The pulse of Seattle’s distilling culture begins to beat again.
On the last day of 1915, a sign appeared on a door in downtown Seattle. It read, “Died December 31, 1915.” Another sign down the street lamented, “Gone, But Not Soon to Be Forgotten.” Another read, “A Happy and Dry New Year.” Indeed, Seattle’s 1915 New Year’s Eve celebrations were tempered. “The New Year arrived,” noted the Seattle Star, “with soda pop.” As the clock struck midnight Seattle ran dry.
The liquor made in this copper still from Bainbridge Organic Distillers is USDA certified organic. Photography by Andrew Waits for City Arts
It was then that the state joined eighteen other states in outlawing the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors. Not that this stopped Seattleites who wanted a drink. By 2:55 a.m. that morning, arrests were already being made. And throughout Prohibition (federally ratified in 1919 and effected in early 1920), Seattle would be filthy with bootleggers. Officers were shot and killed at a bootlegger warehouse downtown. The bloody incident made the pages of the dailies. Meanwhile, officers confiscated gallons of moonshine in Magnolia and 1,200 quarts of beer in a room downtown. Thirty gallons of sake were discovered in the International District. Arrests were made on Capitol Hill when officers found a twenty-five-gallon still. Seattleites were not going to have the law dictate to them what they could drink, and so, instead of going out looking for it, they made it themselves, much to the chagrin of law enforcement. Prohibition ultimately proved ineffective across the country, and voters repealed it. The dry era ended quietly in Seattle on December 5, 1933. “You walked into a bar on lower 3rd Avenue,” reported the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “there were nine people in the place. A venerable bartender stood with folded arms, looking at wallpaper.”
Venerable Seattle bartenders – and drinkers – have waited for decades since then, hoping for the return of local stills, local spirits and local people with the spirit to create great liquors to imbibe. The law hasn’t stood in the way. It’s been legal to make liquor since those early days of temperance and that failed Noble Experiment of the 1920s, but the state has been virtually dry of distillers. That is, until just recently, when state law was enacted with craft distilling in mind, making it a bit easier and cheaper for business owners with the wherewithal and interest to create spirits.
Now, throughout the region, a burgeoning dram of distillers is becoming known. In Woodinville, Marc Bernhard at Pacific Distillery is making absinthe. Nearby, Dennis Robertson of Soft Tail Spirits is creating grappa. On Bainbridge Island, Keith Barnes and his son are making organic liquors. In Seattle proper, tasting rooms and distillery operations are experiencing spirited growth. K. C. Sheehan in SoDo is making shochu. Steve Stone, at Sound Spirits in Ballard, became the first distilling operation in Seattle since Prohibition. He isn’t the one and only. Black Rock Spirits has made its mark distilling Bakon Vodka, while Sun Liquor Distillery and Oola Distillery on Capitol Hill are well on their way to opening in the coming months. Seattle distilling is taking off.
“I could make it better than what the Europeans were doing,” notes Marc Bernhard. A veteran Boeing employee by day, he’s a connoisseur, collector and maker of absinthe on his off-hours. “What I was tinkering with was way better than what I was buying.” An idea was born: start an absinthe business.
House Bill 2959 passed in the summer of 2008. The law, lobbied for by Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane (the state’s first distillery operation since Prohibition) with an eye towards building a state-born industry, made it legal for small craft distilleries to open tasting rooms and sell limited amounts of alcohol from them. Of course, there are parameters (state-sourced ingredients need to be used, only certain amounts of liquor can be sold off the premises and only so much can be consumed on them), but the law was all that was needed to provide the catalyst for the growing distilling market. Bernhard was, in fact, the second after Dry Fly to receive a license. And so, harnessing his long-time obsession with absinthe, he began.
“I’ve been a collector of old spirits for fifteen years,” he says, “and really wanted to make an absinthe like it was done in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century.” That’s what he’s done – created a liquor based on a Parisian recipe from 1855. Once hugely popular in France, the green-tinged liquor is flavored with wormwood, anise and fennel. Van Gogh drank it. Degas painted it. Émile Zola wrote about it. By 1915, however, absinthe was removed from shelves in all of the U.S. and most of Europe for fear that it was dangerously psychoactive and addictive. Since the 1990s, when the European Union authorized sale again, it has slowly begun to take hold once more, much to Bernhard’s delight. “I love the process and I love doing this with my family.” He’s already won awards for his spirits (he also makes gin), and his products can be found on Washington State liquor store shelves and in area restaurants.
