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Distillery Tour: Meet the local makers of hard spirits in our northwest corner

Apr 3rd, 2014 | Category: Features

Distill my heart. Scattered throughout our northwest corner are folks passionate about crafting hard spirits. And they have the proof.  Moonshine, vodka, brandy, whiskey, and other hard drinks are being made in small batches by small business owners, many working with small farmers, in a growing market. Here’s a look at some of the local distilleries and what they’re concocting.

PART 1 of 2

MOUNT BAKER DISTILLERY

1305 Fraser St. Suite D2 Bellingham, (360) 734-3301, www.mountbakerdistillery.com

Mount Baker Distillery, the first distillery in Whatcom County, specializes in a spirit with a rich history – moonshine. Along with vodka, Mount Baker Distillery has brought corn produced spirits to Whatcom County while using primarily local ingredients.

Troy Smith, owner of Mount Baker Distillery. PHOTO BY BRENT COLE

Troy Smith, owner of Mount Baker Distillery. PHOTO BY BRENT COLE

The roots of Mt. Baker Distillery go back several generations to owner Troy Smith’s Grandpa Abe Smith, who was a soldier in the Civil War. During the reconstruction, Grandpa Abe began making moonshine and before long it was a business. After running into a problem with revenuers, a government agency in charge with collecting revenue and halting the bootlegging of alcohol, Abe headed west.

The recipe for moonshine passed through generations, and Smith discovered the recipe with some of his uncle’s old moonshine bottles from the 70s. After being laid off in 2008 from the food and service industry, Smith was looking for a new career. Around that time, Washington State changed their laws allowing for craft distilleries and Smith realized a door had opened to a new career. Uncle Abe’s framed photo is now on the store counter.

He set up shop in the Haskell Business Center in late 2011 and for the next year worked on everything from labels to the permitting process, which was especially difficult as there was not yet a standard set of regulations since distilleries were new to Washington business. Finally, near the end of 2012, Mount Baker Distillery was able to hit the shelves.

All of the products that go into Mount Baker Distillery are sourced locally – the corn comes from Scratch and Peck who mill it specially for Smith.

After initially distilling corn vodka and moonshine, Mount Baker Distillery has added Apple Pie moonshine and will be producing small runs of fruit flavored moonshine including blueberry, raspberry, strawberry and blackberry with the fruit in the bottle. Like all the ingredients used by Mount Baker Distillery, the fruit will be sourced locally.

The business also utilizes the post-distilled products with the corn going to a local dairy and pig farm. The farm has “happy pigs,” he said.

Over the last year and a half, Mount Baker Distillery has worked to increase their distribution – initially starting with liquor stores, then over the last few months moving into grocery stores including Haggens and the Co-op and most recently, into bars and restaurants with Blaine being the first area to see Mount Baker Distillery on the restaurant shelves.

“We’re selling everything we’re making,” he said. With that, Smith has begun experimenting with yet to be announced flavors – the distillery has the ability to do small runs of flavored moonshine.

–Brent Cole

 

 

GOLDEN DISTILLERY

9746 Samish Island Road, Bow, (206) 605-8485, www.goldendistillery.com

Jim Caudill of Samish Island, recently retired from running the La Conner Seafood and Prime Rib House, was kicking around at home until his wife strongly suggested that he take a workshop at the WSU Extension and Research Center in Mount Vernon. The subject was distilling, a business that had just been made legal in Washington State.

Bob Stillnovich, co-owner of Golden Distillery. BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Bob Stillnovich, co-owner of Golden Distillery. BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

He dragged his friend Bob Stillnovich, also a retired restaurant owner, along with him, and after taking the workshop the two immediately decided to open their own business. Although both men had an interest in wine and spirits already, they became fascinated by the process of distilling.

“Moonshiners have been making whiskey for a thousand years,” Stillnovich pointed out, but to make it well takes a great deal of expertise. They attended trainings and conferences, asked for advice, and brought in experts when necessary while setting up their formulas. They experimented with different casks, finally settling on small barrels for quicker aging, made by Black Swan in Minnesota. Getting their program started took several years, from ordering their still to receiving their license, then beginning the aging process.

They make several types of whiskey, from their standard, award-winning Samish Bay single malt to two peated whiskeys (they can’t officially be called “Scotch”). Their malt comes from Great Western Malting in Vancouver, WA, although they hope to do business with Skagit Valley Malting Company once it’s established. The peated barley is imported, of course, so they order it heavily peated and mix it with local, unpeated grain to achieve the state requirement for 51 percent Washington State grown ingredients while still getting a good level of peat flavor.

The duo also create two brandies, a Cabernet and an apple brandy made from Jonagolds. They started out making their own apple wine from Merritt’s Orchard, but then smoothed out their operation by having the wine made elsewhere, first by Tulip Valley Winery and now by Mount Baker Vineyards, who source their own apples.

Their entire production is done at Stillnovich’s place on Samish Island, an idyllic location with a view across the water to the south. The small space is stuffed full of barrels, currently at capacity with 176 casks.  Stillnovich does all the on-site work himself, since Caudill recently had to give up helping with the physical aspect of the distillery. “I wanted to see if I could do it myself for a year,” said Stillnovich. He could hire extra help but doesn’t want the business to get too big. “The only reason we’re doing this is to have fun doing it.”

Stillnovich, who said that the main thing he misses about the restaurant business is meeting people, loves to have customers drive out to the distillery, which is open on weekends year round as well as by appointment. He points out that it makes a great addition to a day trip, along with Edison and La Conner, and the trip out to Samish Island can be an adventure. “Come out and try it.”

