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Niche spirits: New South Sound distilleries are on the way

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on March 22, 2013 at 12:00 am | No Comments »
March 22, 2013 4:57 pm
A glass of rye whiskey sits in the tasting room of Heritage Distilling Co., a craft distillery in Gig Harbor. Peter Haley / Staff photographer
A glass of rye whiskey sits in the tasting room of Heritage Distilling Co., a craft distillery in Gig Harbor. Peter Haley / Staff photographer

When Edgewood city councilman Paul Crowley begins producing the Irish spirit poitin at his new craft distillery, he’ll be among a handful of Washington distillers producing spirits few will recognize.

Welcome to craft distilling 2.0 in Washington state and beyond.

In Washington, about 45 craft distillers are in production and have saturated the market with gin, vodka and whiskey. A second wave of craft distillers are following with what insiders call a refinement trend. They’re producing spirits with unusual twists or flavors, the spirits often with unrecognizable names.

South Sound was late in embracing the craft distillery movement that began after 2008 legislation championed by Spokane distillery Dry Fly allowed for the licensing of craft distilleries. A year ago, South Sound had no craft distilleries, but now four are producing spirits. The first opened in Wilkeson last May. (See a list of distilleries below).

What South Sound distilleries may have as an advantage is a focus on niche products. Small-town Edgewood seems an unlikely home for such a trend, but it’s where two interesting distilleries are planned.

Crowley’s poitin – also spelled poteen or potcheen, and pronounced poh-cheen – is something like an unaged whiskey that Irish farmers distilled illegally for centuries (a few distilleries now export a legal version). Crowley will be on the up-and-up, of course – he’s applied for state and federal licensing for his Cool Mountain Distillery. A lawyer by day, he expects to be producing poitin by summer’s end, but it will be several months before he has product available to the public.

Also in Edgewood, longshoreman Tom Greene has applied for licensing and expects to be distilling vodka this summer from apples at his Nightside Distillery. While distilling vodka isn’t new in Washington, nor is distilling from apples, what is unusual is his hope to eventually create a beverage similar to “apple pie” – a popular spirit in other parts of the country usually made by steeping Everclear with apples and spices. Greene plans to put his own spin on the spirit.

Steven Stone, president of the Washington Distillers Guild and founder/head distiller of Seattle’s Sound Spirits, said he expects to see more niche distillers like Crowley and Greene in the region’s future.

Keith Quimby takes a sample of vodka at the Carbon Glacier Distillery. File photo 2012. Dean J. Koepfler / Staff photographer
Keith Quimby takes a sample of vodka at the Carbon Glacier Distillery. File photo 2012. Dean J. Koepfler / Staff photographer

“There’s more competition. You’re going to have to have very consistent and high quality in the bottle for a reasonable price,” Stone said. He added, “At the same time, (distillers will) search out niches to do what others aren’t doing. That’s how I see the industry developing in the next five to 10 years. Those who do it well will find a place. We’ll see how much the state can support.”

Distillers like Heritage Distilling Company in Gig Harbor, which opened in November, are doing just that – planning their own market nooks. Justin Stiefel, who founded Heritage with his wife, Jennifer, has a line of economically priced and gluten-free spirits on the way and he has plans to further refine his distillery’s offerings.

Todd Buckley of the Tacoma Alcohol Consortium, a group that promotes and organizes events for spirits enthusiasts, thinks the next half decade in the South Sound looks prosperous for craft distillers – so long as they refine their niche products and figure out a way to make spirits affordable.

“I don’t think there’s any concern with this getting oversaturated in the next five years,” he said.

But Buckley cautioned that small distilleries offering expensive $50 bottles could price themselves out of the market. Consumer education will be key. “Getting people to understand what goes into making craft spirits and how much it costs to make is a problem. They think they’re getting raked across the coals. If you see a price of $40, roughly $20 is tax. $20. Do the math. That’s the hurdle.”

Distillers looking to make money from tasting room sales also run into trouble. Distilleries are allowed to sell only two liters of product to each customer per visit. Rumblings along the I-5 corridor suggest that craft distillers are looking for legislation that would amend that rule, but it’s too late for this legislative session, Stone said.

Attracting distributors who already are loaded with the first wave of distillers and a saturated market are further hurdles, said Jarrett Tomal, who opened his Parliament Distillery in Sumner last June.

“There’s going to be a shakeout in the next two to five years. There’s going to be so many distilleries in so many states, there aren’t enough people to support all those distilleries. What’s going to happen is all these (distillers) are going to lose their nest egg. My advice: Start super small, don’t grow bigger than you need to grow, don’t grow too fast and keep your overhead really low,” he said.

