A distilling fervor has gripped Washington, giving the state five new liquor makers in the past year and 13 more awaiting distillery licenses. New interest was sparked by a craft distillery law passed last summer that allows small distilleries to open tasting rooms and sell limited amounts of liquor from them.
The first surprise when people hear about Pacifique absinthe from Woodinville is that absinthe is available at all.
It’s known as a mysterious green liquor banned decades ago for supposedly driving drinkers mad.
The second surprise is that hard liquor is made in Woodinville, land of wine-sipping and bucolic picnics.
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Yet there it is, a licorice-flavored concoction being served with water and sugar cubes at homes and bars around Washington.
Absinthe and gin began flowing a couple months ago from an industrial park in Woodinville.
Grappa is being made by another Woodinville distillery with a tasting room alongside popular wineries.
A distilling fervor has gripped Washington, giving the state five new liquor makers in the past year and 13 more awaiting distillery licenses.
New interest was sparked by a craft-distillery law passed last summer that allows small distilleries to open tasting rooms and sell limited amounts of liquor from them.
“Finally, we’re going to catch up with Oregon,” rejoiced Murray Stenson, a longtime Seattle bartender who pours drinks at Zig Zag Café.
He and others have long wondered why the state isn’t overrun with distilleries turning apples, cherries and other fruit into liquor. Oregon has 17 distilleries, and by some accounts will continue to be better for business because its distilleries are not required to use 51 percent state-sourced ingredients, as the new craft distilleries in Washington are.
“It should’ve been called the agricultural-distillery license,” said Gwydion Stone, a Seattleite who travels to Portland to make his Marteau absinthe. “I use grape-neutral spirits for absinthe. It’s high-proof, unaged brandy, and no one in Washington is producing that.”
Despite that limitation, Washington is climbing its way back from the drier days of early 2007, when only two distilleries in the state had federal licenses and neither was actively selling liquor.
Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, which started producing gin and vodka under the traditional distillery license that year, pushed the Legislature for a craft-distillery license and proudly held its first tasting within minutes of receiving state approval last July.
“It just happened that somebody walked in the door right after we got the call from the state,” said Dry Fly co-owner Don Poffenroth.
He’s too busy making gin, vodka and whiskey to worry about the wave of competition created by the law Dry Fly wanted. The small distilleries’ collective market power pales next to that of global liquor conglomerates, he said.
Local liquor is popular at local bars, which is vital to small distilleries’ success, said Mike Sherwood, co-founder of the Oregon Distillers Guild and owner of Sub Rosa Spirits in Portland.
“The community has really gotten behind the craft distilling scene, as it did with the fine-wine and craft-beer movements,” he said.
Bartenders in Washington are jazzed about the local liquor and see it in their customers, said Jim Romball, who manages the Seattle bar Vessel and helped found the Washington Bartenders Guild last year.
“I’m excited for the Washington apple brandy,” he said, although he doesn’t know of anyone who has applied for a license to make it.
“They’re off doing it in their kitchens,” said Romball, who is aware that brewing alcohol at home remains illegal. “How else are you going to learn?”
One of Zig Zag Café’s best-selling gins, Voyager, comes from Pacific Distillery in Woodinville, which got its distillery license late last year and makes the increasingly popular Pacifique abinsthe.
The gin costs about the same as other good gin: $27.70 a bottle in state liquor stores or $9 in a martini at Zig Zag. The absinthe runs $62.95 a bottle at state stores or $12 a shot at Zig Zag, where some absinthe brands reach $14 or $15 a shot.
Pacific is not a craft distiller, although owners Marc and Marjorie Bernhard make small batches and grow ingredients such as wormwood and hyssop in their backyard in Everett.
Too many of their ingredients come from out of state — such as the Kentucky grain spirits that form a base for their gin and absinthe, and the Florence, Italy, fennel that costs more than $10 a pound — for them to apply for the new craft distillery license.
Marc Bernhard is a stickler about his ingredients, because he tasted so much bad absinthe on his way to discovering the good stuff.
Practice makes perfect
Only when Bernhard got hold of a century-old bottle from Europe did he realize why people once loved absinthe. “I said, ‘That’s why at 5 o’clock in France people used to go to cafes by the tens of thousands.’ “
It took years to replicate, with the Bernhards and their friends trying different recipes and ingredients, sampling the result and trying again. While they honed their absinthe-making skills, the liquor became legal. Or, more accurately, everyone realized that absinthe never should have been illegal. It was banned for decades because it was believed to have much higher levels of a chemical called thujone than it had.
Bernhard went into business. And because he didn’t want to be a one-liquor wonder, he added gin to the mix. The venture is new, and Bernhard hasn’t quit his day job in flight operations at Boeing.
Michael Almquist, of Vin Co. on Queen Anne, applied for a distillery license so he can make gin, vodka, grappa and other flavored liquors from the grape juice that doesn’t make it into his wines.
It’s something he’s thought about for years, but he found the old distillery law confusing.
“Now it’s understandable and streamlined, and there’s increasing excitement,” Almquist said. “There’s a lot of excitement from people wanting to visit the facility, watch it being made, purchase it, taste it.”
He ordered a hand-hammered copper still from Portugal and hopes to hear about his distillery application this summer.
Soft Tail Spirits in Woodinville is using its copper still from Portugal to make grappa. Co-owner Dennis Robertson became interested in grappa years ago while visiting Italy for a stone business that he also co-owns and which is in the same building as the grapparia.
He never would have opened the distillery without the new law, because sampling and selling directly to tourists is such a large part of the appeal.
Under the old law, “if I had a customer visit the distillery, I would have to send them to a liquor store to buy my product,” Robertson said.
Murray Stenson from Zig Zag Café salutes Dry Fly for kicking off Washington’s distillery craze. “They gave the inspiration to other people who were thinking about doing the same thing and were supposedly scared off by what it took to deal with the liquor board,” Stenson said. “I’m all for it.”
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org