Ballard’s Captive Spirits: the little distillery that could
STORY BY SEAN P. SULLIVAN
PHOTOS BY PAOLA THOMAS
“I’m all in,” said third generation distiller and co-owner of Captive Spirits Distilling Ben Capdevielle. “All of my savings, everything that I had is in this distillery now.”
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Ballard, Captive Spirits is one of a growing number of producers in the Northwest focused on spirits. The distillery, which Capdevielle started with his wife Holly Robinson and their two partners, Todd Leabman and Erica Goodkind, blends into suburban Seattle so much that it’s easy to miss as one drives through the neighborhood, save for a sandwich board chained to the railing by the front door. Inside, however, the building hums with activity, as the bottling machine rattles, music blares, and pipes blow like a train letting off steam. At the center of it all are two 100-gallon stills that are the heart of the operation.
Prior to launching Captive Spirits in 2012, Capdevielle spent much of his working life in Seattle behind the bar. “I fell in love with restaurants,” he said. “That’s pretty much all I’ve done my whole life, working four days a week and skiing three days a week during the winter, fishing and biking during the summer.”
Throughout my visit, Capdevielle is perpetually in motion, always working while we’re talking, alternately checking the still, helping his employees move tanks, packaging up case goods, and leaping up the moment he hears a sound on the bottling line that doesn’t seem right. “I can get kind of nitpicky,” he explained.
Capdevielle, who is a boyish looking 36, made his first spirits ten years ago. “I was visiting my dad, who had been moonshining for years, and he said, ‘Here, I want to show you how we do this,’” Capdevielle recalls. “I fell in love with it right away.”
For Capdevielle, learning about distilling was as much about a transgenerational bond as anything else. “It was something that my dad did and I knew that my grandpa Ted did,” he said. “So I had this feeling of connection with my grandpa that I didn’t get the opportunity to have because he died when I was young.”
The idea for what is now Captive Spirits—the name somewhat of a play on Capdevielle’s last name—began in 2007 after Capdevielle and Leabman decided to see if they could turn their passion for distilling into a business. “We didn’t retire from a Microsoft job and open a distillery because it was a fun thing to do,” Capdevielle said. “It’s a career choice.”
From the beginning, the focus was always going to be gin. “It’s something that we can make very high quality, quickly, and with our signature on it,” he explained. The spirit is made in what is called a London Dry Style. “It’s a gin that Beefeater, Tanqueray, and Bombay fans will recognize as a style that they like,” Capdevielle said.
The process starts with a high strength base alcohol made of corn, which Capdevielle purchases from a supplier. “It would be difficult to make something like that in house,” he said. “We want to start with something that’s as neutral as possible, with no flavor at all. Then the craft is making that alcohol taste like something through redistillation of the spirits in the pot still while we’re cooking—an old moonshiners’ term for distilling.”
For the flavor, Capdevielle uses an assortment of herbs and spices referred to as botanicals, which he purchases from nine different countries. “What we’re doing is we’re taking the finest ingredients from around the world and we’re producing it here,” he said. To show the botanicals, he opens up a large, opaque plastic tub. As soon as Capdevielle breaks the seal, a complex aroma wafts up and fills the room.
“Most of what we put in the still is juniper, bitter orange root, and coriander,” Capdevielle said. As he speaks, he sinks his fingers down into the bags and lifts up a fistful of each spice and draws them toward his nose, breathing in deeply to take in the aromas.
“It’s amazing how many of these botanicals will remind you of more than one thing,” he said. “Angelica root is sweet and flowery. Cassia is like cinnamon. We use a lot of warming spices. The Grains of Paradise plus the Tasmanian pepper berry, the cassia, and cardamom are what give you this nice, rich, spicy—not spicy like hot—but spicy, dry gin.”
After determining the ingredients and the recipe—a process Capdevielle said was a matter of trial and error—next comes distillation, where high proof alcohol, water, and the botanicals are put into the still and heated to a specific temperature.
“What happens,” Capdevielle explained, “is, as the alcohol evaporates, so do the essential oils in the botanicals and they come over together. That’s how you end up with a crystal clear spirit that’s botanically rich in flavor.” The result is a spirit that they call Big Gin, the name in part a tribute to his father and also a reflection of what’s in the bottle.
“It’s a big gin!” Capdevielle exclaimed proudly after a sip. “There’s no alcohol punch. On the palate, it’s clean and crisp. It’s floral but it’s not a flowery gin—no flowers or cucumbers were ever harmed in the making of Big Gin,” he said, ribbing a recent fad. “So it makes a great tonic, a great martini, and naturally it will mix down well in any other gin cocktail as well.”
Captive Spirits began offering Big Gin commercially in 2012. The response has been immediate, with Big Gin and its sibling, Barrel Aged Big Gin (aged six months in a bourbon barrel), already distributed in 17 states. The company is making 8,000 cases annually and growing.
“What I love about Captive is they are actually making a craft dry gin,” said Derek Brown of Underdog & The Growler in New York City. “I don’t know of anyone else that’s really doing that, certainly not as well. A lot of the craft spirits I end up tasting are either a bad value or unremarkable. In this case, it’s a good value and it is remarkable. It’s an extremely dry, beautiful gin.”
Accolades have come in as well, with Captive’s barrel aged offering becoming the first American gin to win honors in the Best Contemporary Gin category at the International Wine & Spirits Competition in London.
“We knew that we had something special but we were blown away,” Capdevielle said. “It’s really cool to go to the world’s biggest stage—the place that gin started—from a tiny little place like this in Ballard. We’re like the little distillery that could, that comes home with the top prize.”
For Capdevielle, who comes from a long line of moonshiners, and whose father will join him at the awards ceremony, keeping the family legacy going is just as satisfying. “I feel like I’m keeping a Capdevielle tradition alive,” he said.
Sean P. Sullivan is the founder of Washington Wine Report, an on-line publication dedicated to the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest. Sullivan also serves as a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast and writes regularly for Seattle Metropolitan, Vineyard & Winery Management, Washington Tasting Room, and Edible Seattle. He resides in Seattle.
The Out of Towner
By Derek Brown, Underdog & The Growler, NYC
2 oz Big Gin
1 oz fresh lemon juice
3/4 oz fennel syrup *
1/2 oz Combier triple sec
Lemon slice to garnish
Shake first four ingredients and double strain into a highball glass with ice.
Top with bottled club soda and garnish with a lemon wheel.
* Fennel syrup: juice fresh fennel including half of the fronds. Stir plain sugar into the juice 1 to 1. Fortify with one ounce of pure alcohol per liter of syrup.