From Special Forces Medic to Smokejumper, to Business Owner, Willie Blazer Always Goes All-In.
Willie Blazer and his wife, Robin Blazer, are small business owners of Willie’s Distillery in Ennis, Montana. These days, their problem isn’t how much they can sell, it’s making enough for their growing demand. This success did not come easily, and Willie’s path to distilling has included plenty of plot twists and detours.
Growing up in Appalachian moonshine country of western North Carolina on a small farm, Blazer’s family raised all types of farm animals and grew everything from corn and hay to barley and tobacco. He learned to fly fish from his father and grandfather and spent every waking minute of his childhood outdoors. “The town I grew up in was a papermill town,” says Blazer. “I’m one of the few kids I knew growing up that didn’t end up working for the mill.”
Blazer grew up around hardworking people who instilled in him the values of hard work and service—nearly all of his extended family members served in the U.S. military at some point.
“There was a lot to learn not just about the production process, but also about the liquor laws and regulations around distilling."
“My great-grandpa built everything with his hands and lived off the land. He used oxen to plow the fields and would hitch a ride if he had to go to town since he didn’t own a car,” says Blazer.
After serving in World War II, his grandfather took trips out to Montana to fly fish with his friends. “I remember looking through photos of him back in the 40s and 50s catching huge fish out of the Madison River—I really looked up to all those guys,” he says.
Growing up with these mentors who served and hearing all of their stories made Blazer determined to join the military from a young age. “One of my uncles flew helicopters...another was a Green Beret...as a kid I always thought the Service sounded cool and fun. When I joined it came from a patriotic sense of duty and wanting to serve our country, and less of as a career path,” says Blazer.
After graduating from High School, Blazer joined the U.S. Army. “I wanted to fly helicopters like my uncle,” he says. “I attended Airborne School and then went through the Ranger Indoctrination Program. “I ended up spending five and a half years at 3rd Ranger Battalion at Fort Benning. I got out in ‘97.”
At the age of 24, Blazer moved to Missoula, Montana for college where he met Robin. In his first year, he joined the Montana National Guard, walked onto the Griz football team, and started pursuing smoke jumping and wildland firefighting. He spent five summers fighting fires and joined the Sawtooth Hotshot crew working 16-20 hour days for 21 days at a time.
In 2000, some of Blazer’s buddy’s convinced him to try out for Special Forces Assessment and Selection through 19th SF Group. He was selected that Spring and shortly after, in December of 2000, he and Robin were married and off to Fort Bragg for the Q Course. Shortly after, Blazer was deployed to Afghanistan on an ODA as an 18D. “We started having kids in 2005 and decided we wanted to raise them in Montana...so we moved back to the Bitterroot,” says Blazer.
At that point, Blazer knew he had a career choice to make: Continue serving overseas, work for the U.S. Forest Service, or start something new. With Robin growing up on a Montana wheat farm and Willie’s moonshine roots, together they decided to take a risk and build a business from the ground up. “Robin and I have always loved a challenge, and we decided to open our own distillery in Ennis, in part because the distilling regulations in Montana were loosening up a little bit at the time and we saw a market there.”
The couple lived in a motel room and underground house in Ennis for the first years while they were building a house and getting their business up and moving. Robin did most of the leg-work finding the building and dealing with all the paperwork while Blazer was working in Afghanistan and Iraq for the Government. “I was deployed or gone for probably 80 percent of our first 10 years of marriage,” says Blazer.
In December of 2011, Blazer finally left working overseas and returned home to Ennis for good, and the couple started building out the distillery, buying equipment, and researching as much as they could about distilling. “There weren’t many classes to take or anything like that at the time,” says Blazer. “There was a lot to learn not just about the production process, but also about the liquor laws and regulations around distilling. That’s still one of the most complicated aspects of it.”
For the first years, Willie and Robin along with a couple employees, did everything —the milling, mashing, fermenting, and distilling of corn, wheat and barley. “We worked seven days a week and sometimes even slept there,” says Blazer. “Both firefighting and serving in the military prepared me for that time commitment. It’s what I’ve always done.” Their first bottle was Montana Moonshine, followed by Montana Honey Moonshine. In the beginning they stuck to the basics, but they now offer at least a dozen spirits. Willie’s Distillery now employs around 30 people, some of whom are veterans of the United States Armed Forces, and Willie and Robin can finally take a few weekends off here and there.
“We just decided we were going to go all-in on everything,” says Blazer. “Both Robin and I like a challenge. We could have lost everything, and those first 3-5 years were extremely tough.”
Willie's Distillery is now one of the largest distilleries in Montana. The Distillery has weathered a pandemic year, and the company continues to diversify— producing hand sanitizer, selling apparel and becoming a destination among the Veteran and non-Veteran community. Willie's Distillery is a proud supporter and contributor to numerous Veteran Organizations. Like sharing a toast of whiskey, everything's better in numbers, and Willie's Distillery reaches far and wide not only with their spirits but their loyal community. The distillery recently acquired the property next door and will be able to triple their production capacity.
“We’re striving for work-life balance now,” says Willie. Our girls are now 15 and 16, and we’re trying to spend as much time outside fishing and hunting and enjoying our time with them as we can.”