Joel Almeida may be from Southern California, but his heart has never been far from Montana.
His father was an airman stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, and his mother is a Great Falls High School graduate.
“They met at Howard’s Pizza, and they were married at St. Ann’s,” said Almeida. “So every summer, my brother and I were up here on the farm, we spent our summers up here.”
Almeida says he has fond memories of spending time in the area, including attending Great Falls Dodgers Pioneer League baseball games.
Almeida is a financial planner with real estate experience who has also been part owner of a small winery.
His vision for the Karhu Koski Distillery is a 10,000-square foot facility on the family farm on Gordon Road north of Vaughn.
He anticipates employing about a dozen locals at first and distilling locally sourced vodka and gin before moving on to aged whiskey.
He would like to have a tasting room in Great Falls while making the Teton County location a destination spot.
“We’ll have food, we’ll have fire pits, and it will be a destination,” said Almeida. “You can come out and spend the afternoon with us, enjoy the scenery.”
The 160-acre farm has been in Joel’s family for more than a century. His great-grandfather emigrated from Finland and raised four daughters on the farm.
The Karhu Koski name honors the family’s Finnish heritage.
"Karhu Koski means Bear Rapids,” Almeida explained. “Karhu is bear and Koski is rapids, or falls, in Finnish. It was the name of the family farm in Finland that my great grandfather came from.”
It was during quarantine on a Friday night while Joel was looking at the back of liquor bottles that he was struck by the family history of other distilleries.
“My great grandfather John Koski was a bootlegger, he had a still at some point on the land,” said Alameida. “You really get to the point where you start thinking, geez I could do that.”
Almeida has been working with LPW Architecture on plans for the distillery. He said during the pandemic he was able to get about three months' worth of planning work done in about a week.
Almeida says he plans on breaking ground in September and if all goes according to plan, the distillery will be open in June of 2022.