New Whatcom County distilleries hope to find place among top-shelf liquors

Three 15-gallon stills fashioned out of repurposed beer kegs line a wall in the future distilling room at Mount Baker Distillery.

The silver kegs, a few with small dents and discolorations, would be unassuming if not for the large copper cylinders sticking out of their tops.

“We’re kind of like extreme home brewers,” distillery co-owner Troy Smith said. “Everything we do is handmade completely.”

Mount Baker Distillery, located in Suite D2 of the Haskell Business Center at 1305 Fraser St. in Bellingham, is one of three new facilities that will bring Washington state’s expanding craft distillery industry to Whatcom County in 2012.

The other two are Chuckanut Bay Distillery at 1115 Railroad Ave., and a distillery in the building being constructed at BelleWood Acres farm on Guide Meridian Road just north of Bellingham.

Backwoods tech today

Smith said by mid-February his self-designed stills will start producing 80-proof vodka and a 100-proof legal version of moonshine.

Though moonshine is notorious for its high-alcohol content and its popularity among bootleggers, a few licensed distilleries in the U.S. have recently begun producing the once-illicit liquor. Smith’s concoction uses a corn mash, which produces what is essentially a raw, unaged whiskey.

The decision to produce moonshine was made to not only be unique, Smith said, but also to have an immediate product available for customers.

“That’s the great thing about moonshine, we can bottle it right away, which for a small producer is important,” Smith said. “We can’t sit around for a few years waiting for a product to come out.”

Smith said he plans to attract customers to Mount Baker Distillery with its do-it-yourself character and its use of locally made ingredients.

Industry in transition

The passage of Initiative 1183 last November, which will close state-run liquor stores and allow private retailers to sell spirits instead, has prompted the state Liquor Control Board to modify craft-distillery laws.

Four years after the state first began issuing craft distillery licenses in 2008, 40 distilleries have been approved, and 17 applications for new producers are currently pending, according to the liquor board.

The board defines a craft distillery as one that produces less than 20,000 gallons of spirits annually and gets at least half of its ingredients from Washington-based producers.

Before the state was voted out of the liquor business, craft distillers sold their products to state-run stores. In December, the board began allowing distillers to sell their products in small amounts directly to customers.

However, distillers will not be able to sell large volumes to licensed retailers until March 1. Coupled with the loss of business from state stores no longer purchasing craft products as they prepare to close by next summer, the distribution models of larger craft distilleries in the state are in jeopardy.

Whatcom County’s distilleries may avoid the turmoil, since none of the three will open before March. Each of them also plans to operate a tasting room and sell directly to customers before branching out and potentially selling to restaurants and other retailers.

Smith said while he didn’t think the authors of I-1183 understood how the measure could impact craft distillers, the changes will likely not affect Mount Baker Distillery.

“We have the benefit of starting fresh with new laws,” Smith said.

Chuckanut Bay’s local connection

Kelly Andrews and Matt Howell, co-owners of Chuckanut Bay Distillery, were not sure how the state’s liquor laws would eventually work out.

Howell, who will manage Chuckanut Bay’s production, said he wasn’t worried about the initiative’s effect on his ability to produce spirits for both customers and large retailers.

“It’s going to be an interesting learning process,” Howell said. “Parts of the law seem ambiguous or just kind of convoluted, so we’ll just have to figure it out.”

The projected opening date for Chuckanut Bay Distillery is set for mid-to-late March, Howell said.

The distillery will produce vodka, gin and eventually whiskey, all of which will be sold in a tasting room adjacent to the distilling facility in the alley behind Railroad Avenue next to the Boundary Bay Brewery’s beer garden.

Howell said they are installing a 150-gallon pot still, which was designed in Canada.

Andrews said they’d like to add versions of spirits with seasonal ingredients from local farmers in their future product line.

“One of the advantages of being small is you’re more nimble to create limited runs of things, to do some experimentation,” Andrews said. “We hope to do that.”

Sustainable production is a major component of the distillery. Howell and Andrews said they are working with the Cascade Community Wind Company to eventually make Chuckanut Bay Distillery completely wind powered.

“If we can just create something that’s sustainable, utilizing the things we have here, that kind of speak of Northwest – Bellingham specifically – then it’s great,” Howell said.

Andrews said the distillery was designed to have to a strong Bellingham connection. They hope to eventually sell to local restaurants and be active in community events.

At BelleWood Acres

In the 12,000-square-foot building under construction at BelleWood Acres, the farm’s distillery will eventually produce apple-based spirits including vodka, brandy and gin.

Jake Fowler, who will manage the distillery’s operation, said his focus is to create spirits rich in flavor that are easy to drink on their own.

“We don’t want to give our customers firewater,” Fowler said. “We want drinks that are special.”

Fowler said the distillery, along with the rest of the building that will include retail space, a deli and bakery and community rooms that can be rented out or used for classes, will hopefully open by Memorial Day in May.

The distillery will include an attached tasting room with a window allowing customers to drink and watch the distillation process as it happens.

BelleWood will utilize one 250-gallon still mainly for vodka and a second 150-gallon still for specialty spirits fused with various flavors. Both stills are manufactured in Kentucky.

Dorie Belisle, who owns BelleWood along with her husband John Belisle, said they have been thinking about opening a distillery for about six years.

The farm is well known for its apples and apple cider, and also grows produce including pumpkins, pears and squash. Producing spirits will give BelleWood unique products with stable shelf lives that can be sold to customers during any time of the year, Belisle said.

“We’ve always liked the idea of having people on our farm year-round,” Belisle said. “We’re actually hoping this will be a real community distillery and farm. We’re excited about the whole possibility.”

BelleWood Distillery and Mount Baker Distillery photos by Brian Corey

Chuckanut Bay Distillery Photos by Evan Marczynski

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