How two Laurentians found themselves making bourbon (and hand sanitizer) in Wyoming
A funny thing happened to Slingerlands, New York, native David DeFazio ’92 on his way to San Francisco in 1996. The truth is, after a chance meeting with a fellow Laurentian, he got involved with the law in Wyoming and some whiskey business, literally.
DeFazio is affectionately referred to as “The Founding Faz” and has been the COO and face of the brand for Wyoming Whiskey a craft bourbon distillery in Kirby, Wyoming, started with Kate LaMere Mead ’80 and her husband Brad Mead, with headquarters in Jackson Hole.
“The St. Lawrence connection had nothing to do with us meeting,” says DeFazio about his first conversation with Kate, who was a lawyer representing DeFazio’s then boss and owner of a river rafting company where DeFazio had been working for the summer. “I had just graduated law school and had come out here for a couple of months to make a little cash before heading to San Francisco and making a run at a legal career there,” according to DeFazio.
“I met Kate on a Monday morning at 9:00, and we got to talking and she asked me where I’d gone to college, and I said, ‘Well, I went to St. Lawrence University.’”
At this point, DeFazio describes the familiar exchange that Laurentians experience all the time, all over the world. “She kind of tilted her head in an odd way, and I explained, ‘Oh, it’s a small liberal arts school in Upstate New York,’ and she said, ‘Oh, I know where it is. I went there, too.’ And, boom, there’s the connection.”
After that meeting, DeFazio ended up working the next three years for the Mead family law firm, run by Brad, a fourth-generation cattle rancher and lawyer from a distinguished and deep-rooted Wyoming family. After three years at the firm, DeFazio opened his own law practice and says, “Once I was on my own, they really became a second family to me.”
After many years of barbecues and holidays together, in 2006, DeFazio got a call from Brad and Kate asking him to stop by. “So, I walked into Brad’s office. Kate came in behind me, closed the door, and my Catholic guilt started to fire up. I’m thinking, ‘What did I do?’ Brad said, ‘Kate and I want to make bourbon.’”
Up until then, DeFazio had been many things—river guide, lawyer, late-night philosopher, angler, skier, and lifelong Yankees fan—but whiskey distiller was not one of them.
“I laughed right in his face,” says DeFazio, “and he didn’t laugh. I turned to Kate. She didn’t laugh.” That is when he knew they were serious and said to them both, “Well, how the hell do you make bourbon?” And Brad looked him right in the eye and replied, “That is for you to figure out.”
“My head just started spinning,” says DeFazio thinking, “I don’t know how to make bourbon. I drank a lot of Jack and Cokes at the Hoot Owl and the Tick Tock, but that’s about the extent of my whiskey experience.”
After some immersion at a Kentucky Bourbon festival, networking with industry experts, and distillery visits over the next couple of years, they were all in, starting big with an investment in a 38-foot tall, and 18-inch-wide still. By July 4, 2009, the still was up and running and DeFazio and the Mead family were determined to make America’s next great bourbon with the help from Steve Nally, whom they pulled out of retirement after 33 years at Maker’s Mark.
“We started laying down a lot of whiskey right out of the gate,” says DeFazio. Despite a few hiccups and a serious learning curve, the Meads and DeFazio managed to put together a great team, and, with help from investors like Edrington (owners of Macallan), have built one of the largest craft bourbon producers in the country.
“We had the largest single-day opening sale number of any new product in the history of Wyoming,” DeFazio says. “There was such a buzz around this.” Now, Wyoming Whiskey is well-represented in liquor stores in 35 states, and can be special-ordered in most others. It can also be found in Canada and has even reached Taiwan.
Unfortunately, like all other export business, their international expansion has been frozen due to the rise of COVID-19 cases around the world. And, in response to the pandemic, the distillery lent a hand to help remedy shortages of hand sanitizer for Wyoming’s first responders.
Using a grant from the Wyoming Business Council, the Wyoming legislature was able to redirect support toward the manufacture of hand sanitizer through five state distilleries. As the largest distillery in the state, Wyoming Whiskey, along with the Mead-DeFazio can-do attitude, was able to successfully pivot to help in the coordinated effort.
“We have capacity,” says DeFazio, “but what we don’t have is a still that makes 180- or 190-proof alcohol required for sanitizer.” Partnerships with the smaller distilleries have made this effort a success. Wyoming Whiskey generated 1,500 gallons at 135 proof before sending it on for redistillation at a smaller operation where it is refined and mixed with other necessary ingredients and packaged for distribution to those in need throughout the state.
“I think our governor is doing a very good job of taking a measured approach to how to help contain this virus,” says DeFazio, who believes the rural nature of most counties in the state put Wyoming at an advantage. The challenges for the more populated and tourist-centered locations are the real cause for concern, and like everyone across the entire country, DeFazio is simultaneously eager and cautious to reopen local businesses.
With a population of 90 people, the location of the distillery has been unaffected by the virus. “It just hasn’t really reached the rural areas of the state,” DeFazio says, “and, similar to the North Country, you’ve got some people who are questioning, ‘Why the hell are we on this lockdown when it’s not even here?’ And, to the contrary, you’ve got major population centers where there are relatively significant numbers of cases where people admit, ‘OK, we need to take this seriously.’” He explains Wyoming is also not unlike a New York or Pennsylvania. “It’s just a tale of two states within a state.”
Now, the question for everyone is how to reopen businesses safely. For DeFazio the answer is taking it slow, something that has paid off in the bourbon business as well. “We now are at a point where everything that we sell is at least five years old, if not older.” And the partnership with Edrington has allowed the Meads to focus more on their other interests. “Kate and Brad still have their hand on the rudder, so to speak,” says DeFazio of their seats on the board of directors, “but they can now do what they want to be doing: ranching and practicing law.” Kate also runs the Mead Natural Beef wholesale operation when not representing clients with the family firm.
Asked if he still feels like a New Yorker, DeFazio says, “I’ve slowed down a little bit out here. You have to, in order to effectively work in this environment, but at the same time, I’ll never shake that New York drive,” he continues, “or the Yankees for that matter.”