When Marc Bernhard received his full license for a small artisanal distillery in Woodinville in 2008, there weren’t many people in the state touting their own handcrafted liquor.
“There was only one other distillery” in the state, said Bernhard, who learned to make green absinthe, a once-forbidden anise-flavored drink, out of distiller manuals found in antique book shops.
Now Bernhard’s version of the so-called “green muse” is in good, and growing, company. At the old Rainier brewery in Sodo, a fundraiser held by the state’s budding artisanal industry Sunday drew hundreds eager for a taste of locally made spirits.
Dozens lined up in the rain, while inside guests soft-sipped thimblefuls of Sound Spirit’s Ebb+Flow Gin, The Hardware Distillery’s Bee’s Knees Merry Cherry, and Swede Hill’s Apple Pie Moonshine. Bernhard’s own absinthe is dubbed Pacifique Abinsthe Verte.
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“We like to buy local,” said Lindsey Smith, 26, of Tacoma, who bought a bottle of hopped whiskey from Seattle’s 3 Howls Distillery.
Lindsey said she is into the local craft-beer scene, so the taste of hops is a good bridge into the burgeoning world of spirits.
The so-called “Meet Your Maker” local distillery tasting was organized to raise money for the Washington Distiller Guild, a group of local artisanal liquor makers.
It’s the tasting’s second annual incarnation. The makers’ growing numbers, and the long lines at the door, underscore how Washington state punches way above its weight in the craft-distiller movement, which has taken off in the past decade amid sweeping changes in state liquor-making rules and America’s growing ardor for all things handcrafted.
Washington has long been an incubator of high-quality beverages — from lattes to fine wines and robust home-brewed India pale ales.
So when the state created in 2008 a craft-distillery license with advantageous terms for small-batch producers sourcing the majority of their ingredients locally, it opened the floodgates for a river of tastefully crafted booze.
That law created a framework for the craft. But it also, decades after the end of prohibition, lit a light bulb in entrepreneurs’ heads, said Steven Stone, president of the Washington Distillers Guild and head of Sound Spirits. “It made people realize no one was doing it,” he said.
Now the state, which in 2007 had two distilleries working under federal licenses, has 71 craft-distillery licensees, according to the Washington State Liquor Control Board.
Given that the American Craft Distillers Association says there are about 350 craft distilleries in the U.S., that means Washington’s population of 7 million has an outsized knack for moonshine.
It’s a Pacific Northwest thing. Neighboring Oregon has 69 distilleries, according to that state’s Liquor Control Commission.
Small distillers, though, face tough challenges. “It’s difficult to get placement in large stores,” Bernhard, the absinthe maker, said, adding that specialty retailers such as BevMo! account for a large part of his distribution.
Local distillers also say the tax burden on liquor is too high, making its price uncompetitive and pressuring profit margins for small producers, which cannot rely on huge economies of scale to keep costs low.
Stone, who founded Sound Spirits in Seattle in 2010, said that pressure hasn’t allowed the business to really take off.
“I still have my day job,” said Stone, an aerospace engineer. “That was not the plan.”
Ángel González: 206-464-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @gonzalezseattle