–Jessamyn Tuttle

 

 

CHUCKANUT BAY DISTILLERY

1115 Railroad Avenue, Bellingham, (360) 738-7179, www.chuckanutbaydistillery.com

Despite its relatively quiet location tucked into an alley in downtown Bellingham, Chuckanut Bay Distillery is obviously a place where things are happening. Behind a small tasting room stands a forest of fermenting tanks, overflowing with mash, each labeled with the name of an eminent philosopher. Behind them are huge bags of wheat, a grain mill and a potato grinder, including one built from a bicycle.

Matt Howell of Chuckanut Bay Distillery. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Matt Howell of Chuckanut Bay Distillery. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

The bicycle potato grinder was the invention of Chuckanut Bay’s distiller and co-owner Matt Howell. For his first batch of potato vodka, he pedaled while 13,000 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes were fed through the hopper. He has since switched to an electric grinder to get a more consistent texture, but the concept was characteristic of Howell’s methods, which are all about doing things from base level.

Howell started brewing beer as a young adult, and later worked in the wine industry as a distributor for Grape Expectations. “The whole process led me to making spirits,” he said.

Howell was putting in long hours, and his friend Kelly Andrews told him, “If you’re working that hard, you ought to be working for yourself.” Then Washington State legalized commercial distilling. “I saw this industry coming and really wanted to be part of it,” he said.

With the help of Andrews and other business partners Robert Andrews and Ethan Lynette, plus Tony Vernon (their do-everything employee), Chuckanut Bay Distillery was off to a strong start.

Howell loves the idea that spirits made in the Pacific Northwest will all have a particular character, or terroir, and to that end he buys his ingredients locally, preferably directly from the farmer.  The potatoes he uses for his distinctive vodka come from Wallace Farms in the Skagit Valley. “I go down to Wallace, load up the back of my pickup truck with potatoes. We’re kind of different that way,” he said. Every bottle of vodka contains 13 pounds of potatoes.

His wheat vodka is made from a soft white wheat from TeVelde Farms in Lynden, who are growing a variety of grains and can control protein levels to some extent. “We work great together,” Howell said. For another project he’s using barley from the Yakima area, but is looking at a possible barley source in Skagit County, and he’s still searching for a Washington source of rye grain. “We go through a lot of produce,” he said. “[Supporting local farmers] is why we established the craft distillery law.” Spent mash left over from distilling goes to feed cows at Laird Dairy in Everson, completing the cycle.

Chuckanut Bay spirits are not officially organic, although the farmers who provide their ingredients all use the best possible farming practices without the certification.

Howell feels that distilling truly gets to the essence of ingredients. “It concentrates all this energy,” he said. “How else could someone carry 13 pounds of potatoes to a friend’s house and pour them a drink?”

Currently, the tasting room offers the two vodkas, but more products are on the way, including a gin and a coffee liqueur, with a whiskey program further down the line. “The coffee liqueur’s going to be fantastic,” said Howell. The gin, which is waiting on a shipment of botanicals, will be a classic London Dry style, carefully balanced in flavor. “Anything that goes out of here has to be perfect.”

–Jessamyn Tuttle

 

 

 

VALLEY SHINE DISTILLERY

Mt. Vernon, www.valleyshinedistillery.com, 360-853-6702

 Ben Lazowski didn’t start out planning to be a distiller, but his interest in the subject dates from childhood. “My grandfather told stories how he used to bootleg for Al Capone,” he said. So when Washington State finally made distilling legal, it reignited his interest, and he and his wife Stacey began planning their own business, Valley Shine Distillery.

“I’ve always been the kind of person who looks at a product and said ‘I can do that,’” said Ben. He and Stacey are self-taught distillers, perfecting each spirit through trial and error. “We want to make something we can enjoy drinking,” said Stacey.

Stacey and Ben Lazowski of Valley Shine Distillery. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Stacey and Ben Lazowski of Valley Shine Distillery. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Their best selling product so far is Benjamin’s Bourbon, but they also offer gin, vodka, limoncello and a black licorice liqueur called Spider Bite. They have recently unveiled Bonfire, a toffee-flavored liqueur, which was the product they had hoped to open their line with, but it took two years to get it through the official formulation process. They’re very excited about the new offering, which is sweet and warming.

Both of them work full-time day jobs, on top of their distillery business. “It allows us to get our products right the first time,” said Ben, observing that you only get one shot to make a good impression with a new buyer. “I think our products are better than most.”

Valley Shine is not a craft distillery, which means that they don’t have a tasting room, although tours of their Mount Vernon facility are available. They also are not restricted to using Washington-grown ingredients. They do use all USA-sourced ingredients, including their bottles, and their gin and limoncello are both organic.

Water is an ingredient they particularly pride themselves on. They start with Mount Vernon city water, then filter and deionize it, ending with lab-quality pure water so no off flavors make it into their spirits.

Valley Shine has been open for a year now and their products are available in stores and restaurants across Washington.  The Lazowskis currently do all their own distribution, but are looking to make a major expansion this year. They plan to enlist some marketing help and gradually grow the business until one of them can afford to work there full-time.

“Our motto has always been, you can drink local and good, it doesn’t have to be one or the other,” said Ben. “We offer quality and a fair price.”

–Jessamyn Tuttle

 

COMING UP NEXT ISSUE, Part 2:

• BelleWood Distillery at BelleWood Acres, Lynden

• Skip Rock Distillers, Snohomish

• Whidbey Island Distillery, Langley

• Bluewater Distilling, Everett

• Dark Moon Artisan Distillery, Snohomish

• Dry County Distillery LLC, Marysville

• Deception Distilling, Anacortes

• San Juan Island Distillery, Friday Harbor

• Skagit Valley Malting, focused on the establishment of a custom malting industry in the Skagit Valley using Skagit grown grains.

 

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