For those of you that know me well, it's no secret I have a profound weakness for hand-made products. That weakness is where this story begins. Scrolling through social media one day a few years back, I came across a leather-goods brand that caught my attention, not only because of the quality of the products but even more so for the "vibe". It was hard to put a finger on, but there was something about the brand - really the people behind the brand - that felt familiar or maybe a better word is likeminded. I was hooked.
My first order from Whiskey Leatherworks was a batch of wine and whiskey totes that would be used for client holiday gifts. During that process I got a call from one of the owners, Allyson Earnest and later was introduced to her husband, Daniel. A friendship was formed. Although it has thus far existed as a virtual friendship, these two have become as close as neighbors; like a part of my extended family.
Since that first order I have placed many more. From the pheasant-print collar and leash for my dog, to my favorite leather belt, trusty fly wallet, sandals, duffles, rocks and pint glasses and flasks, I've given Whiskey Leatherworks as gifts and enjoyed many of their products myself. Without fail, I am always blown away by the care and quality in every item and the knowledge that each one was made by hand by an artisan housed in an old granary in Missoula, Montana. Each one unique. Each one with a story before the one I will build with it.
In this volume of "Authors, Artists and Makers" I want to share the tale of my two friends, Danny and Ally Earnest, the makers behind the WLW brand and the passionate proliferators of a community that has inspired me.
Can you each give me a little of your background? I know that’s a really broad question. So let's focus on four or five key moments:
Q: First, where did you both grow up?
A Danny: "I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and Ally grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut and Upstate New York."
Q: How did you two meet?
A Ally: "Danny was working at an environmental consulting company and was my client in Atlanta. We met in November 1999 and were married on Sanibel, Island, Florida in June of 2000. We lived in Atlanta from the time we got married until May, 2004. It was then that we made the move to Montana and we have been here ever since."
Q: What are some of your passions/hobbies?
A Ally: "We both love skiing (downhill and x-c), fishing, sailing, mountain biking, trail running, reading, writing and cooking. Many of our first dates were either fly fishing, camping or mountain biking."
Q: What did you guys do before WLW?
A Danny: "I spent 20 years as an environmental consultant focused on groundwater remediation and Ally's background is in sales and business consulting."
Q: How in the world did you end up in Montana?
A Ally: "We could not agree on any other state to live in after Georgia, besides Montana. Danny had lived in Dillon, Montana one summer during a geology program and I had completed an Outward Bound course out of Red Lodge one summer. When it came time to move on from Atlanta, Montana was the only state that made it onto both of our lists. Sometimes, disagreeing can result in beautiful decisions being made."
Q: Your website says this: “In 2013, Whiskey Leatherworks began with friends brainstorming over a garage workbench, next to a keg of homebrew. Our intention then was the same as it is today. We wanted to create a leather goods company of high standards, made here in Montana. Wherever possible we wanted to use American-sourced materials. Our products needed to be rugged and refined, reflecting our love of the American West. These goods had to pair equally with a pheasant hunting trip and sipping whiskey at the local distillery. This was to be a company that brought together family and friends through the love of common values and appreciations.” Can you expand on that a little?
A Danny: "I have a habit of looking at something and asking myself 'How can I make that better?' or 'What can I do to make that a lot more unique?'. The idea for a leather goods company came when a great friend/neighbor came over one afternoon with a higher-end belt that had snaps on it that were broken. With me being the neighborhood 'fix it guy', my buddy asked if I could help him fix his belt. My response was that not only could we fix it, but we could make a better belt. And with that, the wheels started to turn on leather goods and specifically belts. We ordered a full side of leather, several tools and started cutting straps in my garage. At that time, there were several companies making a full-grain, American-tanned belt but unfortunately the majority of them had an imported, poor-quality buckle. I knew immediately that creating a belt with a handmade buckle would not only make it last longer but would also make it like no others on the market. With Missoula being Missoula, it didn’t take very long to find a crazy-talented metalsmith that immediately saw the vison of what we wanted to accomplish. After a few days at Nathan’s forge, we had what became our cornerstone product, the hand-forged rustic buckle belts in copper, bronze and stainless steel. Belts are where we started and from that we have expanded into other products with that same attention to quality and uniqueness."
