THRIVING SMALL BUSINESSES IN WYOMING: Funky Vibe Alive at Craft Distillery and Tasting Room
How a passion for unique places and flavors inspired a family-owned business
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Sep 18, 2023
Amber Pollock mixes a cocktail at the family-owned Backwards Distilling Company tasting room in downtown Casper. (Courtesy photo from Amber Pollock)
By Bob Wooley
Special to the Wyoming Truth
If you’re living in or just passing through the Casper area and craving a cold beer or nice glass of wine, there are many establishments to choose from.
But if you’re looking for a drink that’s out of the ordinary, you and Amber Pollock will probably hit it off just fine. You’re the exact customer Pollock had in mind when she and her family opened Backwards Distilling Company and its craft cocktail tasting room.
Specializing in distilling small batches of gin, rum, vodka, whiskey, moonshine and the king of magical, mysterious spirits, absinthe, Backwards Distilling Company started selling its products in 2014. Since then, the mission of the business has never wavered.
“We set out to delight people at our place, as we have been delighted at so many great places in our travels,” Pollock, 35, said. “It’s been our goal to try to create a place for folks that is memorable. And part of that is delivering something that’s unexpected.”
And with Backwards, unexpected is exactly what the Pollock family has achieved.
But that ethos doesn’t just apply to the physical spaces: it began with the spirits themselves.
“Our goal with the spirits has always been to create products that are cocktail-centric,” Pollock said. “That’s why we gravitated towards a craft distillery, rather than a brewery. With cocktails it feels like the possibilities are a little bit more limitless.”
Backwards’ two vodka varieties, Ringleader and 307, are the operation’s bestsellers in Wyoming, followed by Contortionist Gin. The products are currently available in around 40 retail locations statewide; they’re also distributed in Colorado and Nevada, where they’re carried in around 20 locations combined, as well as Montana and New York City.
At the Casper flagship operation, located at 214 South Wolcott Street, there are two custom-built stills in the distillery. The family tries to source as many ingredients as possible from Wyoming, especially corn, sugar and botanicals.
The Pollocks make their spirits one batch at a time—between 300 to 400 bottles to a batch (but 1,200 for vodka). They typically distill spirits for a couple of weeks — knocking out around 2,000 bottles — and then focus on bottling and packaging before distilling again.
“Our process is pretty labor-intensive, so even though we’re producing a relatively small amount of bottles, we’re crankin’ pretty good,” she said.
Backwards produces around 2,500 cases of spirits annually, which falls in the neighborhood of 30,000 bottles. It’s no small feat, considering Pollock, her mom, Kathy, dad, Bill, and brother, Chad, do all of the production, with the help of just one other employee.
Chad is the head distiller, while Amber manages marketing, community relations and the tasting room. Bill and Kathy are hands-on with operations; Bill also handles compliance duties, including licensing. The tasting room has a mix of between nine to 12 full and part-time employees.
Lightning in a bottle
The Pollocks started kicking around business ideas in 2012, when Amber and Chad both moved home after finishing college.
“We were all living under the same roof for the first time in years,” recalled Pollack, then an elementary school music teacher and graduate student at the University of Wyoming. “Talking about the future and what we wanted to see for our own careers, and for Casper, started us down this path of thinking about opening a business together.”
And while they didn’t have a specific business in mind, the family’s passion for food, travel and entertainment all played a role in determining what business they would build.
“Those things were such strong points of connection for us as a family. We could spend all of our time when we took trips, just restaurant hopping, eating and tasting things,” she said. “And I was really into different flavors — cooking and making drinks at home.”
Chad was increasingly interested in spirits, and according to Pollock, gravitated toward the lore and history of absinthe. At the time, it could be a difficult spirit to find in most parts of the U.S., and Kathy suggested they try making some.
For the next two years, the Pollocks brainstormed, planned and researched — eventually producing their first market-ready product. While Chad traveled around the country to learn how to make spirits at different distilling operations, the rest of the family interviewed experts to build their knowledge base.
“And then we just had to get on with it,” she said.
But unlike a coffee cart or food truck, where an entrepreneur can test recipes and organically grow, distilling spirits is a different game. Home distilling isn’t allowed in Wyoming, so Pollock said they had to jump all the way in from the beginning.
“We were fortunate that my dad was exiting a company that he’d been a part-owner in for a long time,” she said. “So, we were able to use that [money from his share of the business] for the capital we needed to get this business up and running.”
Initially, Bill, Kathy and Chad handled most of the distillery build-out, utilizing DIY remodeling skills to turn what had been an office full of cubicles into what it is today.
As her parents near retirement age, Pollock said Backwards will enter a new phase. Questions abound: How can a business ensure sustainability through changes in leadership structure, especially when the brand is inherently intertwined with the family who created it? Will the strength of the brand allow it to thrive in an ever-changing business climate?
“The work of the first 10 years has been building the concept, the brand, the reputation,” Pollock said. “The work from here is figuring out how we ensure those things into the future as we mature and grow.”