Cool Hand Lukes

If attorney Robert Lukes’ handshake is a little chilly, you can thank a tall, frosty mug of Highlander for that

Published in 2015 Mountain States Super Lawyers — July 2015

When Garlington, Lohn & Robinson lawyer Robert Lukes arrived in Missoula, Montana, from Southern California 30 years ago, Highlander Beer had been out of production for more than two decades. Evidence of the brew’s former glory, however, remained on junk-shop shelves and on old signs in downtown bars. As a law student at the University of Montana, Lukes—motivated in equal parts by passions for history and beer—imagined reviving this once-beloved label.

After he became a trademark attorney, Lukes realized that what had been a thirsty law student’s pipe dream might actually be a viable plan.

“I ended up doing licensing work for entities that didn’t actually make things, but owned a brand and had others do the manufacturing,” he says. “It dawned on me that if I could register this old brand, I could get somebody else to make the beer.”

The first step was registering the Highlander brand, a year-long process that involved filings with the Montana Secretary of State and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. For good measure, he also presented the idea to the Steinbrenner family, one of the original owners of the brand. “Even though, technically, they didn’t have any rights to stop me from doing this, because the brands had long been abandoned, I wanted to get their blessing,” Lukes says. He got it. Bill Steinbrenner, the grandson of Highlander’s co-founder, loved the idea.

In 2007, with state registrations in place but federal still pending, Lukes began interviewing breweries in the Missoula area to see if they’d be interested in manufacturing Highlander. After a few strikeouts, Great Northern Brewery in Whitefish was up for the job. One year later, Highlander was back on tap—but with a revamped taste.

Highlander was originally patterned after a light Western-style lager. “I don’t really like that kind of beer,” Lukes says, “and if you do, you’re competing with Bud and Coors, and who can stand that battle?” With a name like “Highlander,” Lukes wanted to pay homage to Scottish brews. “I spent about six weeks drinking only Scottish beer,” he says. “I ended up really liking these Scottish red ales, so I went to the brewer at Great Northern and we started with a traditional recipe for a Scottish red ale and tweaked it.”

Once the beer was flowing, Lukes took his venture one step further and started imagining a brick-and-mortar home. Several years and investors later, the Missoula Brewing Co., set to open in early July, is a 15,000-square-foot facility on an acre-and-a-half lot, with a creekside walking trail, taproom and its own pizza kitchen. As president, Lukes is largely concerned with the construction of the facility, covering everything from working with the architects, to branding, to determining the company’s overall vision.

While Lukes’ legal training helps him navigate the process, he’s able to recognize where it’s prudent to employ outside assistance. “For the investors,” he says, “we had to hire a securities lawyer; for the licensing process, it’s so time-consuming that even though I could’ve stumbled through it, I just didn’t have the time, so we ended up hiring someone for that.”

Thanks to Lukes’ hand in reviving Highlander, his firm is brewing up business in the beer industry. Colleagues work on licensing issues for breweries, on state and federal levels, and on land-use issues. Lukes also blogs about issues related to brewery law.

With Garlington since 1996, most of Lukes’ trademark and copyright work is advising businesses on how to protect their rights and file registrations with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or the U.S. Copyright Office. He does employment law, too. “I [advise] employers on policies and progressive discipline of employees,” he says, “how not to get sued.”

In 2010, Lukes and his wife, Shannon, created Celtic Festival Missoula, which began as a simple party in the park to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Highlander Beer. The festival is now one of the most well-attended in Western Montana, drawing guests and performers from around the world. All of the proceeds go to charity, and all of the Highlander you can drink is donated by the Missoula Brewing Co.

Lukes looks forward to the opening of the brewery. “Instead of buying a can in a grocery store, you’re at the source,” he says. “You walk in there, you see the equipment, you smell the beer being made. It’s an authentic experience.”

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