With more than 100 small distilleries opening in the last six years, Washington is leading the “farm-to-tumbler” movement.
It’s a safe bet that few would stare at the rain and mist off the harbor of Hoquiam and think, “This feels a lot like Western Scotland. Let’s make single-malt whiskey here.”
But Emerson Lamb did. He’s already building a second warehouse, about a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean, with the sole purpose of aging 10,000 barrels of amber liquor off this foggy bank.
“The climate there is stable with high humidity,” explained Lamb, “which is the key part of the flavor and balance we are looking for in whiskey.”
Lamb, whose great-great-grandfather George Emerson was a titan in the lumber industry and an early settler of Hoquiam, is the proprietor of Sodo’s Westland Distillery and one of the major players in the recent distillery boom.
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“It has been our stated goal to put Washington state on the map as the world class place to make single malt whiskey alongside Scotland,” said the 25-year-old Lamb.
Lamb’s declaration, which would have drawn fall-off-your-barstool-laughter a decade ago, is not only gaining traction among distillers but has also set off a race to deliver the first great single malt in Washington state — and to grow the barley to make that happen.
Indeed, researchers from Oregon State University to Washington State University have confirmed what Lamb and farmers have long suspected: that the maritime climate here mirrors that of Scotland, where some of the world’s best single malts are made.
“It’s a game-changer,” said Stephen Jones, director of the WSU Research and Extension Center at Mount Vernon. “It’s opening up a whole new world. We don’t need to look at Tennessee and Kentucky for high-quality whiskeys. We can do it right here.”
Nationwide, small distilleries are surging, with a record 500 in operation, and 250 more on the way. Going from zero to 110 micro distilleries in the last six years, Washington has more than any other state. The American Distilling Institute (ADI) projects that a fifth of all the micro distilleries in America are here.
Seattle, with 24 micro distilleries, has the most of any city in America.
“The city of Seattle is the fastest growing and the most progressive,” said ADI president Bill Owens. “There’s an artisanal spirit here.”
The boom was largely enabled by the 2008 craft-distilling law, conceived of and driven by would-be whiskey makers Don Poffenroth and Kent Fleischmann of Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane.
Seeking a career change, they thought they found an untapped market in craft spirits. Washington, after all, is the second largest wine-producing state (after California) and is a major player in the microbrewery scene. Booze seemed like a natural progression.
The pair quickly figured why everyone didn’t share their enthusiasm: It took them six months to get a license that costs $2,000 annually. And still, it was useless as far as they were concerned. It didn’t allow them to sell or offer samples out of their distillery, like a brewery or winery.
If you wanted to sample our vodka, “We would have to send you to the nearest bar that carried the product,” said Fleischmann. “That didn’t make sense to us. We wanted a level playing field with the wineries and breweries.”
Their push to change the archaic law went nowhere in Olympia — until the two former marketing guys figured out they needed to “tell a story.”
Their pitch: This could help our farm industry.
They got their then-state senator, Chris Marr, to sponsor a bill that allowed distillers to get tax breaks and run tasting rooms as long as 51 percent of the ingredients used to make the liquor were grown in Washington.
The “drink local” and “farm-to-table” angle gave the bill sex appeal.
Driven by that narrative, the bill easily passed, with only one “nay” vote in the House.
Under the new law, craft distillers pay $100 for an annual license and can get it in as few as 60 days.
The Washington State Liquor Control Board reports distillers produced nearly 50,000 gallons of booze last year, a 25 percent jump from the previous year. Many distillers project those figures will rise dramatically this year.
But just as the craft-distilling law enabled small makers, the privatization of the industry challenged them. Many have discovered how cutthroat hawking booze can be. According to state records, about 20 companies that applied for a craft-distillery license have withdrawn their applications.
Along with the high liquor tax, a major factor, according to the Washington State Distillers Guild, is the 2012 voter-approved initiative that took the state out of the retail liquor business.