Competing with him on those shelves is Woodinville’s Soft Tail Spirits. “I went to Italy and experienced grappa,” says Dennis Robertson, Soft Tail’s owner. With that, his interest in the liquor made from wine cast-offs – skins, seeds, pressings – was kindled, and he investigated making a business out of it. A vice president at Scrivanich Natural Stone, Robertson says that his liquor making on the side is “a labor of love.” The company consists of Robertson, his wife and one employee who together create the grappa, a liquor with centuries-old peasant roots that’s become more and more metropolitan as people discover it. Seattleites in particular have paid attention because of their interest in locavorism and sustainable practices. Robertson uses wine leftovers that Woodinville’s wineries previously discarded to create his product (he also makes vodka from Washington apples). “I’m expecting it to catch on,” he says. “You can serve grappa with espresso.” With Seattle’s already entrenched love of coffee, the ammazzacaffè, an espresso followed by grappa in its own glass, might just be a hit.
K. C. Sheehan, owner of Sodo Spirits, hopes another obscure liquor will catch on. Shochu, a barley-based spirit, has been made in Japan since the sixteenth century and is currently more popular there than sake. After Sheehan sold his wholesale company in 2008, the same year the new liquor laws took effect, he thought about what to do next. “The idea of creating something that couldn’t be banged out in China and that relied on a hands-on crafting process appealed to me.” Using Palouse-grown barley and a German-made copper pot still, he creates shochu, a spirit most often compared to vodka but more akin to gin without the juniper.
It’s the hands-on process, the attention to detail, the small incremental changes with herb and spice, liquid and heat that means a lot to the area’s distillers. That, and using local products. In fact, to be a craft distiller in the state, one must source at least 51 percent of the product’s ingredients from Washington State. Robertson’s grappa comes from Washington’s grapes, his vodka from Washington’s apples. Sheehan’s shochu comes from farmers on the Palouse.
“It’s a privilege to work with farm families,” says Keith Barnes of Bainbridge Organic Distillers. “That’s one of the best parts of the business.” Barnes also owns a marketing group that specializes in distilled spirits. “Working with local farmers, local suppliers, getting our botanicals locally” means a lot to him. The state’s first distillers for producing USDA organic spirits, they make vodka from wheat, gin from wheat, juniper berries and spruce boughs, and whiskey aged in oak casks. “Our spirits have more character [because they’re organic] than those made from conventionally grown grains,” he asserts.
Of course, just because the liquor is small-batch and done by hand, that doesn’t guarantee that it’s better than what the big companies can create. “I’ve tasted garbage from craft distillers,” says Bernhard. Indeed, recently Clay Risen wrote in the Atlantic, “Brewing is a young man’s game. It’s relatively easy to master the basic techniques involved. … Distilling and aging whiskey, on the other hand, takes decades to master – which is why … two of the greatest distillers alive are both quite long in the tooth.”
Seattle is in its distilling infancy. The city is a newborn compared to nearby Portland, which has so many distillers that the city has its own Distiller’s Row. But Seattle’s liquor makers are learned in the age-old processes, excited about using the highest-quality ingredients and passionate about building a business sector that, for nearly a century in the city, was largely untapped. “Seattle’s going to be a great place for small artisan distillers,” says Barnes. There are agricultural riches within easy reach. There’s the spirit of entrepreneurship. There’s the already established hub in Seattle for craft brewing and coffee making. All signs point to healthy growth.
So, whether on Capitol Hill or in Ballard at Sound Spirits, people are discovering spirits one sip at a time. No more melancholic signs on saloon doors. No more sting operations where illegal moonshine is dumped into the streets. No more bartenders with arms folded, because there is a passion growing locally, and the distillers in the area all love what they do. “If you’re passionate about what you’re doing,” says Bernhard, “you can taste it.” •