The Spirit of Wildwood

It’s 1 p.m., and the sign on the door says, “The Doctor Is Out.” I knock and peer through the glass into the white subway-tiled room. A small porcelain bathtub of gin bottles decorating the entry paints a smile on my face — a sly reference to the bathtub gin of yore. Then the door opens, and Erik Liedholm welcomes me to his distilling apothecary at Wildwood Spirits Co. The doctor is now in.

Tall and slender, looking perpetually sharp in his slim-cut suit and fastidious haircut, it’s easy to place Liedholm in his chosen profession as an advanced sommelier and company wine director for John Howie Restaurants. Then there are his shoes — irreverently casual sneakers — and it is clear that this guy isn’t afflicted by the boorish snobbery that stereotypically plagues some in his line of work.

Even the idea that such an accomplished wine professional chose to open a distillery hints at Liedholm’s humorous side. A winery would make so much more sense.

Erik Liedholm, advanced sommelier and company wine director for John Howie Restaurants

“But, that’s what everyone else is doing,” he said. And, Liedholm clearly marches to his own beat.

In addition to his role in the wine world, Liedholm is also an accomplished chef, having cooked alongside an impressive assortment of characters like Gordon Ramsay and Eric Ripert. It’s the culinary skills of combining flavors that inform Liedholm’s spirits, especially the house special, the Kur Gin — a London dry-style gin.

To make a great gin, you must first make a great vodka. Liedholm said it’s actually a bit challenging to make a truly flavorless, odorless vodka. Not that a little challenge ever stopped him. The Stark Vatten vodka has already won several awards; its clean flavor and oily texture are hallmarks of a quality vodka

For the gin production, Liedholm painstakingly distills each botanical separately instead of throwing them all in at once “bathtub”-style. He even sources a few of them from his backyard (apples, Douglas fir). Kur has a distinctly citrus note from Seville oranges, though they are particular about things like sunshine and must be imported from California. Since gin is, at its core, a juniper-flavored spirit, nothing but the best will do — and the best gin-quality juniper comes from Bulgaria. Even so, 90 percent of Liedholm’s ingredients are from Washington state, and the grain is milled in-house.

Liedholm officially headed down the spirits road in 2011, when he trucked 15,000 pounds of Washington winter red wheat to Michigan to learn under Dr. Kris Berglund of Michigan State University’s Artisan Distilling Program. “If we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it right,” he said, consulting with “Ph.D. dorks” until he found the flavor profile he was looking for. Unlike some gins that brag about their 47 botanicals, Liedholm adheres to a more harmonious selection of flavors.

The distilling happens in the Willy Wonka-inspired room next door. Through peekaboo windows on the far side of the tasting room, gleaming copper stills perform the scientific magic of turning grain into alcohol. Liedholm chose this equipment with the hopes of making grappa one day, though that puts him back into the world of wine grapes. If all the stars align this fall, he’s hoping to source some Viognier or Chenin Blanc from local winemakers — grappa is best from white grapes that have not been heavily treated with sulfites, and only minimally pressed.

When asked whether other specialty spirits like aquavit or brandy are on the horizon, Liedholm replied, “If we didn’t make our gin the way we do, we’d have some other specialty spirits.” And, in fact, there is a Wildwood bourbon aging in some topnotch barrels on-site. Even after just a year, the caramel and toffee aromatics hint at its potential.

But Wildwood’s crown jewel is worth the brevity of options. Kur’s smooth texture and delicately balanced flavor mean it can be sipped neat without the intervention of tonic, though it does beg to be partnered with Campari and vermouth for a truly blissful negroni — not surprisingly, Liedholm’s favorite cocktail.

The Wildwood Negroni

  • 1 ounce Kur Gin
  • 1 ounce Campari
  • 1 ounce (plus a skosh more) Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
  • 2 strips of orange peel

Add the ingredients to a cocktail shaker with 1 strip of orange peel. Muddle to extract the orange oils. Shake with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass (try a couplet-style glass). Garnish with a fresh twist of orange peel.

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