Tasting Notes: Washington's New Distilleries
Category: Tasting Notes
Washington’s new distillers create potent potables from fruits of the vine
Wine isn’t the only elixir blessed by the grape in our state. Distilled grape liquors come in many styles, such as grape brandy, made from distilled wine, and pomace brandy, or marc, made from grape skins and seeds. Until recently, Washington state liquor law made it difficult to start small distilleries and allow customers to taste the products, but the law now permits tastings and sales on site, and craft distilleries are beginning to pop up across the state.
In an area of Woodinville dominated by winery tasting rooms, Soft Tail Spirits is making grappa, an Italian-style pomace brandy, which is rapidly gaining fans in the Northwest. Soft Tails owner/distiller Dennis Robertson fell in love with grappa while traveling in Italy, and he realized the potential for creating a craft distillery here after seeing how much of the pomace—the skins and seeds left over from winemaking—was going to waste. “We wanted to capture that fruit and put it in the bottle,” Robertson says.
So he and his partner, Larry Scrivanich—who owns Scrivanich Natural Stone in Woodinville and Mission Ridge Ski Area in Wenatchee—bought a copper pot in Portugal and obtained some pomace, most of it from Di Stefano Winery, to produce 700 gallons of grappa in 2008.
Traditional grappas are clear and unaged. A more recent trend is to age the brandy, which acquires yellowish and brownish tints from the barrels in which it’s stored. Soft Tails uses both approaches, and (with the help of stillman Nick Corbett) offers a lineup of five kinds of grappa—Blanco, Gialo, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Reserve—as well as a Soft Tail Vodka made from Washington apples.
East of the Cascades, another spirits producer, The Ellensburg Distillery, was actually the first to release a brandy in Washington. Its El Chalán pisco reposado, a Peruvian-style aged (or “rested”) brandy, is made from premium Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Gris wine rather than from pomace.
Distiller Berle “Rusty” Figgins Jr. says, “Pisco style is everywhere in Peru, but it is new to Americans.” A pioneer in the new wave of Washington distilling—and a noted Washington winemaker in his own right (Glen Fiona, Northstar)—Figgins is one of several people who worked to get the Legislature to pass the law that is friendlier to new craft distilleries. His El Chalán—named for a cultural icon in Peru, a cowboy who rounds up wild horses—won a gold medal in the brandy category and was named Best Spirit at the Northwest Wine and Spirits Summit last year.
Washington’s distilling industry is positioned where its winemaking industry was more than a generation ago, but products like Soft Tail grappas and El Chalan brandy speak well of creative artisans who appreciate the abundant generosity of the grape.
Shannon Borg’s notes on her favorite Washington-made grappas and spirits.
Spirit of the grape
Soft Tail 2008 Grappa
Eighty-four-proof grappa (about 42 percent alcohol) made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grape pomace. Full of pear-skin and white-flower aromas. Develops white chocolate and cherry chocolate on the palate.
Soft Tail 2008 Grappa
Soft, gold color. Has spent six months in French oak. Aromas of straw and hay, with soft pear and apple flavors similar to a light, lowland Scotch whisky.
Soft Tail 2009 Grappa Sangiovese ($38)
Made exclusively from Sangiovese pomace. Fresh aromas of strawberry and hay. A pleasant, grainy mouthfeel that warms the throat. A re