Bellewood Acres Distillery
STORY BY GINA SAETTONE
PHOTOS BY PEG MURRAY
A canning jar with a finger-width of golden liquid is quickly passed around. “Taste this,” I’m told. “Just dip your finger in. It’s not ready to drink—it’s still about 160 proof—but you can taste it. Don’t worry about germs, this is alcohol.”
The alcohol in the jar is made from apples sourced yards away from where I am standing. Bellewood Acres, owned by John and Dorie Belisle, is both orchard and distillery. They are the first farm-to-glass distilling company in Washington.
The Belisles were not always orchardists. Originally from Wisconsin, Dorie and John took a year off to go backpacking while in their twenties. They landed in Florida with plans to build a boat and sail around the world, but, as John says, “Darned if Dorie didn’t become seasick just looking at the ocean.” Twenty-three years later they had a six-bay auto repair shop and three children, but when they heard growers were needed for the wholesale Jonagold industry, their farming roots beckoned. Ready for a change, they sold their shop in 1996—and the proprietary software they had developed to go with it—and moved to Washington.
“We bought 30 acres of perfect soil in a perfect setting with our three perfect farm hands—our children,” Dorie explains. They planted 15 acres of Jonagolds at first, but soon after the grocery stores began to merge and the rearrangement of distribution did not favor the small grower. By the year 2000, Dorie says, the apple industry had gone bust.
During that time, their children graduated from high school and were encouraged to go to college. Having grown up on farms, however, Dorie and John were not quick to give up. They knew if they were going to make it they had to cut out the middleman and do all of their processing themselves. They also had to diversify.
During those lean apple years, Dorie went to work off the farm. She taught Stream Restoration through the Whatcom Conservation District. She wrote grants and educated the community about salmon needs; she was an ideal liaison between the government and the farmers. In 2005, BelleWood became the first certified Salmon-Safe orchard in the state of Washington.
As part of their diversification, John added additional apple varieties such as Honeycrisp, whose juiciness can be attributed to larger than typical cell structure that bursts and releases juice when you bite. The orchard grew to 16 varieties of apples but it still wasn’t enough. “We started this operation to sustain the farmland so that it doesn’t turn into housing,” Dorie explained. When it seemed as though growing apples alone would not do the job, they began distilling them.
There may be only a thousand distillers in America; it’s a very small group. An even smaller number of them distill from fruit, because it has to be in cool storage for a long time. Distilling, however, has a long history. “In the early eastern United States,” Dorie explains, “it was common practice to change your farm products into spirits for longevity and ease of market distribution. Because the west was developed later, this did not happen as much. From what I hear,” she says, “there was no need to produce spirits in Washington because you could get what you wanted from British Columbia.”
Not only are John and Dorie first in the region, they’re doing it well. Last year, BelleWood’s Apple Brandy Eau de Vie won the Bronze Medal from the American Distilling Institute in the Eaux de Vie category of Artisan American Spirits. This year they won the Bronze Medal for their BelleWood Gin.
Not all of the nearly two and a half million apples the Belisles grow each year end up in the still. They sell them at the Bellingham farmers market, the Community Food Co-op, to many school and local grocery stores in Whatcom County, and at few spots in Seattle. And the u-pick season, from late August through early November, brings families into the orchard to lug home bags and crates of Jonagold, Sansa, Zestar, and Mountain Rose.
At an age where many are slowing down, Dorie and John keep going. In 2012, when they built the distillery, they also opened a bistro, “I like to feed people real food,” Dorie explained. She buys local products and cooks and bakes from scratch, still using her mom’s piecrust recipe. The menu ranges from an egg on a toasted rosemary English muffin to grilled sandwiches on locally baked bread and salad with crispy apples and their own apple cider vinaigrette. “Our business plan is that people have to say, ‘Wow,’ when they taste something here,” she says.
More than a retirement plan, the Belisles have grown their apple business into the fabric of the community. “We love it here. This area really supports local,” Dorie says. “Someday, when we’re ready to actually retire, we’ll sell it to someone who has the same kind of passion and wants to continue the business we have built.”
Bellewood Acres and Distillery
6140 Guide Meridian Dr.
Lynden, WA 98264
Gina Saettone is a writer living in Bellingham. She photographs and writes about food and culture at her blog good4ugastronomy.blogspot.com. Her favorite apple is the Honeycrisp.
Brandon Wicklund, of The Real McCoy Home Bar & Kitchen in Bellingham, features Bellewood spirits in his top-shelf selection. “Tip of the hat to John and Dorie,” he says, “for being the first distillery in the area, and to do it with fruit.”
Brandon’s Belle of the Ball
1 1/2 oz BelleWood Gin or Vodka
1/2 oz Rosemary Syrup
1/2 oz BelleWood Apple Brandy
Dry sparkling wine to top
BelleWood’s own Gee Gee
1 oz Honeycrisp Vodka
1/2 oz BelleWood Gin
1/3 oz Ginger Syrup
1/2 oz Lime Concentrate
1/2 oz BelleWood Apple Cider Syrup