After recently living in Italy for seven months, I returned to Seattle and made a trip to my local liquor store. (I do write about cocktails, so it’s not solely that I was thirsty.) As I browsed the shelves, the number of new bottles boasting local distillery addresses struck me. It seems that in the few months that I’d been gone, the local liquor-making scene had exploded.
But the distillery boom really dates back to April 10, 2007, when the Dry Fly distillery in Spokane opened its doors. At that time, regulations reined in its ability to have a tasting room on site. This situation definitely put a damper on public consumption of Dry Fly’s gin and vodka (its whiskey came later); in-house tours and sampling are one of the best ways an independent producer can introduce products to consumers. The liquor landscape opened much wider in March 2008, when a new “craft-distillery” bill was approved (thanks in large part to Dry Fly’s lobbying), making it possible to serve 0.5-ounce samples, provided a distillery follows specific craft-distiller guidelines that limit production to less than 20,000 gallons a year with at least half of the raw materials grown in state.
It makes sense that Washington has a burgeoning distillery scene, considering the state’s strong wine and beer industries, not to mention our rabid coffee culture; in Seattle and throughout our state, consumers like a well-made beverage. But it took a while for local distillers to bring product to market due to one of the defining characteristics of Washington state distillers: an absolute devotion to using high-quality ingredients. While craftspeople in any industry are going to tout their superior materials, with our state’s distillers, it’s an obsession. From the Woodinville Whiskey Company hand-selecting grains straight from eastern Washington farms to Sun Liquor using local organic botanicals, distillers are painstakingly researching and testing ingredients to find the finest.
While some of these premium ingredients are sourced outside of the state, most are found inside Washington’s borders. In Bow, Golden Distillery’s James Caudill uses Skagit Valley apples and berries for fruit brandies. Colin A. Levi of the It’s Five O’clock Somewhere Distillery in Cashmere utilizes regional wine to make brandy; and Skip Rock Distillers’ Ryan Hembree in Snohomish makes vodka using potatoes grown 45 minutes north of the distillery at the Valley Pride farm in Mount Vernon. Beyond wanting to connect with their communities, local distillers also use these ingredients because they believe the end result is a better-tasting beverage. For the craft distiller, taste is the bottom line.
At the time of this writing, there have been 37 craft distillery licenses approved by the state since 2007. “Because we are all part of building a new industry here, there is a great sense of community,” says Sound Spirits’ Steven Stone. Each distiller takes a fierce pride in their spirits, a pride backed by many long hours spent crafting a product that tastes delicious and stands tall when placed on a shelf alongside the great spirits of the world. While all the state’s distilleries aim for high quality, the following four distilleries have chosen particularly unique paths in pursuit of a great-tasting tipple.
A passion for history
An obsession with flavor leads Pacific Distillery’s Marc Bernhard to source ingredients from overseas, so his company doesn’t fall under the “craft distiller” definition. That means it can’t have a tasting room or sell products on site, but that doesn’t seem to have hampered its success. When Bernhard started the company in 2007, he was propelled by a love of gin and a fascination with a spirit that many associated for years with art and madness: absinthe. He planned to focus on making gin and absinthe that were historically accurate from a flavor perspective.
Luckily for him—and for those of us who enjoy creative cocktails—the ban on absinthe (which for years was rumored to have psychoactive properties) in the United States was overturned in 2007 after 95 years. This opened the door for his creation of the distillery’s Pacifique absinthe ($62.95) in 2008 after working to find the perfect formula. The recipe he uses is an exact replica of a 19th-century French absinthe once known as the “Montpellier,” because it takes its flavor profile from the French city of the same name in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. This region is renowned for mingling angelica and coriander into the traditional anise, fennel and wormwood that absinthe contains.
Bernhard’s Voyager Dry Gin ($25.90) is similarly true to history; after 27 different experiments and tasting panels consisting of local spirit experts, he finally came to a recipe that mirrors the standard gins of 100 years ago, gins that were juniper forward, bold and memorable. Bernhard believes in only using the finest ingredients available, beginning in his own garden, where he grows two types of wormwood for the absinthe, grande and Roman, so he can control the growth process and adjust for flavor. He also travels the world to track down the finest organic botanicals, such as juniper berries from Eastern Europe and Italy, which Bernhard believes deliver the finest flavor and aromas.
Voyager Gin garnered a gold medal from the Beverage Testing Institute in 2010 and a double gold medal from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2011; Pacifique Absinthe picked up a gold medal in the same World Spirits Competition in 2011 and a “Top 50 Spirits” award from Wine Enthusiast. Pacific’s spirits have become favorites in bars around the country, showing a reach that will probably soon be as global as their ingredient lists.
VISIT: Though there is no tasting room, you can visit Pacific Distillery in Woodinville, where it sits, almost hidden, in an industrial area. Once inside, you’ll be surrounded by the aromas of many herbs and spices, and be instantly drawn to the traditional copper alembic still. And while you can’t taste the spirits there, distiller Marc Bernhard can provide a comprehensive history of absinthe, a greatly misunderstood spirit.
Woodinville, 18808 142nd Ave. NE, #4B; 425.350.9061; pacificdistillery.com
Make mine malted (barley, that is)
The first craft distillery in Seattle since Prohibition, it’s fitting that Sound Spirits sits on 15th Avenue W, just a short amble from downtown and from the water that flows in from the Sound. The company’s stylized design sense marries fashionable bottle shapes and a Puget Sound octopus logo and mascot, but what really sets this distillery apart is its flavor profile and the use of Washington malted barley, a grain that comes from the fields of the Palouse, in the state’s southeastern corner.
