Discovering craft micro-distilleries around the Puget Sound
There is a revolution is Washington State that will change the way you drink. It is all too common to think of Tennessee for whiskey, Russia for Vodka, and England for Gin. However, thanks to progressive legislation in 2008, Washington State is making its own spirits. Whether it is Japanese oak aged whiskey, bourbons, or gin flavored with the bark of the endemic Madrone tree, the craft distillers in Washington are changing the consumer’s relationship to booze.
Around the Puget Sound are an ever expanding collection of distilleries that are taking old practices and discovering new ways to craft small batch liquors. Unfettered by the heavy chains of tradition they can explore how making booze has changed over the years and play with new flavors and ingredients. Names like Bainbridge Organic Distillers, Copperworks Distilling, Chambers Bay Distillery, San Juan Island Distillery, and Heritage Distilling are becoming household names.
With the largest selection of craft liquor and some very interesting programs, Heritage Distilling is a forerunner in the campaign to make new drinks that honor tradition while looking forward to the future. Located in the charming town of Gig Harbor, their signature BSB, or Brown Sugar Bourbon, is a high-powered bourbon that has the sultry smooth taste of a maple syrup without any of the sugary stickiness. My personal favorite is the Fall Classic, an apple cider whiskey with a hit of cinnamon. Each of their craft liquors is tasty and boldly flavorful, but not too sweet. Their dedication to using actual ingredients instead of chemical flavorings leaves us with a pantheon of local liquors that all have sumptuous and intriguing flavors.
Viewfinder Tip: Make a day trip of any of these distilleries and book a hotel near by so that you can enjoy the local area and won’t need to drive.
As co-founder Justin Stiefel and his wife moved back to Washington from the East Coast to embark on this quest to make whiskeys, bourbons, vodkas, and more with local flavors and excellent science. Their dedication to the distillery process goes beyond just making great spirits. They have a program that allows you to come in and use a small still to make your own booze. Heritage walks you through the whole process and then allows you to take home the liquor you produce. Want to take it a step further? Try their Cask Club and store your liquor in a ten gallon cask as you age it to perfection. Some of the Cask Club creations have gone on to change the landscape at Heritage. As co-founder Justin Stiefel says, “We have taken our customers small batch liquors to international competitions and walked away with gold medals.” In essence this is the heart of Heritage, working with and in the community to make excellent spirits that tell the story of Washington.
Another titan of the industry is Bainbridge Organic Distillers. Using exclusively organic ingredients for every step of the process they have created world renowned vodkas that are studded with gold medals from a wide swath of international competitors. The distillery’s vanilla vodka also just won “world’s best vanilla vodka” in a UK competition among over 1,000 competitors. Founder Keith Barnes is a former molecular biologist and the grandson of a whiskey bootlegger. His commitment to making every product that Bainbridge Organic Distillers produces from 100 percent organic ingredients has made them one of the most popular distilleries in the state. Bold experiments like the Yama whiskey set them on the map. It is the only non-Japanese whiskey aged exclusively in Japanese Mizunara oak barrels and is an homage to the former Japanese village of Yama (now an archeological dig site) that was formed on Bainbridge Island in 1883.
Other distilleries like San Juan Island Distillery have taken to using local flavors, including Madrone bark, to elevate their liquors to the next level. Founded by Hawk and Suzy Pingree when they saw a local cidery owned by their now partner Rich Anderson and said, “Why isn’t that guy making apple brandy.” Today their apple brandy is a gem among a large shelf of local liquors, not the least of which is their spy hop wheat gin. Many of their gins use local flavors found only on the San Juans. Hawk comments that, “With our gins we really wanted to make a gin that expressed the San Juan Islands.” Foraging locally all the botanicals they can, they now have a massive and broad collection of gins that do just that.
Another note worthy distillery is Chambers Bay Distillery. Cofounders, Jeff Robinette and Alan Davis began Chambers Bay Distillery in 2012. Their passion was whiskey, but the pursuit of the perfect spirit took over and now they are expanding into vodka and beyond. Their flagship spirit is the absurdly delicious Greenhorn Bourbon, which just received a gold medal at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirit Competition. They’ve taken to aging their bourbons on a houseboat in University Place where the salty air and the motion of the boat as the tide ebbs and flows both contribute to the flavor of the bourbon.
No matter what you like, there is something for you in Washington. With an ever expanding list of craft micro-distilleries in the state there is no end to what you might discover.
To embark on the Golden Circle Distillery Trail of the Puget Sound yourself, we recommend:
- Heritage Distilling Co., Gig Harbor
- Chambers Bay Distillery, Chambers Bay
- Copperworks Distilling, Seattle
- Woodinville Whiskey Co., Woodinville
- San Juan Island Distillery, San Juan Island
- Bainbridge Organic Distillers, Bainbridge Island
- Tucker Distillery, Silverdale
- The Hardware Distillery, Hoodsport
- Blind Pig Spirits, Olympia
Did we miss your favorite? Let us know so we can go taste it.
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Chris and Tawny have had articles and videos published on USA TODAY TRAVEL, BBC Travel, Matador Network, as well as appeared as guest stars on TLC Asia's Fun Taiwan television series. When not on the road, you can find Chris and Tawny nestled in their home in Tacoma, Washington fueling up on coffee and cat cuddles while planning their future adventures. You can follow their travels on their blog, Instagram, and YouTube