Pierce County’s newest craft spirits distillery opens Friday. Port Steilacoom Distillery is a micro distillery started by spirits enthusiasts who will keep their day jobs working in health care. They’ll operate their tasting room in downtown Steilacoom on Wednesdays through Sundays.
The distillery joins three others producing gin, vodka and whiskey in Pierce County. All three opened this year, the outgrowth of a statewide trend that got its start five years ago when liquor laws changed to allow for craft distillers in Washington state.
Port Steilacoom will produce small batches of vodka and gin, with plans for a specialty spirit the distillers describe as being in the same flavor palate as rum, only made with honey, not cane sugar.
Honey also will be an ingredient in Port Steilacoom’s gin and vodka. Creator Kevin Laughlin Stewart, who operates the distillery with his wife, Jennifer, said the honey gives his spirits an interesting taste – a light sweetness and smooth finish.
Using honey was one solution he found to a challenge created by the rules that guide Washington state craft distilleries: Spirits distilled here by craft distilleries must contain 51 percent Washington-grown ingredients. For Stewart, the Washington ingredients he turned to were blackberry and buckwheat honey. For many craft distilleries, it’s Washington-grown grains.
Stewart said the grown-in-Washington requirement for craft distillers was one reason his dreams of making a classic rum were blown. Rum is distilled from cane sugar and there’s a problem with that here: Cane sugar doesn’t grow so well in Washington. Enter honey. Laughlin Stewart said he didn’t want to give up on his rum dream since a bottle of rum he infused with his own blend of spices is what sparked his interest in starting a distillery.
The specialty spirit he’ll produce soon is made with buckwheat honey and has spicing something like what you’ll find in a spiced rum. Said Laughlin Stewart, “It will be a lower proof. I want some of the character of the honey to come through. It’s going to be spiced with my secret blend of spices.”
Laughlin Stewart believes his craft distillery might be the tiniest in the state, or close to it. They operate out of a 600-square-foot space near Bair Drug. The space has potential to grow, but for now, the distillery is small and will stay that way as they build a following, Laughlin Stewart said.
He’s a hobbyist with a background in home beer brewing. He does have a bit of distilling experience, although it was, well, come by illegally. “My original inspiration, without incriminating anyone: One of my close family relatives made moonshine in Texas,” said Laughlin Stewart. He was 13 at the time, the moonshiner is now 100 years old. In Washington state, home distilling of spirits is illegal, although home brewing of wine and beer for personal consumption is perfectly legal.
Laughlin Stewart is a nurse by day; his wife works for the state Division of Developmental Disabilities. The couple lives in Steilacoom, as do Jennifer’s parents, longtime residents Donn and Patricia Laughlin.
In Pierce County alone, there are three other licensed distilleries that have opened this year: Carbon Glacier, a whiskey and vodka distiller in Wilkeson; Parliament, a whiskey distiller in Sumner; and Heritage Distilling, a Gig Harbor distillery that has what it describes as the first you-brew-it approach, where craft spirits enthusiasts can bottle their own spirits using Heritage’s recipes and equipment. Heritage also sells its spirits by the bottle at its Gig Harbor tasting room.
More distilleries in the region are on the way. Fine Spirits Distilling in Chehalis is very close to bottling its spirits.
Port Steilacoom Distillery
Where: 1601 Lafayette St., Steilacoom
Opening: Friday, Dec. 7, 2012
Tasting room hours: 3:30-6:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays.
Info: 253-212-0090 or Facebook here
Products: Homeport, a craft distilled gin made in the style of a London dry gin. Chambers Bay vodka is a neutral spirit distilled from blackberry honey. Look soon for Wicked Wind, a spiced distilled spirit. Priced $30 and up.
Tasting room etiquette: Per state law, samples must be free, limited to two ounces per person, and mixers and add-ins aren’t allowed. Bottles may be purchased, up to two per day.
Other licensed Pierce County distillers:
Carbon Glacier Distillery, 533 Church St., Wilkeson, 360-989-9700, carbonglacierdistillery.com
Heritage Distilling Company, 3207 57th St. Court NW, Gig Harbor, 253-509-0008, heritagedistilling.com
Parliament Distillery, 13708 24th St. E., Sumner, 253-447-8044, parliament-distillery.com
More fun reading on distilleries: For a list of all federally licensed distilleries in the country, click here. For a list of all state licensed craft distilleries, click here, then scroll down to “craft distillery list.” To read about the different distilling licenses in Washington state, click here. In addition to the craft distilling license that small distilleries like Port Steilacoom have (those distilleries must produce less than 60,000 gallons in a calendar year), there are distilling licenses at a higher cost that don’t come with ingredient restrictions. Those distillers can sell to the public, but they cannot give away samples. There also are licenses available for fruit and wine distillers. Here are a whole bunch of answers to questions about running a distillery in Washington state. Here is another sheet with information on craft distillery legislation.