Grain Country Spirits

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With wheat growing in their front
yard, a new crop of distillers is making
their mark on eastern Washington.

BY ANNE SAMPSON

Jeremy Barker, co-owner of Walla Walla Distilling Company, can’t talk to us the day we show up, unannounced, at the small building on the far side of the Walla Walla airport that serves as headquarters and distillery. He can’t sell us much either—the power has been shut off for the afternoon and the credit card machines won’t work. It’s all because of the large wheat harvester warming up across the narrow paved road in front of the building. It’s Barker’s wheat that is about to be harvested: golden fields of grain waving in the afternoon breeze. It’s close enough that you could, actually, spit on it.

“I guess we settled the debate over who has the freshest ingredients!” he says, amid apologies, as he runs out the door to oversee harvesting.

From Walla Walla west to Richland and Prosser, eastern Washington teems with fresh ingredients. Grapes thrive here, of course, but the soil also yields huge crops of wheat, barley, and rye. Corn grows in abundance. And perhaps most plentiful is the sun—days and months of hot, life-giving sun. A small cohort of eastern Washington distilleries, including Walla Walla Distilling Company, Blue Flame spirits in Prosser, and the recently launched Solar Spirits in Richland, make good use of them all. Each brings a distinct approach to their craft.

Barker and his wife Katrina Roberts craft their spirits from the riches of the Walla Walla Valley. Wheat growing next door, grapes from their small vineyard south of town, fresh herbs from the garden just outside their door—all are essential ingredients. They ferment corn from area farms, then distill it into a flavorful white whiskey. Locally sourced juniper berries infuse their gin, along with rose hips, tarragon, and lavender. Citrus elements enter the mix, too, but the emphasis is homegrown.

 

grainCountry“We know the flavor profiles of everything we use, and we know how to create the nuances that we want,” Barker says.

It’s been a learning process. The couple has owned Tytonidae Winery since 2004. After a deep freeze in 2005 left them with frozen fruit, they developed a backup plan for the inevitable challenging years: they made grappa, a spirit distilled from the byproducts of the winemaking process. Then they added brandy to the product line. Vodka, whiskey, and gin were the next logical steps.

To make spirits, distillers start with a source of carbohydrates: crushed fruit or grain. Barker uses both in all his spirits. Small batches of grain and fruit are mixed with water to ferment in stainless steel tanks, then distilled until the product reaches the desired amount of purity. The resulting spirit is mixed with water to bring it to the proof, or total alcohol content, designated on the label. It can be bottled as vodka or, depending on the original mash, whiskey.

Gin is the quintessential product of the pair’s collaboration. Gin springs from vodka—the alcohol is poured off into jugs, where it is infused with botanicals. Juniper, the defining flavor of all gin, carries the weight. Barker also draws on other sources, from just about anything that strikes his fancy—herbs from the garden, of course, but onions, rose petals, and even sun dried tomatoes. The infused spirits are then blended and distilled again, until the flavors please the duo.

“I think we’ve made really good gin since the very beginning, but the last few batches have really been great,” Barker says. “Katrina really has a great nose and a sense for mouthfeel. We’ve really dialed in a recipe that works for us.”

The couple has expanded carefully. In the back room of the distillery, Barker stands amid an impressive collection of hand-welded stainlesssteel stills. Barrels, tubes, pots, and a tall vacuum-still fill every corner of the room. Barker built them all. He points to a compact piece of equipment in a corner. “This is the first still I built,” he says. “Then I moved to this one,” he points to a large tank, “and then this one.” Still bigger.

Barker grins. “The technology for a still…well, it isn’t rocket science.” He points to a low, bulbous pot still filling the center of the room. “You can find directions to make this one on the internet.”

It may not be rocket science—people have been distilling fermented sugars into alcohol for thousands of years—but technological skill is an important ingredient, and there is a rich supply in Richland, about an hour west of Walla Walla. Home of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the city grows scientists and engineers as fast as it harvests wine grapes. The four partners behind Solar Spirits have built their distillery on chemical and electrical engineering expertise. “We call it craft tech,” says Kris Lapp, a partner in the project.

