Washington is well-known for its craft beers, farm-to-table cuisine, and world-class wineries.
Everything that makes these industries so uniquely special here — amazing farmland, produce and natural resources — is evident in the state’s relatively young independent distiller’s movement.
According to the Washington Distiller’s Guild, there are around 100 craft distillers in the state (a craft distiller must source at least 51% of their raw materials in Washington). In March, I got to meet a few of the faces behind the bottles — or the hands operating the stills — at the first South Sound Spirit Gathering.
Held in Tumwater at the nifty little Olympic Flight Museum, the gathering was put together by the Washington Distiller’s Guild and Tumwater’s Craft Brewing and Distilling Center, which is promoting the revitalization of the historic Tumwater Brewhouse into a production, resource and education center for craft brewers and distillers (preserving a cool bit of architectural history in the process.)
Featuring 18 indie distillers from as close as Lacey and as far as Ritzville (with many from the Seattle area), there was a mix of young companies run by young people, seasoned pros, and, and multi-generational family distilleries.
I went in hoping to snag one or two new finds, and walked out (very carefully) impressed by the innovation and inspired to concoct some new cocktails.
Of course, I couldn’t possibly taste EVERYTHING (even in my youth that would have been a stretch). But I managed to test a fair share of gins, vodkas, rums and liqueurs, in between nibbling tasty Chorizo Tacos from Lucky Eagle Casino, BBQ from The Tailgate BBQ, and a devilish dessert from my favorite Olympia cocktail bar, Dillinger’s.
I managed to hold my purchases to three bottles, but luckily, many of these distilleries and their tasting rooms are just a couple hours away, and each distiller’s website lists retail locations where you can purchase their wares.
Here’s two fists of my favorites — and if you these don’t inspire you to throw a cocktail party, I’ll invite you to mine!
Taking its name from Seattle’s area code, this young artisanal distillery is already one of the top three best-selling in the state.
Batch 206 features a handful of small-batch-produced spirits, including award-winning gins, vodkas, moonshine and bourbon whiskeys, all distilled in a German Kothe still.
My first purchase of the show was a bottle of their Mad Mint vodka, which is infused with two pounds of fresh mint and…crushed candy canes. I’m not normally a fan of “flavored” vodkas (or really, vodka in general), but Mad Mint isn’t sugary like some other brands, and I couldn’t resist the cool freshness and hint of cocoa from the candy canes (yeah, those green ones!). I’ve already enjoyed it as an icy cold after-dinner sip — next up will be a Mad Mint White Russian.
As a little side business, Batch 206 has partnered to create a line of Distillery Provisions, featuring gin- and bourbon-soaked pickles, which sound like excellent accompaniments to a Bourbon Mary or substitute for a martini olive. Cheers!
So, my drink is gin. I’m a juniper junkie, and I came to this show determined to add to my gin portfolio (which isn’t very large, given that I keep finishing it off). Beefeater is my London Dry preference for martinis, but I love trying the interesting botanicals that craft distillers blend into their New American gins, and have a small list of local favorites that have enhanced many a Friday night here in Oysterville.
Enter Big Gin.
As I was sipping a delooshious vodka from another purveyor, I told him of my preference for gins. He pointed me to the table next to his — distiller Ben Capdevielle’s Captive Spirits, where it’s all about gin. Big Gin.
Eschewing fancy German stills in favor of a Louisville pot still, Capdevielle focuses on one thing — that juniper-jazzed, corn-grain spirit that makes the Bees Knees weak and tantalizes your tonic.
I was impressed with the baseline Big Gin, but the bottle I bought, and for which I’ll be soon making a trip to the Ballard Distillery for seconds, is the Bourbon-Barreled Big Gin.
Finished in Bourbon barrels, this mellow, honeyed gin was the first American Gin to win the International Wine & Spirits Competition (2014), for Best Contemporary Gin, so you should probably have it in your liquor cabinet.
And here’s what to do with it: douse a raw brown sugar cube with your favorite bitters, splash in a shot of Bourbon-Barreled gin, stir in some ice and garnish with an orange wheel. Welcome to the West Coast Manhattan, Big Gin style.
Founder and distillers Sam Desner was a former mixologist who was having trouble finding the interesting flavors he wanted for his craft cocktails — so he decided to create his own. The result is a startling and beautiful array of unique, intensely-flavored liqueurs that also happen to be organic.
Fancy some Fennel? Red Raspberry? Thyme-Coriander? Salish Sea’s “cold-macerated” infusions have a depth of flavor that are lovely sipped on their own, but you could get seriously creative with your cocktails with a bottle of luscious Nectarine, bright Ginger, or fresh, flowery Hibiscus. Maybe it’s time for a trip to the Lacey Libation district?
