Spirit Makers

Washington’s craft distilling industry is on fire

There is no denying that Washington is home to its fair share of makers and small business owners. But there’s one local industry in particular that, in contrast to other parts of the country, has blazed the trail: craft distilling.

In 2008, a piece of legislation passed in the state of Washington allowed entrepreneurs to open and operate small batch distilleries, something that hadn’t been allowed in Washington since before Prohibition. When the legislation passed, it didn’t take long before hopeful small business owners started applying for craft distillery permits in droves.

“Whether it’s a dot-com or a great restaurant group, Washington just attracts those self starters.”

Over the past eight years, craft distilleries have cropped up across the state in cities as large as Seattle and in towns as tiny as Anacortes. And as more and more distilleries continue to open their doors, patrons haven’t hesitated to drink up.

In a corner of the world where microbreweries and boutique wineries already reigned supreme, craft distilling quickly carved out its own slice of the pie, rising to the top as a nationwide leader in craft spirits.

A Growing Industry
According to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, there are currently more than 100 distilleries in the state, 85 of which are licensed as craft distilleries, and most of which are located in King County. In fact, the Washington Distillers Guild, a 501(c)6 nonprofit that represents and works to promote the success of distilleries in the state, estimates Washington is home to more distilleries than any other state in the country, with most operating in King County.

But what is it about Washington, and King County specifically, that sets it apart from other distilling hubs across the country?

It’s the people.

“It’s the mentality of the people that are here,” Washington Distillers Guild Vice President and Captive Spirits Co-Founder/National Marketing and Sales Manager Holly Robinson said. “Whether it’s a dot-com or a great restaurant group, Washington just attracts those self-starters.”

In fact, it was the self-starting co-founders of Spokane-based Dry Fly Distilling that helped pave the way for other craft distilleries in the state.

127Blazing the Trail
Before 2008, business owners could apply for general distilling licenses, which limited who could open a distillery due to the upfront costs involved. What Dry Fly did was work with state lobbyists to get a discount if they used Washington-grown products. Today, all distilleries with craft distillery licenses in the state are required by law to source at least 51 percent of their ingredients locally.

The fervor Dry Fly displayed in the early 2000s was a glimpse into what Washington’s distilling scene would become. Woodinville Whiskey Co. owner and co-founder Orlin Sorenson has been watching that growth and helping fuel the fire since opening his distillery seven years ago.

“When we started in late 2009, there were a handful of distilleries in Washington. Fast forward to 2016 with over 100, and Washington has more distilleries than any other state in the country,” Sorenson said.

Watching that growth has been exciting, and Sorenson agrees—there’s something special about the people here.

Being located in Woodinville, Sorenson attributes some of the industry’s success to the strong foundation local breweries and wineries established in the state years ago. “The craft wine and beer industries in Washington have absolutely helped lay the groundwork for the success in the craft distilling industry,” he said. “And consumers here are very supportive of local and love to try new things.”

“The craft wine and beer industries in Washington have absolutely helped lay the groundwork for the success in the craft distilling industry.”

Without those curious consumers, many small-batch distilleries wouldn’t survive. “I really believe the success of the craft distillery starts in its tasting room with grass-roots marketing,” Sorenson added. “We don’t have the marketing budgets to compete with the giants, but we have the ability to share our brands’ personalities directly through the visitor experience.”

From the creative minds of the makers behind each small-batch spirit, to the unwavering curiosity of the patrons who imbibe in tasting rooms across the state, Washington’s distilling scene is booming — and it’s really only just getting started.

Adapting to a Changing Market
For an old pro like Sorenson who has been in the biz since its early days, he knows what it takes to be successful in this increasingly competitive market. “With hundreds of local products now competing for space on store shelves, you really need to have something unique that is going to set you apart,” he explained. “If I had to start a distillery all over today with what I know, my two absolutes would be a great and unique product, and a distillery in an area with a lot of foot traffic.”

For King County distilleries, foot traffic is easy to find. Located in the most populous, urban part of the state, city dwellers from Seattle to the Eastside don’t have to travel far to find good spirits.

A strong customer base isn’t the only thing distillers need to stay afloat. They also require a sense of community, which is easy to come by, thanks to the support provided through the Washington Distillers Guild.

