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John & Snezhi Grahlert

Stonehouse Distillery

John and Snezhi Grahlert likely never envisioned themselves as pioneers in the artisan distillery world. As John notes “we’re not even really drinkers” - but they certainly are savvy business people.  As the owners of Montana’s newest craft distillery they’re joining an emerging industry that’s grown by 700% over five years. Like many entrepreneurs, their path to starting the Stonehouse Distillery in the small, rural town of Winston, Montana started with a recognition that they could make an existing product better.  John recalls the moment during the vacation he and Snezhi took in 2010 when it became clear the market needed higher quality, tastier spirits:

“We ordered a couple of supposedly high-end tropical drinks to celebrate our vacation, and were disappointed by the lack of a distinct flavor profile in the liquor - it was all lost to the fruit juices and other mixers.  We knew we could do better.”

Snezhi had just the right background to get them started.  She grew up in a small town in Bulgaria, where every year the whole town would shut down around the grape and plum harvest and come together to distill small-batch spirits; focusing on quality over quantity.  Using her knowledge and memories as a base for their efforts, the pair spent the first six months of 2011 researching the viability of their idea before deciding it was a winning concept.  They then spent the next two years meticulously gathering information on the art of craft distilling and developing a detailed business plan.  In June of 2013 they broke ground on the building that houses their distilling equipment and a tasting room where the public can enjoy their craft. Once the shell of the building was constructed, John took over and quickly learned some new skills on the fly, joking he became a stone mason, a plumber, an electrician, and everything else…it was a great crash course!”

During the time the building was going up, John and Snezhi were also working diligently on securing the permits required to open a craft distillery.  Their proactive approach to the process paid off, and Stonehouse was granted a federal license in 40 days instead of the standard 90-120 days.  With that in hand, they began working with the Montana Department of Revenue on their state license, and were pleasantly surprised by the level of customer service they received from DOR officials:

“Everybody at the State was very transparent and forthcoming about the process, and each department head and staff member was extremely approachable…I felt like we were dealing with neighbors who were there to help.”

“Everybody at the State was very transparent and forthcoming about the process, and each department head and staff member was extremely approachable…I felt like we were dealing with neighbors who were there to help.”

As they neared the end of their state licensing process, a County official began impeding the final steps to completion.  John visited the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and arranged for a meeting the same day.  John was more than impressed by how quickly GOED helped resolve the challenge:

“GOED told me they would take care of it, and they did.  They had a conference call with all the agencies and divisions involved, and the issue was resolved within less than two hours.  We had our business license the next day.”

Stonehouse Distillery had its official grand opening on November 1, 2014.   John and Snezhi expected it to be fairly quiet, given that they hadn’t done much marketing or promotion - and Winston is a small community of 300 people at the base of the Elkhorn Mountains.  John laughs at how wrong they were:

“We were completely overrun the first day…no complaints, of course!  People came from all over because they’d heard about us through word-of-mouth.  Better yet, as people were leaving we heard them calling their friends saying ‘you’ve got to come check this place out!’  The reception from the community has been phenomenal.”

It wasn’t long before that word-of-mouth marketing turned into media attention. Within weeks of Stonehouse Distillery’s grand opening, John and Snezhi were featured in the Helena Independent Record and Billings Gazette - and business continues to boom. 

John takes pride in the fact that the flavor profile in all of Stonehouse’s spirits come from the highest quality ingredients, including red spring wheat that comes from a neighboring farm (who owns the original historic Stonehouse) used to make their Winston Wheat Whiskey.  For John, that focus on quality over quantity is what sets them apart from major commercial distilleries:

“We stop the distilling process for our spirits when they’ve reached their peak flavor profile because we want to provide our customers something that’s really unique.  That means we’re sacrificing yield for better taste - but it’s absolutely worth it to us because it results in a better product.”

People interested in experiencing the outcome of John and Snezhi’s dedication to quality craftsmanship first-hand can visit Stonehouse Distillery’s tasting room in Winston between 11AM-6PM  Monday through Saturday.