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Reflux is visible in a "sight glass" in the distillation column in Port Steilacoom Distillery which Kevin Laughlin Stewart founded with his wife Jennifer.  File photo 2012. Peter Haley / Staff photographer
Reflux is visible in a “sight glass” in the distillation column in Port Steilacoom Distillery which Kevin Laughlin Stewart founded with his wife Jennifer.
File photo 2012.
Peter Haley / Staff photographer

Seems we have the spirits

A year ago, Pierce County had no craft distilleries or tasting rooms. Oh, what a difference a year can make. From May to December 2012, four distilleries opened and two more are expected this summer in Edgewood.

Curious what you’ll find? Think of a craft distillery as you would a winery with an attached tasting room. The four South Sound distilleries are open for touring and visitors can taste and buy direct from the distiller.

Experiences at each distillery vary. Here are overviews, with previews of two distilleries expecting to open in Edgewood.

Chris Lyons, of Spanaway takes notes while Keith Quimby of Buckley right, watches the flow of vodka at the Carbon Glacier Distillery. File photo 2012. Dean J. Koepfler / Staff photographer
Chris Lyons, of Spanaway takes notes while Keith Quimby of Buckley right, watches the flow of vodka at the Carbon Glacier Distillery. File photo 2012.
Dean J. Koepfler / Staff photographer

Carbon Glacier Distillery
Where: 533 Church St., Wilkeson; 360-989-9700, carbonglacierdistillery.com
Hours: 2-6 p.m. Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays; noon-6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.
Spirits: B4 Vodka, Quimby and Jack’s distilled dry gin, Pump Trolley whiskey, special-edition whiskeys, and an upcoming product, Mooseshine Whiskey

Pierce County’s first licensed distillery opened in May along a sleepy stretch of businesses in Wilkeson, a historic town with about 500 residents in the far reaches of East Pierce County. Founders Keith Quimby and Chris Lyons produce small batches of gin, vodka and whiskey with more spirit styles on the way.
Their distillery is a small attached room to a more spacious tasting room, outfitted with material explaining how the distillery uses Washington grains. Impromptu question-and-answer sessions reveal more information about how they make their spirits. The tasting room is staffed by Quimby, Lyons or family members.
Their B4 vodka line has collected one award: a bronze medal from the Washington Cup, a new competition for American distillers.

Production manager Matt Rockness sets up micro-stills for customers to make their own spirits at Heritage Distilling Co. Peter Haley / Staff photographer
Production manager Matt Rockness sets up micro-stills for customers to make their own spirits at Heritage Distilling Co.
Peter Haley / Staff photographer

Heritage Distilling Co.
Where: 3207 57th St. Court NW, Gig Harbor; 253-509-0008, heritagedistilling.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Tuesdays, 11 a.m-7 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. Open 1-5 p.m. Sundays beginning in April. Tours at 4 p.m. each day they are open.
Spirits: Producing gin, vodka and whiskey in two lines, Elk Rider and Wherskey, with another line on the way that will include gluten-free spirits distilled from grapes.

Think of Heritage Distilling Co. as the granddaddy of tasting rooms in the South Sound and beyond. The working distillery is on display to visitors from a second-story tasting room that overlooks several stills – one large 2,000-liter still and small-batch, 26-gallon microstills.
Opened in November, founders Justin and Jennifer Stiefel say Heritage is the only distillery in the country to teach students how to make spirits using the distillery’s recipes and equipment. That’s significant because distilling requires a license, so Heritage’s classes offer a rare opportunity for unlicensed hobbyists or those wanting to open their own distilleries to learn the trade. It’s turned Heritage into a de facto spirits university attracting students from all over the country and beyond.
Of all the distilleries in South Sound, Heritage offers the most thoroughly organized tours, offering insight into distilling spirits and how Heritage sources its ingredients.
After just a few short months of production, Heritage collected one award from the Beverage Tasting Institute: a bronze medal given to the distillery for its unaged rye whiskey.

Parliament Distillery
Where: 13708 24th St. E., Sumner; 253-447-8044, parliament-distillery.com
Hours: Noon-6:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
Spirits: Ghost Owl whiskey and an April release for a line of flavored moonshines

Last June, this Sumner distillery started selling its Ghost Owl whiskey to the public. Nine months later, they’re about to launch a small line of flavored moonshine. Jarrett Tomal and Matt McCartney founded the distillery amid warehouses in industrial Sumner. Their 2,000-square-foot space is small and low-tech – they can dispense with a tour in a matter of a few seconds. Stick around and ask questions and you’ll get an earful of the ups and downs of the craft-distilling business.
Tomal, president of the company, and McCartney, the operating manager, run one of the few microdistilleries to sell their product on the shelves of the Trader Joe’s stores that carry spirits.

