So what's the secret? According to Keith Barnes, Proprietor/Distiller for the Bainbridge Island Organic Distillers, it was a perfect storm. A perfect storm of resources, weather, climate, talent and clientele. "This is a phenomenal state for raw materials. Everything from grains to fruit, berries to honey," said Barnes, from his storefront, office, distillery. "And we enjoy a very unique customer base - with a sophisticated palate for high-end coffees, craft beers, and wines that rival anything produced in California - or in Europe for that matter. It's almost as though the market was evolving a customer base with high quality hand-crafted product in mind."
But of all the vodkas, gins and aquavits, the brandies, apple cordials, grappa and even absinthe that are rocking the gourmet liquor trade in Washington, whiskey reigns supreme.
The discriminating epicure can find genuine bourbons, ryes - even single malts - that are hand-crafted in state - not rebottled from out-of-state product, or 'finished' from corporate ethanol - although those do exist. But the real stuff, like Bainbridge Island Organic Distillers' Battle Point Wheat Whiskey, can hold its own with the very best any country can produce. This year it won the title of World's Best American Wheat Whiskey in the World Whisky Awards, was the top-ranked wheat whiskey in the Beverage Tasting Institute's International Review of Spirits, and placed with the top five finalists in the March 2014 Ultimate Beverage Challenge - beating ultra-premium entries pushing $100 per bottle.
"We had the owner of a bar in Glasgow that almost missed his flight back to Scotland because he hopped on the ferry to pick up bottles of Battle Point Whiskey," said Barnes. "We met him at the boat so he could get back and make his flight. That's passion! You don't see that kind of commitment with other types of spirits."
Barnes starts his 'grain to glass' endeavour with heirloom soft white wheat - a proprietary blend of Nick and Louise legacy grains. "Organic grains have more flavour and character than their genetically engineered counterparts," said Barnes. He uses USDA certified organic yeasts and enzymes that trace their lineage back to the early 1900s.
The craft distilling industry itself is barely five years old, and whiskey - the crown jewel of the craft distiller's art - is notoriously complex and requires an expensive and lengthy aging process. Most of the whiskeys that Barnes' entry faced in this year's Ultimate Beverage Challenge were two or three times as old as the entire craft distillery industry. How do they do it?
"It's definitely an art - but an art that needs to be guided and to a degree controlled, by science," said Barnes. "I mean, we are by definition a small production distiller. We run 500 gallon mashes and the yeasts that provide the flavour profiles we're after can be cantankerous and may need to ferment for up to four or five days. Our production runs might just be ten or fifteen ten-gallon barrels."
And that's one of the secrets. Two years in an eight or ten gallon heavily charred white oak barrel might be equivalent to ten or even fifteen years in a fifty or sixty gallon hogshead - it's all about the amount of surface area of wood per gallon of spirit. Whiskey is ready when it's ready, but smaller batches can offer more control. The down side? Smaller barrels are much more expensive and lose more alcohol to evaporation.
"We use fine-boned heirloom grains, and we can layer-in flavours that are complex and go beyond just corn-based bourbon or a rye-based whiskey," said Barnes. "Another distinction is we, like a lot of small distilleries, run stills that are not operated by computers. A lot of the large distilleries throughout the world use computers to control the progress of the still run. And the computers decide where to make the cuts."
Bainbridge Island Organic Distillers runs a purpose-built Vendome pot still. In the course of distillery runs, the foreshots are low boiling point compounds that come out first - methanol and other poisons, followed by heads - almost pure alcohol with trace amounts of acetone, acetaldehyde, esters and dubious cogeners. The hearts are the sweet spot of the run, purified spirits with the best flavour. Towards the end of hearts collection, flavourful and complex esters appear. Esters need close monitoring - too much and they can overpower and ruin the batch. The rest is tails, and some distillers add the heads and tails to make feints for future spirits runs.
"Here, we pride ourselves on making our cuts by hand - and managing the run. We run an open stream spirit receiving tank and monitor the quality physically by smell, touch or taste," said Barnes. "It's equal parts art and science - we have to be to be able to ensure a uniform product between still runs. We've taken samples while running brackets every five minutes and sent it off for analysis, and then we can compare it in stages to our organoleptic evaluations."
Craft distillers face unique and difficult challenges in selecting raw materials, determining which products to produce, how to produce, age, bottle and market -and their creativity in coping with those challenges is stamped indelibly on their product.
Westland Distillery Master Distiller Matt Hoffman only uses full-size barrels -53 gallon barrels, 60 gallon hogsheads or 150 gallon butts. "While I think that using smaller size casks can work for bourbon or rye, I'm not big on the idea of using them for malt whiskies," said Hoffman. "I can also vouch from experience. We tried a few 15 gallon casks a few years ago and at nine months old we had to rip them out of there and rack them into used oak barrels so they could develop some secondary and tertiary flavours."
Westland Distillery produces three core products, American Single Malt Whiskey, Peated American Single Malt Whiskey and Sherry Wood American Single Malt Whiskey. Their American Single Malt Whiskey was assigned 95 points in Jim Murray's 2015 Whisky Bible, and won Double Gold at San Francisco's 2014 International Spirits Competition and took Gold in Berlin's International Spirits Competition, Craft Awards and Sip Awards.
Woodinville Whiskey Company's award winning micro-barreled Mashbill No. 9 Bourbon, and 100 per cent Rye Whiskey, validates the concept of small barrel production, but co-founder Orlin Sorensen has felt the heat. "Craft whiskey has been heavy scrutinised. It's too young, it's been aged in a small barrel, or the distillery didn't make it," said Orlin. "We heard it loud and clear and have been laying the vast majority of our whiskey up in standard 53 gallon barrels since we started five years ago, with nearly 2,500 barrels aging in our warehouse." Orlin is looking forward to a 2015 bottling for his large- barrel bourbon.
Owned and operated by Don Poffenroth and Kent Fleischmann, Dry Fly Distillers of Spokane, Washington began the Craft Distillery phenomena, as an exclusively 100 per cent 'farm to bottle' distillery. They produce award-winning vodka, gin, and eleven different whiskey types - four of which are available commercially, including Dry Fly Straight Wheat Whiskey and Dry Fly Straight Triticale Whiskey - the only straight, 100 per cent Triticale whiskey in the world. "We never did small barrels," said Poffenroth. "We don't believe in that." Dry Fly Distillers operate custom designed 450 litre capacity Christian Carl pot stills manufactured in Goppingen, Germany, and sell about 10,000 nine litre case equivalents annually. They sell throughout the United States and in 22 countries around the world, and look forward to becoming the first US small producer with a ten Years Old self-made whiskey sometime in the next year or two.
If whiskey is the crown jewel of the craft distiller's art - expect more treasure in the years to come. The craft distillers that concentrated on white spirits in order to earn a customer base and enough profit to take the next plunge are maturing towards whiskey in a big way. Most craft distillers welcome the competition. "Our industry is still so small that it's actually better to have multiple producers," said Bainbridge Island Organic Distillers' Keith Barnes. "These are exciting times, and it's important to give potential customers a wide range of quality craft spirits - we all benefit from the enhanced exposure."
Now and in the foreseeable future, the craft distillery phenomena is on solid footing in Washington State, and is gaining a toehold throughout the Pacific Northwest, with increasing growth potential in Oregon, Colorado and British Columbia, Canada.
Exciting times, and good news for whiskey enthusiasts the world over.