Q: What what did “making the jump” look like?
A Danny: "WLW began as more of a creative outlet for myself and an excuse to hang out in the garage workshop a couple nights a week. We were mainly building belts for friends, then friends of friends. Over time, a couple nights a week grew into three, then four and eventually the company began to require time on the weekends. All the while, I was working a fulltime job, which required travel to worksites throughout Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming. Being gone all week, then coming home and needing to be in the shop to build orders quickly became a huge strain on our family. Finally, in 2018, Ally came to me and said we need to do one of two things, either pull the plug on it or go all-in. We chatted about it briefly and then realized with Ally’s sales experience and my creativity, we had to give it everything we had. And with that, Ally and I both quit our jobs and jumped in headfirst."
Q: It all started with a belt, which is still one of the most popular items. What are some of your favorite products?
A Danny: "By far, my favorite product is our Clark Fork Flask. Each flask is hand-stitched one at a time and I always think of the great time to come for our customers that this flask will be a part of. Flasks always make it out during memorable times, and it feels good knowing that something you made is not only a part of those times, but also help to make those times a bit better."
Q: Your products are all hand made. Can you talk about that process and maybe give a sense of your workspace and a “typical day” (hilarious, right?)?
A Danny: "My 'typical day' starts out by dropping my daughter off at school and driving to the shop. Once at the shop, I typically start by going through email and putting together a production schedule for the day. We have very little merchandise sitting on a shelf so almost all of our products are made to order with priority given to the oldest order."
Q: “Whiskey Dogs” – you have a number of really cool products for dogs, I’m assuming you have a few four-legged friends at home or around the shop, can you tell me about them?
A Danny: "Both of our dogs are male miniature Australian Shepherds. They were born on a ranch about an hour north of Missoula. Teva, the red merle, is the older of the two and is literally Ally’s shadow. The amount of attention that he would normally give an entire flock of sheep is directed toward Ally. Wherever Ally goes, Teva is always never far behind."
"Mr. Darcy, the bule merle, is the smaller of the two, but only in stature. We had more than one experience of Mr. Darcy treeing black bears while on hikes behind our house. When it comes to protecting his 'sheep', Mr. Darcy is as brave as they come. He is ready and willing to do whatever it takes. Unlike Teva, Mr. Darcy’s focus is more on our daughters than anyone else"
A Ally: "Our collaborations are relationships that we take great pride in and care of. The companies that were work with have come about through all different of ways, but there always is some personal connection to the folks that we ultimately partner with. Often times we have found one another through either social media or common friends and acquaintances. We often marvel at how being surround by interesting and genuine folks, creates opportunities to meet other such great people. Our collaborations are really just that simple. People helping each other and being supportive of one another."
Q: Ok, the elephant in the room…what’s it like working with your spouse? I know you each play a different role in the business, but it must be impossible not to take work home or home to work…how do you find that balance?
A Ally: Work relationships are fulfilling and hard. Marriages are fulfilling and hard. From that perspective, owning a business is much like having a family together. At the end of the day, if you are not protecting that part of your marriage that is sacred and uniting, there will not be much of a marriage at all. The dangerous part about owning a company together and working together is the ease of hiding behind the work to avoid an issue in marriage. That is so easy to do when you are in this situation. Sometimes, the only way to come back into balance is with the help of advice and counseling from someone other than ourselves. Just the act of engaging a witness can quickly bring things back into balance, because work no longer becomes the shield to hide behind. Just like any relationship, working together or not, without actively and intentionally working on that relationship, it is destine to encounter insurmountable impasses.
Q: One of the things I find so appealing about your brand and about you two as people is your authenticity. How does that come into play every day in your work? Do you have a certain set of “core values” for your business?
A Ally: While it is probably not common business practice to let people peek behind the curtain, for us transparency has always been foundational to who we are -- a cornerstone of both our personal and business philosophies. We believe it is important to let people know what they are buying, how it’s made, and who they are supporting. That authenticity, we hope, is evident in our work and the community we have built around our family business.