I was lured to Sandstone’s table by their Black Gin cocktails, and lingered for their stories.
A four-generation family-run operation out of Tenino, Sandstone Distillery is certified “green,” uses water drawn from their estate, and sources 100% of their grains in Washington, exceeding the 51% requirement by a delicious margin.
The Black Gin (which they were serving as cocktail shots with orange juice, lime and simple syrup) is flavored with star anise, Valencia orange, and nine other botanicals, pulling back on the juniper to let the licorice notes sing through.
And in true field to farm to flask fashion — the spent grains from Sandstone’s White Whiskey are fed to hogs from a neighboring farm, then their bacon is used to infuse Sandstone’s Bacon White Whiskey. The addictive, smokey flavor just may convince you that Bloody Marys should never be made with vodka again.
A cornerstone of the Tenino community, Sandstone Distillery hosts tours, tastings, “Distiller for a Day” classes, Cocktails and Canvas Girls’ Nights, and Music at the Stills, a summer concert series where you can sip under the stars and enjoy the generations of care that’s gone into your cocktail.
3 Howls Distillery’s spirits are Northwest-inspired, but with old-world craftsmanship. Distiller Craig Thalen was featuring three of their dozen or so spirits — Backbeat Bourbon, Navy Strength Gin, and Blood Orange Vodka (YES).
Blood oranges are only available from December through February, and 3 Howls uses 1500 lbs. of them (as well as cardamom, rose petals and cloves) to vapor-infuse this aromatic and addictive spirit.
While it’s perfect chilled or on rocks, it will also zing up a traditional Greyhound or give a French Martini a tart twist. Forget the Absolut Mandarin — this is the orange vodka you want in your freezer.
My biggest regret of the gathering was that I walked away without buying a bottle — now I’ll have to visit their SoDo Seattle distillery to pick up one (or more), plus perhaps a bottle of “hopped” whiskey, spiced rum, or…wait for it…Banana Vodka.
One of my favorite stories of the (all terrific) distillers that I met at the show, was the origin of the name for Seattle Distilling’s Idle Hour Whiskey. Distiller Tami Brockway spied an archival photo from the 1900’s in the Vashon Island Heritage Museum, wherein a number of tipplers were likely enjoying some Irish Whiskey at Vashon’s Spring Beach — the photo entitled “Idle Hour.”
Characterized as an “Irish-like” whiskey, Idle Hour is crafted with unsmoked malt, water from the Palouse River, and a touch of local honey, before aging for two years in charred red wine barrels from Vashon’s Andrew Will Winery.
And in a “flask to farm” story, Seattle Distilling partners with neighboring Pink Tractor Farms, which uses their spent gin botanicals to make their sausages.
One of the few distillers at the show featuring rum, Snohomishes’ Skip Rock Distillers won me over with their exquisite craftsmanship and unique offerings, including an award-winning Italian Walnut Liqueur that takes 16 months to make (but considerably less time to drink).
Skip Rock’s Belle Rose Rums are aged in either Chardonnay, Whiskey and Bourbon barrels, and distilled using turbinado sugar from a Louisiana family farm.
As for the liqueur (my second purchase of the show) — when distiller Ryan Hembree decided to do something with the abundance of walnuts from his property, he was inspired by trips to Italy and the “digestivo,” Nocino. Crafted from 3900 lbs. of locally-grown walnuts, a hit of cinnamon and a hint of vanilla, Skp Rock’s Nocino would be a divine finish to a rich meal, the secret ingredient in any cocktail, or drizzled over ice cream.
Aberdeen might be most famous for “Teen” Spirit, and the Wishkah River for being Kurt Cobain’s youthful hangout, but distiller Josh Mayr’s Wishkah River Distillery is bringing a different kind of spirit to this Gray’s Harbor working town.
A centerpiece of a movement to revitalize downtown Aberdeen, Wishkah River’s spirits exemplify the hard work and talent that flows from this fertile region of Western Washington. Sustainably sourcing 96% of their raw materials locally, they produce just a few perfect products, including their award-winning Honey Vodka.
You’ve heard of mead, brethren? Wishkah River ferments honey into this strong honey “wine,” then distills it into a rich, silky spirit that has transformed me into a vodka lover. The last bottle on the table (pictured above) was bought out from under my camera-wielding nose. Luckily, Aberdeen is on the way to Seattle from my coastal home, so Mayr may be getting a visit from me soon….
As for the distillers I didn’t get a chance to try, I plan on catching them at this summer’s Washington Distiller’s Festival, PROOF, held July 9th at Fremont Studios in Seattle. I’m up for a meet & greet over a bacon bourbon, peach moonshine or squid ink Aquavit. Bottoms up!