Opened in September 2010, Sound Spirits is the brain child of distiller (and Boeing engineer) Steven Stone, who continually experimented, researched and tasted a variety of grains before making a curious choice: going with malted barley as a base. There are currently few vodkas and fewer gins that use malted barley as their base grain; for one thing, it’s more expensive than other grains. It also adds a large dollop of flavor, and many modern vodkas shy away from personality in their taste profiles, going instead for a product that tends to be boringly neutral. But a signature personality and taste is exactly what Stone wanted. And so its Ebb+Flow Vodka ($32) uses 100 percent malted barley, its Ebb+Flow Gin ($33) uses 50 percent, and its newest product (release date wasn’t firm at press time), Sound Spirits Aquavit, a Danish-style aquavit, is also based on malted barley.
Sound Spirits’ devotion to malted barley is only matched by its focus on sustainability, with the spent grain going to feed a local farmer’s cow and a continuous loop used to save water during the distilling process. While its signature spirits may be named after the tides and the Northwest’s laid-back nature, Sound Spirits is anything but laid back when it comes to the hunt to develop world-class spirits.
Sound Spirits’ big brick building houses a comfortable front tasting room, where you can sample products for free and browse bottles and an assortment of cocktail books and drink-making gear for sale, while the family greyhounds snooze on the rug.
Interbay, 1630 15th Ave. W; 206.651.5166; drinksoundspirits.com
Bainbridge Organic Distillers
Organic meets old school
When Keith Barnes and his family were in the early stages of setting up a distillery on Bainbridge Island in 2008, they knew one thing for certain: They wanted the distillery to deliver high-quality organic spirits. While there were a few completely organic distilleries in other states, Barnes’ Bainbridge Organic Distillers was the first in Washington.
The “organic” label is one that’s tossed around like so much bar ice today, sadly becoming more marketing slogan than serious tenet. But Bainbridge Organic Distillers has a devotion to what Barnes calls “old-school” methods, as well as using certified organic produce when crafting spirits. They begin with legacy (heirloom) soft white wheat grown in Walla Walla and Snohomish—a grain usually not commercially grown and one grown without the aid of fertilizer or irrigation—and organic rye from the Dungeness River delta. These grains haven’t been genetically altered to increase production, and you won’t find any altered enzymes, chemical agents, acids or modern processing aids around their Kentucky-made still.
This dedication to an overarching organic composition, as well as to leaving a smaller and safer environmental footprint, does mean that the product yields for their Legacy vodka ($32.95), Battle Point whiskey ($46.95) and Heritage gin ($34.95) are less than other distilleries (about 12,000 bottles a year). But Barnes believes it’s worth it to make spirits that boast deeper flavors and more interesting personalities. “Organic grains have more character and flavor than their conventional counterparts, and each variety has its own taste profile,” says Barnes. “Working organically to maximize the flavor potential of these great organic grains is very rewarding.”
Nestled into a small complex of offices and businesses surrounded by tall trees, Bainbridge Organic Distillers has the feel you’d expect from a family-run business. You’ll usually find both father and son talking to tasters at tall, round tables between bottles and logo hoodies, or working the shining stills in back. Tasting is free.
Bainbridge Island, 9727 Coppertop Loop NE; 206.842.3184; bainbridgedistillers.com
Woodinville Whiskey Company
A whiskey rebellion
There are those spirit lovers who are aficionados of a certain drink or spirit. And then there are folks who are a notch up from “excited” on the ladder of enthusiasm. Go up one more rung and you’ll find the whiskey faithful, who make the rest of us seem downright blasé. Whiskey lovers tend to be a bit fanatical.
You’ll see this firsthand the minute you talk to Orlin Sorensen and Brett Carlile, the driving forces behind the Woodinville Whiskey Company. Sorensen and Carlile started the distillery with one goal: to create the finest whiskey in the world. They reached out to David Pickerell, the former master distiller at Maker’s Mark Bourbon who has become both mentor and friend. Together, the three have labored to create world-class whiskey.
It starts with hand-selecting the corn and grains, which they get directly from local farms, along with the rye, wheat and barley on which their products are based, and continues through the purified and filtered water they use. The quality of ingredients shines in their Headlong White Dog whiskey ($34.95) and their Peabody Jones vodka ($29.95)—some whiskey devotees appreciate good vodka, too. Much of a traditional whiskey’s personality is developed during the aging process, so they use American oak barrels made by the Independent Stave Company, a Missouri-based cooper. These barrels are key to the flavors evident in the distillery’s new micro-barreled collection, which consists of a wheat-based bourbon whiskey, a rye-based bourbon and 100 percent rye. Smaller barrels also provide the key component in their Age Your Own Whiskey kit, which contains two 750-milliliter bottles of their 110-proof White Dog unaged whiskey, a 2-liter aging barrel, a pouring funnel, two tasting glasses, and a set of step-by-step instructions ($149.95).
The pair is currently conducting experiments on how barrel variables change a whiskey’s taste, testing things such as toasting the barrel’s insides first and then charring on top of the toast, and changing stave (the strips of wood that form the barrel) thickness, grain tightness and the time spent seasoning the wood. At Woodinville, they seem determined to test until they reach a whiskey paradise.
The front tasting room feels like a small, dimly lit bar. But once through the doors into the distillery, the big, bright room is a gleaming, charming contradiction: the latest technology in stills is set up in one room, and oak barrels, used for centuries, are in another. The proprietors walk you around while talking whiskey—and there is plenty to discuss.
Woodinville, 16110 Woodinville Redmond Road NE, Suite 3; 425.486.1199; woodinvillewhiskeyco.com
A.J. Rathbun is the author of several books on cocktails. Follow his "spirited" advice at ajrathbun.com.