Backwards Distilling Company: A Spirited Family Business

By: Amber Pollock

It is trying at times, dealing with a combination of new business issues, family issues, and family business issues all at the same time. It is certainly exciting to take on such a big project, even more so when getting to share it with family members. Most of all, it is fulfilling. The opportunity to share a passion, an adventure, and an all-consuming endeavor with family is such a rare and valuable thing. The Pollocks anticipated some of this when they embarked on opening Backwards Distilling Company in Mills, Wyoming. The rest they learned along the way.

The light bulb moment for the business came in October of 2012. The Pollocks were eating dinner together, as they usually did, in downtown Casper discussing the state of Chad Pollock’s spirit collection. Chad had shown an interest in spirits from the moment it was legal for him to do so. By the ripe age of 23 he had already accumulated a formidable collection of spirits from gin to bourbon. His spirit of choice though, was absinthe. He had acquired all absinthe varieties to be had in town and had travelled around the country and internationally, adding to his collection along the way. Chad’s mom, Kathy, suggested he make his own. At this suggestion all four Pollocks took pause, wondering if such a thing was possible. The possibility of that jumped out to them as a very exciting prospect.

This suggestion kicked off a whirlwind of online research. They found that it was not only possible to make spirits, provided proper licensing, but also that small distilleries were booming in the United States. The “craft distilling industry” was trending upward, following a similar trajectory to that of the craft brewing industry. Armed with this knowledge and a budding excitement for the potential of starting a distillery, the Pollocks began to seriously consider the possibility of pursuing this idea. It seemed a perfect fit. Chad was already a spirits enthusiast, his sister Amber had a passion and penchant for great cocktails, Kathy was in need of a career change after nine years teaching elementary school, and his father Bill was looking for an alternative to retirement after 29 years working in and later co-owning a small business.

After an obligatory deliberation period, all four Pollocks decided to take the plunge. There was a short debate about whether to open the distillery in Casper or if it would be better suited to another location. Ultimately the Pollocks decided that a distillery could be a great addition to Casper and could contribute positivity to the vibrancy of the community. Also Casper had always been home to all of them. Bill and Kathy moved to Casper when they were young children and Chad and Amber were both born there. By January of 2013 they had secured a location for their distillery. There were many specifications for a location. The building needed to be in a somewhat industrial area but couldn’t be too far from downtown Casper. It needed 18-foot ceilings, ample storage space, and some sort of nonwarehouse space that could be converted into the tasting room. After a search around town, the Pollocks found a building that fit these criteria in Mills.

With a building obtained, the hard work could begin. The family was starting at the ground floor of the industry. There was much to learn and the learning curve was steep. Chad travelled the country for the better part of a year, attending conferences, workshops, and apprenticeships to acquire a base knowledge not only about the process of distillation itself, but knowledge of how to set up a distillery, how to get licensed, how to source materials, and other necessities. Meanwhile, the Pollocks used their DIY skills, honed over years of remodeling their own houses and working construction, to remodel office space into the tasting room.

As months passed, the vision of the distillery came into focus. The process of opening the distillery had so many facets that there were always multiple projects going on simultaneously. As progress inched forward on the construction of both the distillery and the tasting room, the Pollocks waited for the still to arrive from Germany so they could take the next steps in recipe and process development. Their custom made Kothe still arrived at Backwards Distilling Company in February 2014, having travelled by boat, train, and truck all the way to Mills. They could finally begin working on the recipe for their flagship product, Ringleader Vodka.

Processes for mashing, fermenting, distilling, and filtering were tweaked over the course of the next few months. The goal was to develop a process that would yield a clean and smooth vodka that would get the brand off to a successful start. While they were developing the recipe, they were also busy developing the branding for the products. Since they were young, both Pollock children had cultivated an interest in juggling, unicycling, and other circus skills. Additionally the family sought out Cirque du Soleil shows all over the country and, as of this writing, have seen more than 15 shows. A prohibition-era circus sideshow theme seemed a natural fit for them and was appealing as a theme because there was so much imagery to attach to it. The product line they conceived included Ringleader Vodka, Contortionist Gin, Strongman Gin, and Sword Swallower Rum.

When the holiday season of 2014 was drawing near, the Backwards team worked nonstop to get the vodka ready for launch. Once the recipe was finalized, the first batch was bottled, labeled, and packed for shipment. They successfully launched Ringleader Vodka in November 2014 and opened the tasting room in December 2014. More recently, they launched Contortionist Gin and Milk Can Moonshine. They are currently working on Sword Swallower Rum.

The Pollocks have been excited to find ways to get involved with the local community as well as in other communities around the state. All four attended Casper College at some point. Both Bill and Kathy are graduates of the University of Wyoming/Casper College Center, now the University of Wyoming at Casper. Giving back to the community is an important part of the philosophy at Backwards Distilling Company. They have been involved with fundraisers for numerous local and statewide nonprofits including the Casper College Foundation, the Platte River Trails Foundation, and The Science Zone. They also focus on innovation in order to bring new experiences to their customers. Some of these include vodka infusion classes, spirits history classes, and cocktail classes. The family has been thrilled by the reception of the community and looks forward to continued growth throughout Wyoming.

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Footprints.

Media contact: Lisa S. Icenogle
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