Mark SoRelle, the founder of Saint Liberty Whiskey, calls himself the company's chief historian, too — which might seem like an odd job title to hold at a newly launched whiskey brand. But history plays a key role in making the whiskey.
He came up with the concept of Saint Liberty when, doing research for his other job managing liquor brands, he kept stumbling across the stories of Prohibition-era women bootleggers. Their seldom-told stories stayed with him, to the point that he realized he wanted to share them through a whiskey brand of his own.
"A lot of people don’t know that women were at the forefront of the liquor industry at one point," he says. "They got into it, for the most part, to support their families. Their husbands died, from mining accidents, factory work or other job-related incidents, so it was just up to the women to support their family."
The first whiskey to launch as part of the Austin-based brand is Bertie's Bear Gulch Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Made in Texas and finished in Montana — the state where bootlegger Bertie "Birdie" Brown created her hooch in the 1920s and early '30s — the 87-proof spirit comes in a round-shouldered bottle authentic to Bertie's time period. It's embossed with the Saint Liberty name and features an eye-catching label of black and gold.
In the center of the label is an image of what SoRelle imagined Bertie looked like, as "one of very few young African American women who homesteaded alone in Montana in the 1920s. Birdie was famous for her warm hospitality and for brewing what locals called the 'best moonshine in the country,'" according to text on the back of the Bertie's Bear Gulch bottle.
She was killed in 1933, the year Prohibition ended, when her kitchen exploded. The accident was, perhaps, the result of multi-tasking: Bertie had been making her latest batch of liquor and dry cleaning with gasoline at the same time. (During the 13 years when the country was supposed to be dry, moonshiners were prolific.)
Saint Liberty Whiskey isn't made in anyone's kitchen. SoRelle partners with two distilleries for each whiskey released, starting with Smithville's Bone Spirits and Montana's Lolo Creek Distillery for Bertie's Bear Gulch. He took a 4-year-old bourbon blend, at 115 proof, from Texas to blend it with the same water from the Rocky Mountains that Bertie would have used almost 100 years ago. It turned out not to be just for historical authenticity, SoRelle says.
"The water has good minerality to it, although it's also really clean. It really does change the whiskey," he says. "I took a proof sample from Bone for the first run in Montana. We tried both (versions) side by side, and the water from the Rockies just enhanced the product overall."
Bertie's Bear Gulch bourbon lures you in with an aroma of candied orange and flavors of caramelized vanilla, apricots and a dash of brown sugar.
Saint Liberty is just getting started. In the future, the local brand will also debut an 8-year-old Canadian rye highlighting the colorful life of Josephine Doody, another Montana bootlegger — she made moonshine at a remote cabin near the southern border of Glacier National Park. A total of six female distillers will have their faces and stories posthumously featured on the bottles, and Saint Liberty will partner with whiskey producers in additional states.
>> RELATED: With first rye, Balcones proves why it's still tops at Texas whisky
One of SoRelle's favorite female bootleggers is Mary Louise "Texas" Guinan, who ran illegal speakeasies in Manhattan and, he says, produced hooch for the mob. Her nickname was a nod to her Waco roots.
Having a background in booze brand development has given SoRelle invaluable insight into what flies off the liquor store shelf. He thinks Saint Liberty's striking bottle design, focus on nearly forgotten women in history and — most importantly — "great juice" means that he hasn't yet had a distributor turn him down to sell Bertie's Bear Gulch. It has launched first in Texas, but additional states, including California, New York and Georgia, will get it, too.
It just feels like the right time to debut a whiskey that puts women front and center, he says. As women take on more leadership roles in industries including liquor, it's important to remember the pioneers who paved the way.
"This industry is very male-dominated, but women are slowly moving up and claiming their place," he says.
Bertie's Bear Gulch Straight Bourbon Whiskey has a suggested retail price of $44.99 for a 750 mL bottle. Five percent of gross sales will go toward the Powherful Foundation and its mission of getting young women through college. For more information, visit saintlibertywhiskey.com.