When you pony up to the bar and order your favorite spirit, whether straight, in a mixer, martini or cocktail, the liquor within most likely traveled a long distance. Your tequila shot from Mexico, gin and tonic from Great Britain, scotch on the rocks from Scotland, and vodka martini from Russia, France and Sweden. Rum is often imported from across the Caribbean, and while American bourbon brands are well-known throughout the world, whiskeys from Ireland and Canada are plentiful here as well. It’s much easier nowadays to order a glass of wine that originated in Washington, Oregon or California, or beer brewed right in your own neighborhood, than it is to find a local spirit, but that isn’t to say the industry isn’t shifting as well.
“The distilled spirits industry has evolved in the last five years with smaller craft players establishing operations and tasting rooms in cities large and small,” explained Hilary Mann, owner and operator of Up North Distillery in Post Falls. “Today, there are more than 1,800 craft distillers in the United States.”
Hilary and husband Randy just celebrated their business’s fourth anniversary. Their passion for homebrewing eventually lead to visiting distilleries and learning the unique nuances of making spirits. A major component of their business is sharing that knowledge with those new to discovering the craft spirits industry. “We offer tours at Up North, and we love to explain the process so consumers feel more knowledgeable about what goes into the product they are drinking,” said Randy.
The process is not unlike that of making beer or wine. Much of the equipment is similar. You start with natural ingredients containing sugars or starches, process them into a liquid form and then ferment it to produce an alcoholic liquid.
“With distillation we have the additional step of boiling that alcoholic liquid (referred to as low wine) to extract and concentrate the alcohol within a very focused bandwidth; 190 proof for vodka and gin and 120 proof for whiskey,” said Dry Fly Co-Owner Terry Nichols. Dry Fly is now in its 12th year of operation and, to the surprise of many, the oldest post-prohibition distiller in the state of Washington. With most of the craft spirits industry being less than 10 years old and typically closer to five, this partially explains why the selection of local craft-made spirits is just now starting to expand in bars and restaurants.
“For whiskey, the liquid goes into new American oak barrels where it will sit for three-plus years before it is ready to sell, so whiskey is an exercise in patience, and the longer you can wait the better the resulting whiskey can be,” said Terry. The racks at Dry Fly are currently holding all kinds of experimental and long-aging barrels that have yet to see the light of day.
While Dry Fly might spend years on a single batch, others in the Northwest can have their products out in a week, the same amount of time many brewers enjoy. “Our vodka goes from ground to bottled vodka in less than six days,” said Party Animal Vodka President Katherine Cullen. “We like to say, ‘We are distilled once and done right the first time.’ Our one-time distillation through our column still allows us to produce less waste than other distilleries.”
Party Animal is unique in that they utilize Idaho’s most popular crop for their starches—potatoes. In fact, less than 3 percent of the world’s vodkas are derived from potatoes. Two years into business, Katherine is still finding out the best way to open minds and get her products to new consumers. “It is a really tough industry. I think the hardest part is getting the end consumer to try something new. Most people stick to what they know or what is considered ‘popular.’”
With consumers showing less brand loyalty and a constant search for what’s new, the relatively young craft spirits industry of the West already has to adapt to meet up with these trends. “The more consumers are educated on spirits, the more willing they will be to try something new that they can't find anywhere else. I think our honey spirits fit nicely into that category. It's rare to find a spirit made 100 percent from honey,” said Hilary.
Dry fly is also adapting, both in flavors and unique ways of reaching customers. “We are excited about our foray into the canned craft cocktail industry with our Moscow Mule, Gin & Tonic and Spicy Lemonade.” Pre-packed hard lemonades and teas are often syrupy in flavor, whereas crafted cocktails like those of Dry Fly aim to be like a more authentic mixed drink with the convenience of keeping in your fridge or stashing in your cooler.
Those looking to support their local and regional distillers might have a hard time finding products in stores. Laws vary greatly state to state, and unlike the beer and wine industry, distillers are not able to ship directly to consumers out of state. It’s one of the many challenges Dry Fly, Up North and Party Animal face when up against big brands that have worldwide recognition.
“The number of distributors is shrinking in this country through consolidation, and they are laden with so many products that they aren’t always interested in another small brand. That is a fundamental problem for the craft distilling industry,” said Terry. As Hilary explained, “In Idaho we had to get a liquor license to serve cocktails. Our liquor store on-site is also state run and a separate address from our distillery.”
New laws are being adopted to help these small businesses move more product, but it will ultimately come down to consumer demand. While many household names are created in huge manufacturing facilities and stamped with a label, craft spirits are made by individuals or small teams and can utilize ingredients found near their place of business—which in turn helps other local businesses thrive.
“Here in the Northwest we are able to find everything we need there is a veritable bounty of great agricultural products right in our backyard, so much so that we get almost everything (except juniper) from within 30 miles of Spokane,” said Terry.
It’s the hands-on approach that Hilary and Randy say separates Up North from the bigger brands. “We create our own mash, we run it through our own still, and we then put it in a barrel to mature it on-site. We touch every part of the process from start to finish.”
An easy look to see whether a spirit was made by craft distillers is to take a closer look at the label. Some bigger brands have their products made in large off-site facilities instead of their actual company location. These will often say ’Produced and Bottled.’ Distillers who maintain a hand in the entire process can label their product ‘Distilled and Bottled.’
As for the future, these regional distillers all see the potential for growth as long as consumers continue to become educated and demand for locally made products stays steady.
“I think it’s an ever-changing industry with immense room for growth and innovation. For so long, people were so used to what they know, and I believe it’s so important in this quality revolution for people to try new things,” said Katherine.
“I believe it will continue to grow, but I think it will parallel craft beer to a degree,” said Terry. “With the number of small distillers increasing rapidly, soon everyone will have one in their town that will be the local favorite, so owning your own backyard will need to be a key building block in everyone’s strategy.”
Whether you like your whiskey straight, your gin with a splash of soda or your vodka martini dirty, there are now more local options than ever to consider when ordering your next drink. Most distillers welcome guests into their business and are happy to share how their products are made and some of their favorite mixes for your home bar.
You’ve tried wine flights and beer samplers; perhaps now it’s time to see what’s waiting for you from the stills of the Northwest.