Yeah, we get it. You already know how to drink. But when visiting a state as massive and diverse as Montana, it never hurts to lay out a game plan before you hit the bar. With that in mind, we scoured the vast scenic landscapes of America’s fourth-largest state to uncover the finest drinking experiences in Big Sky Country (all in the name of journalism). From high-end cocktails to Montana microbrews served in an array of venues including Old West saloons and dive bars outfitted with mermaid fish tanks, this is your essential guide to how to drink in Montana.
With Big Sky Country growing some of the best barley in the world—combined with its location not far from the bountiful hops fields of the Pacific Northwest—Montana’s booming craft distilling scene is slowly catching up to its beer-soaked predecessors. The main action here centers around Headframe Spirits in Butte, which serves spirits named after former local mines in a cool old-timey setting. Its Orphan Girl bourbon cream liqueur is a Montana favorite, even spawning its own popular local drink called the Dirty Girl (Orphan Girl and root beer). You also have the added bonus of being able to drink these (and anything else) anywhere you damn well please in Butte, even in the middle of the street, New Orleans–style. Never is this more evident than on St. Patrick’s Day, when the famously bar-heavy town erupts for a giant celebration to mark the end of another long winter.
Located 30 minutes east of Bozeman along the Yellowstone River, Livingston is about as Montana as a town can get. An eclectic collection of neon bar signs dominates the Old West landscape, which has long drawn in a diverse cast of hard-drinking artists, from local residents like the late author Jim Harrison to global icons like Anthony Bourdain. When Bourdain came to town, the 120-year-old Murray Bar was his go-to. While a bit more spruced up than it was in its dive bar heyday, Murray unfurls a mobile bar in the back patio and is still the place where locals start and end the night. (And for those who’ve had one too many, a room at the historic adjacent Murray Hotel is never a bad idea.) While it’s primarily a shot-of-Jack-and-bottle-of-Bud type of place, Murray Bar is also famous for popular cocktails like the Spring Flower (citrus vodka, orange juice and club soda) and the Bloody Murray (infused with horseradish pepper vodka).
With fewer than 75,000 year-round residents, Missoula punches well above its weight when it comes to booze. This is due in no small part to its location as the home of University of Montana, but it’s not strictly a college town per se. You’ll find all ages from all walks of life strolling its charming downtown streets year-round. And with a large concentration of bars smack in the middle of the action, a mini bar crawl is never out of the question. Start at The Rhinoceros for High Lifes in brown bags and 16-ounce Rainier “pounders” before making your way to Union Club for some live music and free chili during Griz games, before ending the night at that glorious den of bad decisions known as Charlie B’s. You may not be in college anymore, but that doesn’t mean you can’t act like it.
Ah, the Sip ’n Dip Lounge—what’s not to love? Actual human beings dressed as mermaids and mermen swimming around in a giant pool tank behind the bar? Check. An octogenarian lounge singer named Piano Pat, who has been belting out crowd-pleasing covers on the piano here for the past half-century? Check. An eclectic crowd of college kids, local cowboys and bewildered tourists? Check and check. Opened in 1962 on the second floor of the funky O’Haire Motor Inn in Great Falls, the “merfolk” here swim until midnight on weekends or during the day for “mermaid brunch” every other Sunday, with Piano Pat performing at night Wednesday through Friday. It’s the kind of bar where anything can happen (actress Daryl Hannah once took an impromptu dip in the tank) and you’re pretty much guaranteed a good time, especially if you order the Fish Bowl, a 51-ounce Tiki concoction served in a globe-shaped glass infused with 10 different shots. It’ll have you jumping in the tank in no time.
When you think of après-ski bars, thoughts of whooshing through the snow in designer jackets to sip Champagne on top of a mountain come to mind. And while those experiences do exist in Montana, locals’ spots like The Great Northern Bar & Grill in Whitefish are much more in line with the state’s laid-back character. The Northern, as locals call it, is home to that rare species that’s all but gone extinct in American bars: the $1 beer. And they don’t just serve them one night per week here. There are $1 Miller High Life cans on Mondays, $1 PBR cans on Wednesdays and $1 Rainier cans on Thursdays, yours to pair with solid bar food and an always-interesting post-ski scene located seven miles south of Whitefish Mountain, one of Montana’s premier winter resorts. Like so many of the state’s criminally underrated resorts, the lift lines are short, the powder is fresh, and the mountains are spectacular.
Located directly across the main northern border of Yellowstone National Park, Red’s Blue Goose more than lives up to its slogan as “fun, friendly, not fancy.” A local institution on the main drag in the tourist-heavy town of Gardiner, the rules here are about as relaxed as the vibe. No, they don’t serve food. But feel free to bring your own. No, they don’t have a rooftop patio. But feel free to bring your drink up to the outdoor deck at next-door Rosie’s Pizza. Called Rosie’s Roost, the picturesque second-floor spot is the perfect place to sip Moscow Mules and Montana huckleberry lemonades while overlooking Yellowstone from the comfort of your Adirondack chair. It’s an ideal way to end a long day hiking in the wilderness amid the bison, bears and wolves that make America’s oldest national park home.
For a more upscale drinking experience smack in the middle of the action, Plonk (with locations in both downtown Bozeman and Missoula) can be relied on for a bustling urban scene amid a more sophisticated after-work clientele. The 15-page wine list features everything from $400 grand cru reds to $29 Washington whites, yours to pair with thoughtfully crafted cocktails like the Pineapple Express (house-infused jalapeño tequila, pineapple and basil) or the bourbon- and Belgian-ale-based Hard Picard. Round up the crew to reminisce about the day’s adventures over a meal of Alaskan halibut or grilled ribeye in the Missoula location’s dining room, or stick around for a nightcap beneath twinkling lights on the Bozeman spot’s scenic outdoor patio.
Local Fraternal Order of Eagles 326 may not be the first bar that comes to mind when you think of the fast-growing town of Bozeman. But it might just be the most fun. While downtown Bozeman is packed with a delightful assortment of bars that keep this increasingly popular town (which some are grumpily calling the next Boulder) lively, Bozeman Eagles Club & Ballroom largely falls under the radar. The result is an interesting anything-goes aesthetic where you’ll cross paths with all types of characters from war vets to hipster poets to everyone in between. See free 13-piece jazz bands made up of local community members at the downstairs bar on Sunday nights, or head upstairs to the more happening ballroom to hear live bands most nights of the week. The cocktails are stiff and priced to sell—just be sure to drink some glasses of water on your way out to ease the high-altitude hangover.
With the second-highest concentration of craft breweries in the country (hats off to you, Vermont), Montana clearly retains a strong love affair with its beer. Drink a fine assortment of such brews in the 1902-era Old Saloon, surrounded by the vast open spaces of Emigrant’s Paradise Valley, for a true local experience. Moose Drool brown ale from iconic local brewer Big Sky Brewing Co. and fellow beloved Missoula brewer KettleHouse’s Double Haul IPA can be grabbed in bottle form, along with locals-heavy drafts that include Bozeman Brewing Company’s Gallatin pale ale and Neptune’s River Nymph golden ale. The crisp ales are great, but they taste even better when taken down on Old Saloon’s outdoor music stage after a long day fly fishing on the Yellowstone River while live country bands soundtrack a fiery setting sun.