We’ve come a long way from vodka, the ubiquitous spirit just about every local distillery made when the area’s first distilleries began opening in 2012.
Today’s South Sound distilleries produce gin, barrel-aged bourbon, rye whiskey, moonshine, lavender liqueur, brandy and even ouzo.
In all, seven distilleries are open to the public in Pierce and Thurston counties. They make terrific weekend field trips, especially for out-of-town visitors.
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A theme emerged at every tasting room visited for this tour.
Not only were the distillers and owners there to answer questions, they seemed eager to share the story of how they opened their distilleries.
That’s why I recommend setting aside at least an hour for each visit.
A few other things to know before visiting.
Most offer low-cost (and sometimes free) samples, so if you plan to indulge, be sure to have a driver lined up, especially if visiting more than one distillery.
Note that taste sizes are limited by state regulation, which is why tastes are very small. Tasting fees often earn a taster a bottle discount or a refund of the fee with a bottle purchase.
Pierce County Distilleries
Chambers Bay Distillery
Where: 2013 70th Ave. W., University Place; 253-292-5962, chambersbaydistillery.com.
Hours: 4-7 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays and 2-7 p.m. Saturdays.
Tasting fee: $1-$2 for single tastes, $1.50 for micro cocktails.
For purchase: Ghost Dog Whiskey ($28, 750-milliliter bottle) and Greenhorn Bourbon ($26, 375-milliliter bottle).
Somewhere in a Tacoma marina, a boathouse is making a sloshing sound as it rocks back and forth.
The motion is the method for barrel aging the hand-distilled bourbon for Chambers Bay Distillery, the company that released its first bourbon, 20-month aged Greenhorn, in December. The distillery opened to the public in June 2015.
It’ll take more months of sloshing and splashing before the distillery’s flagship 3-year-aged bourbon is ready in late 2017, but the distillery will release its wheat vodka in August. It also produces a whiskey that is a spirit made by another company and finished at the distillery with its own mixture of ghost pepper flavoring. (It’s not as spicy as you’d think.)
A tour of the distillery, in a business park tucked between flooring and roofing companies, is as easy as asking to step through a doorway that divides the small tasting room from the low-tech distilling operation crammed with a small still, glass carboys and wooden barrels jammed into every cranny of the narrow garagelike space.
Owners Alan Davis or Jeff Robinette typically are on hand to answer questions and give background about their distillery, which was born out of a friendship that started when Davis and Robinette met in the band at Hudtloff Junior High in Lakewood. After graduating from Lakes High School and the University of Washington, Davis became a financial analyst, and Robinette an embryologist. The distillery is a second job for both.
Heritage Distilling Co.
Flagship: 3207 57th St. Court NW, Gig Harbor; 253-509-0008. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays.
Waterfront: 3118 Harborview Drive, Gig Harbor; 253-514-8120. Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays.
Tasting fee: Flights and “bevanda” drinks for $5.
For purchase: Several types of flavored vodkas, gin, bourbon, rye whiskey, blended whiskey, apple cider whiskey and many more. The widest selection found on any tour, as well as the most decorated with awards. 750 milliliter bottle prices start around $22.50.
Distillery news: A new distillery is opening in Oregon, as well as a third in Washington.
The region’s largest distillery is also one of the most fascinating to visit, and there are two ways to do that.
The flagship location, which opened in 2012, encompasses a cavernous space that formerly held the 7 Seas Brewery behind the Inn at Gig Harbor. Watch from behind a second-story glass window above as distillers on the floor manage stills sporting distillation columns that seem to soar.
Be sure to ask a tasting room staffer about the names of the stills. In keeping with the distillery’s heritage theme, each name represents a family connection for co-owners Justin and Jennifer Stiefel.
A tasting and retail space is flanked by mini barrels that are part of the distillery’s program in which participants can fashion their own spirits to a finely-tuned specification using the distillery’s products. Tours are available by prior request at the flagship location.
Head to the Gig Harbor waterfront for the distillery’s second, and smaller, operation outfitted with a 26-gallon Hillbilly still. The tasting menu at the waterfront location offers flights for $5 and a “bevanda,” sample drinks using the distillery’s spirits and add-ins. Some even come frozen, such as the distillery’s bourbon sour slushie or a spicy mango margarita.
One of the next releases for the distillery is its BSB103, a modified 103-proof version of Heritage’s Brown Sugar Bourbon.