Solar Spirits was born in 2013, out of a desire to create a high-quality product with the least environmental impact possible. The distillery uses 100 percent solar energy to heat the water used in the fermentation process. Water flows through a grid of evacuated tubes behind the building, absorbing the sun’s warmth before returning to a large tank, where it is stored at a constant temperature of 160 degrees, no electricity necessary. The group is working to develop a solar still, as well.

Everything at Solar Spirits honors technological skill. Distiller Jim Batdorf holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and manages every step of the process, from configuring the solar-powered fermentation system to distilling the final products. As we tour the production room, Lapp talks about the half-ton of local Rainier cherries that has just been crushed, on its way to becoming brandy. “It’s cooking right now,” he says, gesturing to a steaming stainless-steel fermentation tank. Back in the sun-inspired tasting room, bottles of premium vodka line display cases, while on the bar a row of shot glasses stands ready for visitors.

“We use soft white wheat for our vodka. It gives it a distinctive flavor,” he says. Outside the distillery, Lapp leads a company providing security and technical services to international clients. “I’ve spent a lot of time working in Eastern Europe and Russia, and our vodka definitely holds up to the finest Russian vodka,” he says. The liquor fills the mouth with refreshing, toasty vanilla overtones, redolent of the Northwest and easily sipped neat.

Quality demands precision, but in the end, spirits are meant to enhance life’s pleasure. It requires a sense of adventure, a willingness to try new directions while honoring the ancient art of distilling. Blue Flame Spirits owner Brian Morton is a pioneer among the state’s craft distillers. He started his business in 2009, after leaving his career in the restaurant industry to move his family from Puyallup to the more pastoral Prosser, nestled at the base of the Horse Heaven Hills. Winemaking is king here, but the town is also home to an energetic craft-brewery industry. Blue Flame Spirits fit right in.

Today, Blue Flame is among the five largest craft distilleries in Washington. Morton creates Blue Flame Spirits vodka and gin, and premium rye whiskeys. He bottles several other labels, as well, including Moonshine Zombie Whiskey, a rye whiskey also offered in a cinnamon flavor, and Caliber Spirits. Each year he produces four thousand barrels of alcohol.

All ingredients in Morton’s liquors originate within 45 minutes of Prosser. “Everything we do is grain to glass,” he says. Rye and soft white wheat come from Neff Farms in Pasco. Oregon-grown white oak is coopered and charred to his unique specifications at an Oregon cooperage. “It takes six hours to char one of our barrels,” he says.

Charring the barrels is a key part of the methods he has developed in six years of distilling fruits and grains. Blue Flame produces vodka, grappa, brandy, gin, and rye and wheat whiskeys, each with its own flavor profile and production methods. Quality doesn’t come easily.

 

“When you first start distilling spirits, well, you have to be willing to throw away a lot of booze,” Morton laughs. But the early trials have paid off—the Ultra Premium vodka won a gold medal in the Fifty Best Domestic Vodkas division at the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits competition, and Blue Flame Grappa took home gold the same year.

“Our process is very controlled,” he says. “Our vodka is really clean, with a distinct taste, but it’s subtle. You get flavors of vanilla, and toasted almonds, almost. It’s very smooth and very blendable.”

Of all his spirits, however, Morton does have a favorite and his eyes light up when asked about it. “I’ve got a two-year-old rye aging right now in special casks,” he says, and his smile reveals the anticipation of tasting what he has crafted from the rich resources of eastern Washington. For this distiller, it’s more than a piece of his product line; it’s heritage.

“You know, every one of our founding fathers had a still,” Morton muses. “Our country is built on rye whiskey.”

Walla Walla Distilling Company
1105 C St. at the Walla Walla Airport
Open by appointment or by chance
509-301-8834 • wallawalladistillingcompany.com

Solar Spirits
2409 Robertson Dr., Richland
Tasting room: Thurs-Fri, 4-8pm or by appointment
509-845-4669 • solarspirits.com

Blue Flame Spirits
2880 Lee Rd., Suite B, Prosser
509-778-4036 • blueflamespirits.com

Anne Sampson lives in Richland, Washington, where she writes about wine, food, and culture. She has written for Wines &Vines, Good Fruit Grower, Northwest Palate, Apellation America, and Salon.

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