“We try to focus on how we can benefit our members,” Robinson said. One big way the Guild does this is by working to pass legislation to lower taxes for craft distillers. “We pay the same amount of taxes as giant companies,” Robinson explained.

But beyond the bureaucracy of it all, the Washington Distillers Guild also helps create a sense of community among its members, helping to guide the industry as a whole as it continues to grow into the future.

“As our young industry is still paving its path, our Washington Distillers Guild is still trying to define a unified voice,” Sorenson explained. “I think the Guild has made some good progress at the legislative level, and state representatives have been very supportive of keeping our industry moving forward in a highly regulated atmosphere.”

With this full circle of support, from patrons, to the Guild, to the state, and the distillers who keep the industry growing, the future for Washington distillers is strong.

Lift your spirits at these 10 Washington distilleries

Get botanical with broVo
Experimental spirits – including liqueurs, amaro, and vermouth – find their home at Woodinville’s broVo Spirits. By working closely alongside talented and innovative bartenders, broVo Spirits works hard to create a collection of liquors infused with aromatic botanicals, handcrafted in the traditional way.

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Photo by TPK Photography

Drink up for a good cause
Woodinville-based distillery Four Leaf Spirits creates rum and other liqueurs using sugar cane and mostly locally sourced ingredients. In addition to concocting great spirits, this Eastside distillery is also big on giving back, donating a portion of its proceeds to a variety of cancer research centers and educational nonprofits.

Go green with Bainbridge Organic Distillers
Bainbridge Organic Distillers made a name for itself in 2009, when it became the stateís first USDA Certified Organic distillery. In addition to making 100 percent organic spirits, Bainbridge Organic Distillers is also committed to creating everything it produces from scratch, onsite, and all while practicing environmentally friendly and sustainable distilling practices.

Discover your GINiology at Scratch Distillery
Itching to learn more about gin? Edmonds-based Scratch Distillery offers visitors a chance to learn about the history and production of gin, all while sampling cocktails and crafting botanical recipes to bottle and take home.

Have your dessert and drink it, too
Start with a good base, then add USDA Certified Organic herbs and fruits, distill using an ancient method of cold maceration, and imbibe. That’s the process Lacey’s Salish Sea Organic Liqueur follows to create a diverse selection of flavorful liqueurs, ranging from cinnamon and honeysuckle, to more surprising flavors like rose petal and thyme-coriander.

Photo by David Cole

Photo by David Cole

Howling for hooch
Whiskey, gin, and vodka are all staples on 3 Howls Distilling’s menu, but in addition to the usual suspects, this Seattle distillery also offers a wide selection of surprising spirits. For something out the ordinary, try 3 Howls’ Blood Orange Flavored Vodka, Navy Strength Gin, or Hopped Flavored Whiskey, just to name a few.

Spirits that soar
The only thing better than sipping tasty spirits at sea level is imbibing at 39,000 feet. Seattle’s popular Sun Liquor boasts two locations for enjoying spirits on land at its distillery and lounge, offering gin, vodka, rum, and more. But you donít have to have two feet on the ground to sip on these boozy beverages. Alaska Airlines travelers can also enjoy Sun Liquor spirits while soaring through the skies, as mini bottles are offered in-flight.

Not your average grape
With wineries on every corner, Woodinville is no stranger to grapes. But Grapeworks Distilling has transformed this favorite fruit into a specialty beverage unlike others well-known in the area. Grapeworksí grape spirit isn’t a vodka or brandy (although they make those, too). It’s a distinct blend of Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris grapes that can be enjoyed solo or mixed as a cocktail.

A little bit of everything
Travel north to Bellingham, and all the members in your party will find something to sip on at Chuckanut Bay Distillery. With nine kinds of spirits available on the menu – including a Krampus Herbal Liqueur and the hoppy Greenman’s Dram – choosing your favorite is the hardest part.  

Coastal flavor
There’s no better way to pay homage to the hardworking history of our state’s coastline than by raising a glass to the past. And that’s sort of the intention behind Wishkah River Distillery’s whiskey, vodka, and gin. Whether you spent a day working in the mill or playing on the water, everyone is invited to enjoy the old-fashioned flavors offered at this coastal distillery.

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is a staff writer at 425 magazine. Email her.
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