Without the 329 state-run liquor stores, the onus fell on the distilleries to find distributors to truck their products to bars and stores and market their brand, no small feat for many distilleries run by husband-and-wife teams with limited capital.
Ideally, the free-market concept is good, but realistically, many craft distilleries said it’s the equivalent of competing against Coke and Pepsi.
Reid Jensen of then RBDL Distillery built a still and tasting room in Arlington but decided to cut his losses after the state privatized liquor sales. He realized local distilleries can’t sell vodka as cheaply as the big-name mass producers.
Jensen said he noticed stores all carried big brand names such as Smirnoff and Grey Goose, often prominently shelved at eye-level, but not many carried local vodkas. “The new guy doesn’t have a chance,” he said.
Fleischmann of Dry Fly said, “You walk into a liquor store or grocery store — these [stores] are not extending the aisles 10 more feet. You look at the back bar, it’s full. They’re not going to add 3 more feet of shelf space. Your product is going to have to stand out in order to displace someone off that shelf.”
Many believe single malt, uncommon in America, is one way to get onto those shelves.
Many Northwest distilleries believe they can dominate the single malt category much like Kentucky has dominated the bourbon market. The Northwest has better growing and aging climate to make single malt than other regions, they say.
In June 2010, after planting more than 1,000 different types of barley and wheat around Western Washington and other areas, WSU’s Jones concluded that the maritime climate from Vancouver, Wash., to Vancouver, B.C., is ideal for growing the barley strains that have low protein and high starch, the same types that produce a “complex flavor — sweet, but not white-sugar sweet,” he said. “You can compare it to a maple syrup … It has a very natural sweetness.”
It means local farmers can grow the strains of barley used in the Old World to make single malts, and distillers can age their whiskeys in the same mild temperature as much of the world’s best scotch.
There are only a handful of regions around the world that have the right climate to grow this type of barley, Jones said.
At OSU, scientists drew the same conclusion and are working to breed a hybrid of the heirloom strain “Golden Promise,” which was widely used in Scotland 60 years ago. Researchers believe they can create a Golden Promise-like strain that is disease resistant and can produce a higher yield.
Those two university studies were a revelation. Even some brewers want to make whiskey. And farmers are looking to barley as a crop that could be profitable in the future.
“There was zero winter barley planted in Skagit County five years ago. Today, there’s at least 5,000 acres,” Jones said. Nearby counties are also starting to grow barley.
Four years ago, the Skagit Valley Malting Company started up partly to tailor barleys for whiskey makers.
Some brewers have even made midcareer changes to distilling, since they were familiar with barley from making beer. (Technically, whiskey is just distilled beer.)
Jason Parker, a former brewer at Pyramid, Red Hook and Pike Brewing, is among those who have transitioned to single malt.
“Bourbon is so well made, there’s so much of it and at such a good price point, there’s no need to try,” said Parker, a Kentucky native who co-owns Copperworks Distilling Company near Pike Place Market. “But there is a huge gap in American malt whiskey.”
About 10 distilleries — like Dry Fly, Capitol Hill’s Sun Liquor and Wildwood Spirits Co. in Bothell — have single malts in the works. Westland, however, is the leader to catch.
Dave Broom, one of the world’s leading whiskey experts, called their single malt “top notch. Its spirit is young but beautifully balanced. I was blown away by it on so many levels.”
Earlier, the influential Imbibe magazine said one of Westland’s early releases “may raise the bar against which craft whiskeys are judged.”
Westland’s 13,000-square-foot facility in Sodo is a $4 million distillery. (By comparison, many Seattle distilleries spend as little as $50,000 on equipment.)
Its flagship product features five types of barley, including Old World varietals grown in the Palouse. Westland has also aged whiskey made with barley from Skagit Valley.
“Barley is the most complex and flavorful grain in the whiskey-making process. And the state of Washington grows world-class barley,” Emerson said. “It’s what drove us to make single malt whiskey in Washington.”
But it’s the briny air out on the Pacific Coast that Emerson is counting on to give the spirit its “expression,” as they say in the whiskey world — its ineffable appeal.