Where: 2908 Meridian Ave. E., Edgewood; 253-377-1379, nightsidedistillery.com.
Hours: 4-8 p.m. Fridays, noon-6 Saturdays and noon-4 Sundays.
Tasting fee: None.
For purchase: Vodka ($25) and Distiller’s Cut Vodka ($35), apple pie and lemon drop ($20).
Head behind a two-story building that holds Lee’s Martial Arts and take a right through a gate to find Nightside Distillery tucked into a warehouse space in Edgewood.
When the tasting room is open, the distillery’s garage doors usually are flung open, giving a complete view of the the space that’s also fully on display beyond the tasting counter at this low-tech operation.
The distillery was founded by Tom Greene, a longshoreman who intended to start distilling as a hobby, but wound up instead with a business plan. Since his 2013 opening, he’s expanded his line from vodka distilled from apples to a Distiller’s Cut version, as well as apple pie, which is a spirit flavored with ingredients mimicking the taste of apple pie. In 2015, he added business partners Mike Cathey and wife Janine, Ray Bunk and wife Angee, and Travis Loyd.
A tour is as casual as they come, although more formal tours are available by appointment. A distillery partner usually is available to answer questions and talk about upcoming projects, including one with an altruistic theme. The distillery will donate a portion of the proceeds from the sales of its fruit punch spirit to local firefighter organizations.
An oaked vodka will be released this year. “Rested” on oak, think of it as something that tastes like a light whiskey, said Greene.
Old Soldier Distillery
Where: 309 Puyallup Ave, Tacoma; 253-223-4306 or oldsoldierdistillery.com.
Hours: 4-8 p.m. Fridays and noon-8 p.m. Saturdays.
Tasting fee: None.
For purchase: White whiskey ($26), traditional or bourbon whiskey ($28).
Tacoma’s first craft distillery is also a subterranean one. Head down a narrow flight of stairs to a tasting room outfitted with artifacts representing co-owner Andy Fairchok’s family history with distilling, as well as his military connections. Fairchok is the “old soldier” behind the business. He’s retired from the Army. Business partner Rodney Kaeding served in the Air Force.
Just beyond the tasting room is a distilling plant filled with MacGyvered equipment repurposed from stray parts. There’s an interesting ecological backstory to the 1-year-old distillery in Tacoma’s Dome District (Wingman Brewers are neighbors). There’s virtually no waste created by the distillery. A farmer provides artesian well water for the distillery, which sends the spent distilling wash back to another farm for further use.
A tour invites visitors to get up close to the distillery’s equipment, as well as take a whiff of whiskey from each stage of the distilling process. Be careful with the first jar of cast-off. You don’t want to take too big a whiff of the liquid that smells like dirty gym socks and wet dog mixed with rocket fuel.
The distillery specializes in corn whiskey. One version is based on a recipe from Fairchok’s great-great grandfather, who served as a quartermaster in the Civil War. The white whiskey is what Fairchok describes as “high octane.” The bourbon is aged in barrels in the back corner of the distillery.
Three spirits that are tough to find handmade in Washington state — brandy, grappa and ouzo — will be the first products for Mastrogiannis Distillery, a small Greek distillery in Lakewood that just received its licenses and permits.
The distillery eventually will be open to the public Saturdays, but that’s at least a month or two away. Right now, owner Ilias Mastrogiannis is beginning his first batch of ouzo, the traditional Greek spirit with an anise kick, which he’ll distill from wine.
After that, he’ll make brandy from riesling grapes he has purchased from a Washington winery. Following brandy will be grappa, also distilled from Washington-grown grapes.
His expertise in wine comes from the family business, a winery in Greece where he was born and raised. He’s also a Microsoft employee who intends to keep his day job.
He said he’ll keep his production small as he gets started, around 300 cases a year. While his first spirits will focus on grapes, he has his eye on Washington’s other crops: apples, pears, apricots and other stone fruits grown across the state.
Thurston County Distilleries
Blind Pig Spirits
Where: 222 Capitol Way N., Olympia; 360-628-8259 or blindpigspirits.com.
Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays.
Tasting fee: $5 for five 0.5-ounce tastes of moonshine and vodka.
For purchase: 375-milliliter bottles of moonshine and vodka for $22; 750-milliliter bottles are $34.
The name for Olympia’s first distiller is a throwback to Prohibition when entry to a speakeasy required winks, nudges, and a code word or two.
