Craft distilleries have enjoyed a recent boom in Washington thanks to a 2008 law providing distilleries the right to serve and sell their products (much as wineries and breweries have been allowed for many years). Several state liquor stores showcased the locally produced spirits, increasing the exposure of this new industry. In short order, more than 35 licensed craft distilleries are now in business.
The passage of Initiative 1183 has raised new challenges and may provide new opportunities for this emerging industry. There is concern that this progress is threatened by new taxes imposed by the initiative. Uniformly, the distillery owners expressed concern over the effect of tax provisions on the retail pricing of spirits. This and questions related to the new distribution system have some in the industry worried about survival.
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 5650, which would allow craft distilleries to sell their products at farmers' markets, has cleared committee. If passed, it may moderate the added expense from the additional taxes imposed by I-1183. There are also two legal challenges to the initiative that, if successful, might roll back the changes, at least for the time being.
With all the legal uncertainty, it seemed a good time to check out several of these local establishments to see how they plan to react to the changing market conditions (and to test their wares).
Bainbridge Organic Distillers (9727 Coppertop Loop NE Suite 101, Bainbridge Island; 842-3184; bainbridgedistillers.com) was founded in 2009 by Keith Barnes and his son Patrick. Their goal was to produce spirits utilizing locally sourced products, showcasing the special flavor profiles that can only be created from Washington's world-class organic grains and ingredients.
Bainbridge Organic Distillers is Washington's first distillery producing USDA Certified Organic spirits. Keith and Patrick personally handle every stage of the small-batch distillation process - from working with family farmers to bottling their final products.
Keith's opinion on I-1183 may be summarized as follows: "If government wants deregulation, there may be a benefit for the consumer. When big business wants deregulation, it is for the benefit of big business." Keith projected that I-1183, with its tax and fee structure, might add as much as 30% to the cost of small-batch spirits produced by his company and other Washington craft distillers.
The distillery currently makes three products: Battle Point Whiskey, Legacy Organic Vodka and Heritage Organic Gin. Each spirit begins with the finest of Washington's organic soft, white wheat.
The whiskey is aged in small, alligator-charred, American oak casks. The vodka is crafted to exhibit subtleties not found in typical flavorless vodkas. The gin is made with organic juniper berries and the oil from spruce boughs. At our recent staff tasting, the whiskey was a universal favorite, with the vodka receiving similar praise. The gin was appreciated by those who favor that spirit.
Sound Spirits (1630 15th Ave. W., Seattle; 651-5166; drinksoundspirits.com) was the first distillery to open in Washington since Prohibition. It has a small, but very friendly and charming tasting room.
Sound Spirits is owned by Steve Stone, who is also the president of the Washington Distillers Guild. In recent public comments, he has expressed concern that I-1183's tax provisions could drive up prices of craft spirits, though it also might open up distribution avenues with small, local grocery chains.
We are not scared off by high-end drink, as long as it's divine, so we picked up bottles of the two signature spirits: Ebb + Flow Vodka and Ebb + Flow Gin. We tried the gin some time ago; at that time, it had a strong bouquet and aroma, with a definitive taste. The current gin displays a blend of flavors that seems mellower, described as a complex blend of light juniper with other aromatics befitting a Pacific Northwest gin.
We think it would be superb blended with the right tonic or vermouth, though we didn't get past just sipping it. Overall, we thought it was a wonderful, flavorful, mature gin. The vodka was delightfully crisp and clean, also described as refreshing. Sound Spirits continues to deliver well-crafted, small-batch spirits.
Oola Distillery (1314 E. Union, Seattle; 709-7909; ooladistillery.com) is an anchor business on the bustling corner of 14th and Union on Capitol Hill. Surrounded by urban life and a variety of eateries, including the Restaurant Zoe build-out, the Oola space is elegant with clean and spare lines.
Owner Kirby Kallas-Lewis opened the tasting room in the fall of 2011. His approach to the effects of I-1183 is both realistic and practical, expecting both challenges and opportunities to arise. The key is to be ready to change and grow as opportunities are presented. There is concern that some distilleries that may not be able to survive the economic ramifications of I-1183 and the law may dampen the growth of the craft distillery industry.
Oola's beautiful copper works and distillery space are visible from the tasting room through a well-designed corner window, perfectly placed above the tasting bar. Available products include vodka, gin and hot pepper vodka.
The vodka is very good - spare and clean, just how we like it. The gin is exceptional; even our resident gin detractor called it smooth and tasty. We could not imagine diluting it with tonic. The chili pepper-infused vodka carries a bit of a tang with a flavor full of pepper. Coming soon, whiskey and rosemary-infused vodka.
Sun Liquor Distillery (514 E. Pike St., Seattle; 720-1600; sunliquor.com) is a very short walk from downtown and claims to being the first Seattle bar to sell its own liquor. It is not a craft distillery so it can (and does) serve food, but cannot sell bottles of spirits on-site.
The vodka and gin are both agreeably smooth. A number of classic mixed drinks are featured and happy hour runs until 7 p.m. The bar offers a limited menu of sandwiches (three items on the permanent menu and two specials, including vegetarian options). We liked what we tried (the BLT and the black- bean burger). Do not bother to ask for a substitution for the fries; they do not have any other sides to substitute.
We trust these new, quality establishments will find a way to grow and thrive in the uncertainties presented by the changing regulatory and legal environment. Now is a good time to experience the craft distilleries, and taste and enjoy a wide variety of fine spirits, thereby supporting this growing and local industry.
Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt is a multiservice, Northwest regional law firm with offices in Seattle, Vancouver, Portland and Bend. For comments on this article or to share your favorite places to eat or drink with the Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt attorneys, contact Mary Jo Newhouse at 206-407-1526 or firstname.lastname@example.org; see also www.schwabe.com/dining_out.aspx.