Q: I know the "WLW Community" is really important to you. Can you talk a little more about that?
A Ally: "We would be nothing without our community. The people who we engage with daily on social media, email and zoom have not just blurred the lines between business and pleasure- they have obliterated them. Take yourself for instance, Instagram was a conduit to a deep and sincere friendship and working partnership. I can point to so many relationships that have grown in this way over the years. I honestly feel as close to the folks in our WLW community as I do in our community here in Missoula, MT. The only difference is that we get to “see” and interact with each other more virtually. In this way, the last year has been made it abundantly clear that so many people, who we care deeply about, are just a key stroke away at any time. I can easily and honestly say that the friendships that have come from this funny little leather working company in Montana, are by far the best part."
Q: Fishing, hunting and the outdoors. What are your outdoor pursuits and how does that interconnect with your work?
A Danny: "My pursuit depends on the season, which is what I love about living in Montana. However, fishing is one thing that is fairly continuous throughout the year. Spring brings mountain biking, summers are spent sailing and camping, fall is elk and pheasant hunting and winter is downhill and cross country skiing. As far as interconnection, I have to laugh. There was a time when I thought owning my own company would equate to more time available to fish, but I’m still trying to get to that point. In this regards, it is a bit like the irony of 'tying your own flies to save money'."
Q: With a name like Whisky Leatherworks, it certainly begs the question what are some of your favorite spirits? Neat, rocks or cocktails?
A Danny: "We are fortune to work with multiple distilleries throughout the US, all of which seem to put the same amount to attention to their spirits as we do our products. Hence, we are always sampling the products they produce. A couple of our current favorites are Barrel Proof Colorado Whiskey from Distillery 291 and Small Batch Bourbon from Wyoming Whiskey. As far as local distilleries, it hard to beat anything being made by Glacier Distilling (North Fork Rye, Trapline and Beargrass, to name a few)."
A Ally: "I am a Manhattan kind of girl, recently I have been mixing these up with my Wyoming Whiskey (my secret spirits crush)."
Q: Favorite artists. I know you both are friends with a number of writers and artists and both love music. I’m always curious to know who inspires those that inspire me. So, who are some of your favorite artists (painters, musicians, writers, etc.) and why? Who inspires you?
A Ally: As makers, art is central to our existence- it is not a peripheral consideration. While our leathercrafting is what we do, we draw inspiration from the wellspring of the artists who intersect our paths. Chris Dombrowski, for example, is an extremely talented writer and dear friend. In terms of painters, Montana artist, George Hill, is one of the most talented oil painters that we have ever come across. In terms of tattoo artists, that would be Drew Wilson of Arkansas- if you have a moment, check out his work- it is insane. We are fortunate to have a current collaboration with Drew; he is brilliant, driven and a heck of a fisherman. In terms of musicians both Jason Isbell and Rufus Wainwright are two virtuosos that keep us constant company. They both have a bard-like quality in their musical story-telling that keep us coming back for more.
Q: What are a couple “must reads” and “must listen to’s” and why?
A Danny: I recently picked up a copy of Lords of The Fly by Monte Burke.
A Ally: I am a HUGE lifelong fan of Earnest Hemingway and Rick Bass. I am a little bit like an old hermit in this regard. My favorite authors are very much a part of how I see and read situations. A few reads (if you haven’t already) are"A Moveable Feast"and "To Have and Have Not" by Hemingway, and "For a Little While", a book of short stories by Rick Bass.
Must listen: "The Prince in the Jungle" a podcast by the New York Times. I don’t want to give it away, you just have to listen.
Q: So, the “Fish Flops” were a huge hit in 2020. What’s next? Anything on the horizon you can share with us?
A Danny: More dog products - we are working on some really cool stuff. Stay tuned.
A Ally: I feel like the next idea is always just a snifter away. Everything that we have done thus far has been organic and spontaneous. I don’t know exactly what’s going to come next, but I am excited to find out. There has been some talk about fish-print suspenders.