Kevin Laughlin Stewart is pictured here with his craft gin and vodka made at Port Steilacoom Distillery which he founded with his wife Jennifer. Peter Haley/Staff photographer
Kevin Laughlin Stewart is pictured here with his craft gin and vodka made at Port Steilacoom Distillery which he founded with his wife Jennifer. Peter Haley/Staff photographer

Port Steilacoom Distillery
Where: 1601 Lafayette St., Steilacoom; 253-212-0090, portsteilacoomdistillery.com
Hours: 3:30-6:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays
Spirits: Homeport gin and Chambers Bay vodka. Look soon for Wicked Wind, a spiced distilled spirit.

Steilacoom resident Kevin Laughlin Stewart and his wife, Jennifer, opened their Port Steilacoom microdistillery in December. Their distillery operates out of 600-square-foot space near Bair Drug in downtown Steilacoom.
The distillery name is a nod to the maritime history of Steilacoom, which has been the longtime home to Jennifer’s parents, Donn and Patricia Laughlin.
This is a side job for Kevin and Jennifer, who both work in health care and intend to keep their day jobs while offering tasting room tours and tastings Wednesdays through Sundays.
The distillery uses an unusual ingredient in its distilling. In keeping with the state law that 51 percent of ingredients must come from Washington state, they turned to Washington bees. They distill gin and vodka from blackberry honey and are working on a spirit he describes as “rum-like” that he will distill from buckwheat honey.

Coming soon to South Sound

Cool Mountain Distillery
Opening: Licensing expected to be completed this summer, with product available several months later
Spirit: Poitin, something like an unaged Irish whiskey. Facebook here.

As an Edgewood city councilman, Paul Crowley knows that Edgewood’s history is steeped in Prohibition-era moonshine. If you hike the canyon behind his property – which has been in his family since the 1930s – Crowley said you can still find copper tubing used in old Prohibition-era stills.
Crowley intends to take Edgewood into the legitimate era of distilling with his Cool Mountain Distillery. His licensing is under way now and he expects that to be completed by summer, but it will be many months before he has a product available, he said. He intends to self distribute and isn’t sure if he’ll open a tasting room.
The spirit he’ll distill, poitin, is an unaged whiskey produced for centuries by Irish farmers from barley and oats.
Poitin, also spelled poteen or potcheen and pronounced poh-cheen, is not a spirit most here are familiar with, but it has a European following. Distilleries there export it legally, but the spirit has a long and colorful history in Ireland.
The spirit has family sentiment for Crowley and his siblings – his brother is a partner in the distillery – because their grandfather made the spirit in his native Ireland before emigrating to the United States.

Nightside Distillery
Opening: Sometime this summer
Spirits: A vodka distilled from Washington apples, with more products to follow. Facebook here.

Longshoreman Tom Greene looked into distilling as a hobby and wound up with a business plan. He intends to start – and keep – his Edgewood distillery small, self distributing his product to a few liquor stores and selling bottles directly to the public. His distillery is in a small industrial park near a chiropractor and a locksmith.
The Puyallup resident will distill vodka from Washington-grown apples to start, but has plans for other products, including a spirit called apple pie, a concoction popular in other parts of the country that often is made from steeping Everclear with apples and spices.
Greene has applied for state and federal licensing, but isn’t sure exactly how long that will take. He’s roughly estimating a summer debut. He plans to have a tasting room that will be open to the public in some capacity.

Know before you go
State laws guide what distillers can serve and how they make their spirits. Here are a few things to consider:
Local ingredients: If licensed as a craft distiller, at least 51 percent of the ingredients the distillery uses to make spirits must be from Washington state sources.
Tasting rooms: State law limits distilleries to serving no more than 2 ounces of unaltered, free samples to visitors. No fee can be charged. No mixers or juices can be added. Customers may purchase up to two liters per visit.
Home distilling: While home-brewing beer and wine is legal, home distilling is not. Licensing is required.
Go taste: Proof will be a statewide distillery tasting event June 15 at Urban Enoteca in Seattle, hosted by the Washington Distillers Guild. Tickets will be on sale soon. It’s expected to be the largest tasting event of its kind featuring Washington distilleries.

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 usually 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 – meaning that their product does not have to be made from 51 percent Washington-sourced ingredients. 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.

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