“The blind pig was a fictional character during Prohibition. You’d walk into a restaurant and a guy would stand there. If the person was in the know, they’d say, ‘Can I see your blind pig?’ ” explained Ray Watson, one of three owners. It opened last summer, although operated for a short time under a different name in Centralia.
In keeping with the Prohibition theme, the distillery specializes in apple pie, peach and tropical flavored moonshine. There’s also vodka, and coming up next is a gin with a planned August release.
The co-owners are Watson, who works for Puget Sound Energy; Fred Moore, a former chemist at Dow, and his wife Deb; and Lesa Givens, who works in the insurance industry.
Be sure to take a tour of the distillery’s equipment, much of it repurposed. A fermenter used to be a milk tank at a farm in Lewis County, and a stripping still previously had a life as a cream tank for Darigold.
The distillery shares one connection with the community’s brewing legacy. “It’s the water” could easily double as Blind Pig’s tagline. The distillery uses the city’s famous artesian water from the well on Fourth Avenue.
Salish Sea Organic Liqueurs
Where: 2641 Willamette Drive NE, Lacey; 360-890-4927, salishseaorganicliqueurs.com.
Hours: Noon-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays.
Tasting fee: $4.99 (discounts for larger groups).
For purchase: $19.99 for 375-milliliter bottles, $33.99 for 750-milliliter bottles.
Consider this company a boutique liqueur business with a concentrated culinary focus. Its owners, father-son team Sandy and Sam Desner, specialize in cold maceration, a method of flavoring distilled spirits. The business purchases its spirits ready-made and uses its own formula of botanical-based ingredients. The result is a flavor-forward line of liqueurs meant to pair well with food.
And it’s not just for sipping. Salish Sea’s sage liqueur could make a terrific addition to a Thanksgiving turkey brine.
Sam Desner, whose love of liqueurs grew out of an affinity for cocktail creation, develops the liqueur flavors, with only one out of every four to six flavors developed making its way to production.
Botanicals run the gamut here, including Mediterranean herbs, chrysanthemum and ginger. In all, the company carries 18 liqueurs, but there will be 20 by the end of the year. Grapefruit coriander is expected to debut this month. The business opened in 2015.
Wine tip: The business is in an industrial park right next to Stottle Winery.
Where: 842 Wright Road SE, Tenino; 360-239-7272, sandstonedistillery.com.
Hours: Noon-5 Thursdays-Mondays.
Tasting fee: $5 for two four-sample flights.
For purchase: Vodka ($25-$40 for 375- or 750-milliliter bottles), gin or black gin ($25-$42), white whiskey ($30-$45), bacon or barrel-aged whiskey ($35), Andrew’s Hammer whiskey ($40).
Follow a beautifully forested road to find Sandstone Distillery, the only estate distillery on this tour. Sandstone is operated out of a building at the Bourdon family farm, which was home to the family’s trucking company before owner and founder John Bourdon sold it. He turned the profits into seed money for the distillery he opened in 2014 with wife Jenni, son Justin and daughter-in-law Carissa.
The family is quick to explain that much of the equipment has been re-purposed. The tour here trended more formal, with Justin giving a 20-minute talk about the fermenting and distilling process, including a digression into how he took up an interest in whiskey (in college, as the story goes).
A tour here includes a meet-and-greet with Barley, the distillery dog who patiently waits — sort of — for Justin’s talk to finish before nudging visitors for a quick pet.
A tour here is steeped in Tenino history. The distillery’s name is a nod to the sandstone quarry once owned by the Bourdons’ longtime neighbors. Sandstone from that quarry created buildings such as the old Olympia courthouse.
Two flights are offered for tasting. A whiskey flight includes white, aged and bacon-flavored whiskey (way tastier than it sounds) and a sip of a whiskey cocktail. There’s also a tasting with vodka, black or regular gin, infused vodka, and a cocktail made with one of the flavored syrups created by Jenni (who also makes and sells shrubs, which are flavored vinegars meant to be used as a cocktail flavor addition).
An aged whiskey was released in November, and there are more aged spirits on the way. The distillery just put its first bourbon in barrels, which means it won’t be ready for some time. Said Bourdon, “I’m telling everyone two years.”
Whatever happened to…
In 2012, Carbon Glacier Distillery was the first Pierce County distillery to open and was followed by Port Steilacoom Distillery in Steilacoom and Parliament Distillery in Sumner. Carbon Glacier and Port Steilacoom both closed more than a year ago, and Parliament is moving its operation to Oregon this month.