The morning is cool on Samish Island, with a fog hanging over the water. But inside an old chicken coop, it’s steamy and sweet. A beer of barley mash is bubbling not too far from the door, tall copper stills stand like sentinels on the left, and the back is layered with metal shelves stocked with small white oak barrels.
During Prohibition, boats loaded with whisky from Canada would slip through the San Juan Islands and land just down the beach from here. According to family lore, Mary Lou Caudill’s uncle was often on board. “He worked on the boats bringing alcohol in from Canada,” says Caudill ’68. “He kept the engines running.” Some of the deliveries were consumed at the nearby speakeasy, others loaded into big touring cars and driven down to California.
Now, thanks to a series of new liquor laws, Caudill and her husband Jim and another couple have brought whisky back to Samish Island, having formed Golden Distillery, a small-batch craft operation.
The Caudills and the Stilnoviches are retired restaurateurs, the Caudills having run La Conner Seafood and Prime Rib House. The men were looking around for something to do. Mary Lou, who saw an advertisement for a distilling clinic organized by the Washington State University–Mount Vernon Research Center and the nonprofit Northwest Agriculture Business Center, urged them to check it out.
In 2007, the state legislature started moving the state out of the shadow of Prohibition by passing a law permitting craft distilling. Dry Fly in Spokane was the first to start operating that year. First a trickle, then a cascade of new license applicants followed. In June and August of 2008, the ag business center organized the distilling courses at the Mount Vernon research station. One reason for the program was to offer farmers a way to add value to their crops, says David Bauermeister ’83, executive director of the NABC. The state is a major producer of berries, apples, grapes, potatoes, and grains, all of which can be turned into alcohol.
The two-day class taught the basics of distilling, starting with the science of hand crafting an alcoholic beverage. While they caught on quickly, it took Jim Caudill and Bob Stilnovich about a year to finesse their method. “When we first started there was no one around who could tell us how to do it,” says Stilnovich. “We made some of the worst stuff you’ve ever tasted.”
They also played around with their technique and put their restaurant know-how to work on the stills. Instead of using thermal sleeves around the tall copper pots, they set them on surplus restaurant griddles. They could just as easily be flipping hamburgers on them, say the guys.
Here’s where the craft begins. Larger distilleries are mechanized and measured. Here at Golden the whiskey makers do everything by hand, measuring the barley, brewing the beer, even tasting the distillate to know when to start capturing the alcohol when the flavor is where they want it, and stopping before the undesireable compounds come out. It’s the heads and tails, Caudill explains. The first stuff to come out is the head, higher alcohols such as acetone and esters that could harm you to consume. At the end come the tails, which can make the distillate taste bad.
They age their whiskey in white oak barrels, where it picks up flavor and color, and when it’s ready they hand bottle it. Their process works. This year two of their single malts took gold medals at the American Distillery Industry meeting in Kentucky. And now restaurants and hotel bars are asking specifically for their products.
A few of the region’s 40-some other new distilleries were also introduced to the craft through the NABC workshops, notes Bauermeister, naming Fremont Mischief and San Juan Island Distillers as two of the newer ones.
“I think it’s going to unfold much like the wine business,” says Dennis Reynolds, the Ivar B. Haglund Chair in Hospitality Business Management at WSU. That means we should expect a growing number of high-quality small-scale craft distilleries.
“The spirit business today has evolved. It’s like a marketing machine,” he says, pointing to the slick magazine ads for vodka. But this new generation of consumers is discerning. They are craving high quality products that are more special and unique “like Seattle restaurants selling Seattle-made alcohol,” he says. “It follows the farm-to-fork idea.”
Like a fine aged whiskey, the craft industry is going to take some time to mature. Until this year, the small-scale and craft distillers weren’t finding their way into the state’s purchasing system—and then not onto the shelves of liquor stores and bars. When voters passed Initiative 1183 in 2011 they changed the state laws allowing the small-scale distillers to sell directly to restaurants by last spring and by June, to deal directly with private liquor stores. But it was a rough few months. “When the state lost the deal, they shut us off,” says Jim Caudill. “From November until May we couldn’t sell anything.” Still the change in the law and the direct access to customers “made it possible for us to survive,” he says.
This scene on Samish Island is unfolding all over the state. Dry Fly in Spokane has led the way for Fremont Mischief in Seattle, Walla Walla Distilling, and Ezra Cox in Centralia. In Snohomish County Ryan Hembree and his wife Julia have Skip Rock Distillery where they make artisan vodka out of Yukon Gold potatoes from Skagit Valley. Now that the vodka has won great reviews, Hembree, who studied winemaking at WSU, is making a white whiskey and working on several other products.
As project manager for the NABC, Jake Fowler ’03 helped run the distilling clinics, but has recently turned his focus to the apple orchard at BelleWood Acres in Lynden and the new distillery, the first in Whatcom County.
“We’re just seeing the start of this,” says WSU’s Reynolds. “People here are ready for it. Look at the success of our wine industry, our microbreweries. I think the distillery business is going the same way.”