Wildwood Spirits Co. in Bothell meticulously crafts gin, vodka and a new bourbon called The Dark Door.
SOMMELIER ERIK LIEDHOLM counts himself lucky that in all his years of making grappa as a hobby, he didn’t hurt himself, go blind or get arrested for moonshine. Now he’s gone pro, as head distiller at Wildwood Spirits Co.
When John Howie assembled the team for his first restaurant, Bellevue’s Seastar, he really wanted Liedholm as his wine director. Asked what it would take to woo him from his job as food and beverage director at Seattle’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, Liedholm scratched out a wish list on a piece of paper. He cared about quality of life and freedom to run the wine program. Making whiskey was nowhere on that list, but 17 years later, that’s what they are doing at Wildwood Spirits Co. in Bothell.
Liedholm is still corporate wine director for John Howie Restaurants, backed by a team of eight sommeliers at Seastar and five at John Howie Steak, but the 48-year-old father of three was an amateur distiller for years. He and a friend made grappa, an Italian brandy distilled from grape pomace, the solid residue of the winemaking process. When they came up with a pretty good one, Howie got interested and said, “Let’s do something bigger.”
Wildwood Spirits Co.
The Bothell tasting room is open from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. For more information: wildwoodspiritsco.com.
Washington state recently had changed its tied-house laws, removing restrictions that kept restaurant owners from having a financial stake in the sale and distribution of alcohol, and Howie was in talks with the developer of Bothell’s Beardslee Crossing to open a brew pub, Beardslee Public House. A small adjacent space became home to Wildwood’s distillery and tasting room.
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Liedholm grew up on Wildwood Street in Lansing, Mich. Those roots proved useful when he started research and development. The most prominent consultant in the field was Kris Berglund, a master distiller and professor of chemical engineering and food science at Michigan State University in Lansing. The busy Berglund was loath to take on a new project, but Liedholm played all his cards: His dad was a professor at MSU, he went there (a cum laude graduate of the School of Hospitality Business) and he’s Swedish.
Once he sealed the deal with Berglund, Liedholm shipped 15,000 pounds of Washington winter red wheat to Michigan. The shipping cost three times as much as the wheat. He went to Michigan on and off for months to work with Berglund, bunking with his parents at his childhood home. He ended up with a blueprint and practical knowledge for the spirits he wanted to create. For analytical experience, he took an online course with London’s Institute of Brewing & Distilling. It concluded with an immersive, monthlong class in London and a weeklong exam to earn his master distiller certification. While there, he staged at Sipsmith, the first copper-pot distillery to open within the city’s limits in 200 years, and a model for Wildwood.
Wildwood’s shiny copper equipment is visible from the tasting room, which is designed to look like a vintage English apothecary. The process starts with milling the grain — wheat only for the vodka and gin, wheat and corn for the bourbon — all Washington grown. The milled grains go into a mash tun, where starches are converted to simple sugars. The mash is fermented, then put through a pot still and a column still.
“We, being masochists, decided to do this the hard way,” Liedholm says with his customary cheeky humor. “If you go into a distillery and they don’t have the columns, they are not making the spirit; they are buying it from somewhere else.” The goal for the vodka is “to make it taste like nothing, which is tricky and takes a lot of time. It’s my least favorite thing to make, and it’s the hardest thing to do. If the vodka has a strong aroma and flavor, it will affect the gin.”
Liedholm calls vodka “the tofu of the spirit world” because it takes on whatever you introduce it to. Gin is flavored vodka. Juniper is the only required ingredient. Wildwood’s botanical mix also includes Seville oranges, cardamom, orris root, Douglas fir needles and Braeburn apples — the latter two harvested from Liedholm’s backyard. As a perfumer does, he captures the essence of each fresh ingredient separately, using fractional distillation.
Wildwood’s Kur gin (pronounced cure) is very dry, gently piney and bright with citrus. It was one of Wine & Spirit Magazine’s Top Ten Spirits of 2014, the year it was first released. The gin and the vodka, aptly named Stark Vatten (“strong water” in Swedish), have earned industry accolades. This year, Wildwood released a wheated bourbon, The Dark Door, that won Double Gold at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition. The drawing on the label is a doorway topped by an imposing neo-Georgian pediment. It’s is the entrance to the house on Wildwood Street.
The bourbon has a tropical, almost-coconutty sweetness. Made from 80 percent corn and 20 percent wheat, it’s aged for two years in oak barrels. As a sommelier, Liedholm is picky about barrels. The handmade ones he tracked down at a Missouri cooperage are triple the cost of factory-made. “Why skimp on that when you have taken an artisan approach every other step of the way?” he reasons. In February, Wildwood Spirits Co. began releasing The Dark Door, a barrel at a time (about 320 bottles), every three months. The next release date is in August.
Liedholm hasn’t abandoned grappa. One day last fall, he drove the Seastar catering truck to W.T. Vintners in Woodinville and picked up 1,000 pounds of chenin blanc pomace. It yielded just 24 bottles of grappa. It tastes softly floral, with a jolt like lightning from a summer storm still miles away. He named it Arande, Swedish for “tribute,” and put a photo of his grandfather, George, on the label.