had a water soluble adhesive. They moved into the home-brew market with removable/reusable labels and are killing it. They print our labels to be water soluble and we then sanitize/sterilize the bottles to be reused. The Canteen Program in many ways mirrors the growler program. Instead of picking up a six pack (six cans or bottles of waste) you fill your glass container. Score one for Mother Earth.
WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE GOALS FOR SPOTTED BEAR SPIRITS :
We have a whole bunch of goals. I have lists everywhere with ideas—large warehouse distillery with extensive whiskey and agave barreling program/state-wide to nation-wide distribution. But at the end of the day I want to business to grow organically—sustainable growth. And stay true to our roots. And always humble. Our current goals revolve around diversifying our product offerings to include our house-made drinking vinegars, bitters and syrups. I’d love to be a one-stop-shop for your local, craft cocktail needs.
SINCE OPENING YOUR TASTING ROOM, WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST POPULAR COCKTAIL :
We have such a diverse lineup of cocktails-we really tried to create a flavor for every palate. It surprises me, but the Big Mountain Mule is our biggest seller. The Moscow Mule is so hip right now and we put our own spin to it with freshly juiced orange and muddled chili pepper. A little heat, a little sweet, copper mug—refreshment in a glass.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SPIRIT TO DISTILL :
Oh that’s a tough one. I’m really digging botanicals at the moment. I spent years at Glacier Distilling working with grain and fruit but we never played much with botanicals. The past few months we have been running gin trials. Isolating botanicals to really understand how each flavor and aroma transfers in distillation. Generally geeking out. Nerding out. Hard. Happy place to the max. And Bo, our production assistant has really sunk his teeth into bitters and amaros. So the distillery is constantly a flush with botanicals. I love it.
DO YOU HAVE ANY MENTORS, OR INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE THAT REALLY INSPIRE YOU AND YOUR CRAFT :
I admire the craft movement as a whole—that spans industries. Within the world of distilleries Corsair Distillery are a bunch of badasses—they make some spirits I absolutely adore and others that are an assault on your taste buds. But they are putting themselves out there—experimenting and pushing the limits. Glacier Distilling—Nic Lee has been an invaluable mentor as well as a fantastic friend. Many a late night sipping spirits and talking technique. He’s a big fan of blending. I’ve carried that quality to Spotted Bear. On the craft level our batches are small and can be quite varied—blending for consistency or even uniqueness is a talent—I’m still cultivating that one. Finally, I admire Montgomery Distillery. Those guys have got it going on. Quality, Pride, Craft. That’s their platform. And damn if they don’t adhere to it in every aspect of their business of spirits. Do yourself a favor and pick up a bottle of their Sudden Wisdom Whiskey. I promise you won’t regret.
DID YOU ENJOY THIS STORY? HAVE YOU VISITED SPOTTED BEAR SPIRITS + TASTED THEIR COCKTAILS? WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE? LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW!