Wyoming’s Campbell County, of which Gillette is the county seat, produces more than a third of the country’s energy supply from some of the world’s largest surface coal mines. Aptly, Gillette has nicknamed itself the Energy Capital of the Nation. And while this has led to periods of great wealth and success, the nature of the industry means there are inevitable busts along with the booms. This instability, coupled with changes in technology, policy and social structures across the country, has left residents asking themselves, “how does the Energy Capital move forward?”
Gillette is a small town where everyone knows each other, just like they knew each other’s parents and grandparents. When one family struggles, they all feel it. If you spend enough time there, you’ll learn that people there are tough; they’re hard-nosed fighters, and they expect, even demand, independence. So the old ways of relying on the energy economy are shifting, and they’re finding modern solutions to champion their community. New restaurants, shops and businesses are sprouting up from downtown all the way out to city limits. This new wave of energy feels dynamic, youthful and sustainable, and it’s taking over the streets of Gillette.
That’s how Sam Clikeman built his business, a downtown distillery next to the railroad tracks. Like his hometown, it may look industrial from the exterior, but once you step inside, it’s nothing like what you’d expect. Big Lost Meadery isn’t your typical watering hole. Until recently, they only brewed and served their own mead, which is an unfamiliar liquor to most modern drinkers. This ancient elixir might be the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage and was the preferred drink of the Greek gods. It appeared in historic texts like The Canterbury Tales and Beowulf, and it’s usually associated with Vikings and Norse tradition. Different than wine or beer, mead is fermented honey, yeast and water and stands alone as its own rank of alcohol, like cider. Though a distinct honey taste is always detectable, mead distillers create different flavors and varieties by infusing the base with assorted fruits, flowers, hops and grains.
All of this was news to Sam, as he’d never heard of mead before he brewed his first batch. “I didn’t know what was right or what was wrong, what was acceptable or what wasn’t. So there were a lot of failures that way but also a lot of successes,” he says. Sam had been casually brewing his own beer when a buddy asked him to try his hand at mead. Initially Sam was hesitant, as honey is expensive and even a small batch of mead requires a considerable investment, but they found a honey farmer who was willing to sell them a barrel at cost, so Sam agreed simply because he ran out of reasons to say no.
Picture a Scandinavian cowboy. That’s Sam. Well over 6’, he wears cotton, collared shirts tucked into his jeans, cowboy boots and a baseball cap over his thick, blond hair, which he takes off at the dinner table. He looks like a Wyoming country boy, and he’d probably describe himself as one. He grew up hunting, fishing, playing football, and though he should drive a big, dusty truck, he has an early 2000’s Malibu that he has to fold himself to get into. He has connections to most families in town, but if you don’t know him, he’ll probably invite you to his house where he’s the head bartender of an impressive personal collection of whiskey and other spirits. Sheepishly, he’ll admit that his favorite drink isn’t mead; it’s a well-made sazerac (a mixture of rye whiskey, absinthe, sugar and bitters), but that’s even rarer than the ancient honey beverage.
Genuinely kind and lovably garrulous, Sam has made friends across the world. His savings and vacation were all used on his extensive travels to places like Japan, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Slovakia, Sweden, Denmark, France and Italy. Most of these trips he’s taken alone, but he’s found plenty of companions along the way. He’s eaten exotic meals, toasted with remarkable drinks and shadowed locals trying to copy their dance moves. Along the way, he’s learned that despite all of the world’s differences, a few things are universal. “People just want the same thing. They want to be happy, have a family, make a living and live their life. No matter where you go,” Sam says.
Though it took visits to other continents, Sam’s travels revealed that Gillette does compare to all of the other fantastic places in the world. He moved back in 2009 to proudly wear a Campbell County Fire Department patch to work. As it is with anyone’s return to their hometown, he found a lot had changed. Gillette had grown. There were more young people there, families from different ethnicities, and not everyone worked at the coal mines anymore. Despite the shift in demographics, there still weren’t many entertainment or business opportunities for this new population.
One thing that hadn’t changed was how much Gillette admires and encourages hard work. Sam desperately needs to stay busy, and while fireman work a lot of hours, they don’t work a lot of days, so he brainstormed for an additional project with a few parameters already in mind. He wanted to create something that was for both his lifelong friends as well as all of the new faces in town. Additionally, this venture should be so unique and special that there isn’t anything else like it anywhere else in the world. Finally, it should support the local economy and culture in a way that doesn’t revolve around booms and busts. And Big Lost Meadery was born.
Downtown Gillette is classic small-town Americana. It’s nostalgically quaint and romantically Western, but it’s also in the middle of a revival, which was the kind of project Sam wanted to contribute to and the vibe he wanted for his business. He bought an abandoned second-hand store, and though the location was perfect, the building needed serious work. With the help of dozens of family members, friends and fellow firefighters, Sam designed and rebuilt the space. “I did everything myself, except the plumbing and electric, which I had to hire out because of code. But other than that, I had people in there helping me out all the time. All of Gillette is in this building,” Sam says. He’s proud of the work he’s done, but perhaps even more so, he’s proud of his community. “Nobody gives you anything here, but everyone wants to help you along the way. And I want to be part of that support system for other people,” he says.
The Big Lost building is nothing short of magnificent. Two levels of exposed brick, mismatching tables and chairs as well as a striking, handcrafted bar will bring the cowboy out of any Norsemen. And as artfully as the building was crafted, so too was the Big Lost brand. Each one of Sam’s mead flavors has a corresponding character with a history and personality. These characters all intersect at the fictional Big Lost cabin, which is hidden somewhere deep in the woods of western Wyoming. For example, the Island Gypsy product is a banana-flavored mead that Sam and a group of friends peeled thousands of bananas to make, after he bribed them with pizza and beer. The character is a Romanian Gypsy who was marooned on a Caribbean island as a young girl by herself for twenty years. Via sheer will, she managed to find her way to the Wyoming mountains and the Big Lost cabin. Wise and hardened by her experience, she’s ready to steal your purse the moment you fill your mead horn, yet still emulates a tropical sweetness that’s beloved by her cabinmates, which include the Crazy Woman, Tipsy Cousin, Cruel Mistress, Demented Grandpa and Forgotten Philosopher.
But the most legendary tale of the entire cast comes from its original member, the Wild Man, named for the first Big Lost mead. His story begins in a small African village where he was in pursuit of a leopard who had been terrorizing local famers and livestock. A celebrated hunter, the Wild Man laid dozens of traps for the beast, whom locals had named Nataka, or Devil Cat in Nigerian. At long last, Nataka took the bait in one of the Wild Man’s lures, but was caught by just a single paw. The Wild Man approached with a rifle to finish the job, but the cunning Nataka managed to escape. They wrestled furiously, and just as the cat was inches from delivering the fatal bite, the Wild Man took one last powerful swing with his fist, breaking Nataka’s ribs and freeing himself. With mutual respect, they both retreated, and to this day, Nataka has never again been seen in the village.
Every label of Big Lost product has the company’s slogan “Get your pillage on” which Sam says can mean a lot of different things. It might be something extraordinary like getting attacked by a leopard and living to hang the shirt on the wall, or it might mean beating your buddy at arm wrestling. “Getting your pillage on is a mindset. It’s winning at whatever you’re doing,” Sam says.
Sam has definitely been getting his professional pillage on, as his business has flourished. His product line has rapidly expanded, and he’s collaborated with breweries and distilleries across the region. Despite the growth, his commitment to quality has stayed as stringent as ever. Sweetly, the same honey farmer who gave Sam a good deal on his first barrel remains Big Lost’s exclusive honey distributor. Mead production operations outgrew the building, so Sam moved his equipment down the street into the back of Pizza Carrello, another one of Gillette’s favorite homegrown brands. With this move, the back of the Big Lost building became vacant, so Sam and his brother-in-law, Bob Hewitt-Gaffney, started brewing small-batch beer. Partially because Bob was the head brewer and partially because he married Sam’s sister, Bob bought into Big Lost and is now a part owner.
Sam’s business has always been a family one. During early renovations, Sam’s dad jokingly made his mother a large heart from plaster on the wall, but it remains there as a tribute to his parents’ marriage. Sam’s Fire Service brothers not only helped with the building’s construction, but they’re in its foundation. The main bar where Sam serves mead was built in the 1980s for a Campbell County fire station by firemen, all of whom Sam knew personally. The Big Lost basement is home to the Fire Room, a small private space filled with Fire Service memorabilia like photos, tools, patches and statues. The room’s most important artifact is Alan Mickelson’s helmet, donated by his wife, Marietta. Alan was killed in a structure fire when he fell through the roof of the Antelope Valley Baptist Church in 1989. He was one of the firefighters who built the bar.
The Gillette community is the beating heart of the Big Lost family. The business was created to be something that didn’t exist anywhere else, and Sam continues to make that his mission with everything from his products to the events he hosts. The hugely anticipated Viking Dinner is an annual fall event where Sam, his staff and all of the guests dress up in Viking garb for traditional Norse food, music, dancing and even poetry. Everyone is seated at a long, buffet table, and food is passed around family style. Naturally mead is the drink of choice, but you only get served if you slam your fist down on the table and yell for the bar wench. People from across the region have attended the event, but you have to be looking out it for since ticket sales are announced exclusively on Big Lost’s Facebook page and usually sell out the same day.
Most nights of the year, Big Lost is quiet. There are no TVs, and the music is soft background noise. In the front, an oversized wooden chair sits next to a small, wood-burning stove that warms the building and stirs the aroma of honey with its own campfire scent. Sam says that when he opened, one of his fantasies was that someone might come in to sip mead and read a book from that chair next to the fire, because that would mean he created an atmosphere warm enough that people could come in and be themselves. It actually happened once with a young woman Sam didn’t know. It’s all but company policy for Sam or a staff member to introduce themselves and chat with an unfamiliar face, but she was too peaceful to interrupt. Maybe she had just hiked Devils Tower, and she needed to warm up from the inside out. Perhaps she was in town for a job interview and was sampling what downtown had to offer. Or maybe she had heard that the bison at the Durham Ranch just outside of Gillette needed saving from a menacing leopard. Whatever her story was, she’s now part of Big Lost lore and the new Energy Capital.