Citrus Dreams

Letterpress Distilling serves a refreshing Italian tradition.

Down a narrow gravel path in the shadow of the stadiums, the entrance to Letterpress Distilling would be easy to miss if it weren’t for the smell. The warm, yeasty aroma of a brewery leads down a dusty driveway and into a tasting room where Eric “Skip” Tognetti is pouring samples of his small-batch limoncello. The lemony liqueur, traditionally served chilled after meals in its Italian homeland, is the perfect accompaniment to a scorching day. Its flavor is bright and complex, bracing with citrus up front and mellowed by a sweet blackberry honey finish that kicks in as the tension in your shoulders dissolves.

“I grew up drinking this stuff,” says Tognetti, a California native who arrived in Seattle in 1999 by way of college in Walla Walla. From an early age, Tognetti spent summers visiting his maternal grandparents in Rome and hanging out at his grandfather’s neighborhood liquor store a half-mile from the Vatican. A black-and-white photo of Nonno Amorino in his shop hangs prominently on the tasting room wall.

“Every country has their cultural relationship to alcohol, and in Italy if the adults are sipping something around the table and a five- or six-year-old kid wants a taste, that’s a totally normal thing to do,” he says.

All grown up in America, Tognetti couldn’t find limoncello that wasn’t commercially produced—and therefore cloyingly sweet and artificially colored electric yellow. Four and a half years ago he secured his SoDo space, and two and a half years ago Letterpress Distilling opened for business.

In the distillery behind the tasting room, Tognetti begins by making surprisingly flavorful, earthily sweet vodka, which Letterpress also sells. Letterpress is 100 percent grain-to-glass, which means they make everything from raw materials. Tognetti could easily buy bulk grain spirits to make limoncello (and this year’s equally luscious, seasonal arancello rosso, a blood orange liqueur) but their by-design neutrality adds nothing to the flavor. And, he tells me, “I got into the distilling business because I want to distill.”

The wheat and malted barley that go into a wash (essentially a wheat beer, hence the brewery smell) from which the vodka is distilled both come from Washington state. The blackberry honey comes from Moses Lake. Hundreds of pounds of lemons—which come from California and are the only non-local ingredients—are zested by hand, packed into glass carboys and topped with vodka. For seven or eight weeks, the vodka leaches the essential oils from the zest until the liquid takes on a deep, canary yellow color and intense lemon flavor. Then it’s blended with honey syrup, proofed and bottled.

“I’m a flavor geek, is really what it comes down to,” says Tognetti, who’s testing recipes for two more Italian liqueurs he hopes to release by year’s end. His amari—one flavored with citrus and baking spices and one more herbal in flavor—will be named after his grandparents: Amaro Amorino and Amaro Erminia.

Letterpress Distilling
85 S. Atlantic St.