Bainbridge Organic Distillery
BY ABRA BENNETT
PHOTOS BY SHEL HALL
Step through the door to Bainbridge Organic Distillers and the aroma is tantalizing, like bread baking. “That’s mash cooking,” says Keith Barnes, who owns the distillery with his son Patrick. Barnes is shepherding the giant cooker of wheat mush through its transformation from a vat of bubbling cereal goop into a clear and potent vodka. A group of five women volunteers, members of a Bainbridge knitter’s group, arrive to help with bottling. They’re bubbly and happy to be there. “I love the idea that we have an organic distiller here on the island, and the vodka is amazing” Heather Burger says, before joining the bottling line. “Where are the free samples?” the women ask in unison.
If you’ve noticed a proliferation of local distilleries lately, you can chalk it up to the 2008 changes in Washington law that allowed craft distilleries to do onsite tasting and sales. Barnes, who says he’s always dreamed of making whiskey, seized the opportunity and Bainbridge Organic Distillers (BOD) became Kitsap County’s first legal distiller in over a century, ironic because Barnes’ own grandfather was a Prohibition-era rum runner on the Washington coast. BOD is also the first organic distiller in the state. Barnes, who has been in marketing for most of his career, says he never even considered using conventionally grown ingredients. “When we decided to make spirits, there was no question that they would be organic. We’re organic because it’s an expression of our values and the kind of agriculture that we want to be in support of. Every time you buy something organic you send the market a message, and we’re voting for organic with our wallets.”
When Barnes set out to open an organic distillery, he first had to find farmers who would grow organic soft white wheat for him, as close to home as possible. BOD distills its spirits from this wheat, normally grown for pastry flour, because of its high starch content. The more starch you have, the more there is to convert to sugar, which will in turn be converted alcohol. And in the distilling business, it’s all about the alcohol.
With the help of WSDA Extension staff, he found Nash’s Organic in Sequim, and Tom and Ray Williams, who grow wheat for BOD in Lowden, in Walla Walla County. The Williams, who have a 3000 acre organic farm that straddles Walla Walla County and the Milton-Freewater area in Oregon, grow about 70% of BOD’S wheat. Williams’ wheat goes mainly to the Fairhaven Organic Mill, and to Bob’s Red Mill, but a small part also goes to BOD.
The rest of BOD’s wheat comes from Nash’s Organics, a familiar face at Seattle farmers’ markets, whose farm includes pristine Dungeness Delta farmland leased from PCC’s Farmland Trust. According to Sam McCullough, Nash’s grain farmer, BOD’s wheat is raised within half a mile of the mouth of the Dungeness River, and half a mile from salt water. Keith Barnes swears he can taste the difference between the two wheats, saying that Nash’s wheat expresses a distinct maritime terroir, while the Williams wheat reflects its warmer growing conditions. “We want our products to be expressive of the agriculture that’s here,” says Barnes. “Our whole business is based on capturing the nuances that our agricultural products have, and distilling in such a way that you can taste those nuances.”
Sourcing products other than grain has proven to be more complicated. Gin, for example, is made with a cocktail of botanicals: juniper berries, coriander, orris root, angelica root, and citrus peel. Each of those must also be certified organic. The juniper berries have proven to be the toughest, since currently BOD’s only source for them is in Eastern Europe. If there is no source at all of an organic product, as is the case with orris root, then, says Barnes “we’re duty bound to find the cleanest product possible.” The casks for aging the whiskey come from Arkansas, made by a family that’s been making casks for over 100 years.
At BOD, they start the vodka process by grinding 1000 pounds of wheat, to which they add water. They cook this mash for seven hours at very low temperatures. Next they add enzymes, which will convert all of the starch into sugar, then they cool it down and add yeast, which converts the sugar into alcohol. All of that happens on the first day. The next day begins around 2:00 a.m. when the sleep-deprived distiller shows up, motor-operated paddle in hand, to beat down the head on the fermenting mash so that it doesn’t rise and spill all over the floor like some demented sourdough starter. He beats it down every 10-15 minutes for the next six hours, and by mid-morning it’s done. The rest of the fermentation process takes about four or five additional days. After that, it’s pumped into the still where it’s distilled five or six times over as many days. When the final distillation is finished the alcohol is filtered through carbon several times under very low pressure, then it’s diluted using water filtered by reverse osmosis, then bottled. It’s a complex and delicate process. “I don’t have a chemistry or engineering degree, but I try to make informed decisions to steer the fermentation process,” says Barnes. “I fall back on the thought that regular people have been making distilled spirits for hundreds of years, and those people weren’t molecular biologists”.
That BOD uses only certified organic ingredients is a given. But their ultimate goal is to use only ingredients grown right on Bainbridge Island, but for the time being he’s content to see his dream of making spirits come true. Along with the current vodka, gin and whiskey, he’ll be expanding to bourbon, applejack and additional types of whiskey.
“I’ve always wanted to make something,” he confides. “As a marketer I’ve told everybody else’s story, and I’ve wanted to find a way to make my own story. This is a great product, it’s old fashioned, genuine, made by hand, uncompromising, small, a throw-back, swimming against the tide of conformity and consolidation and big brands and using artificial junk. That’s what I want my story to be, something that’s real.”
Abra Bennett is a freelance writer living on Bainbridge Island. After being a lifelong wine drinker, she’s just now learning to appreciate fine spirits.[/twocolumns]
HOGS, BODS, AND BERRIES
- The spent mash that comes out of the still makes an excellent feed for pigs. The problem is that Barnes doesn’t know enough pigs to swill it all down. “I’d love to see the circle closed,” he says. “Any pig farmer with a truck is welcome to my spent mash, it’s free for the taking.”
- Join the Bod Squad. Here’s your chance to help bottle your favorite beverage. Bottling is usually done on Saturday, and you can call or email to schedule a time to become part of the bottling line.
- If you’re growing organic juniper berries, BOD needs to talk to you!
Contact Keith Barnes at (206) 842-3184, or at firstname.lastname@example.org