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April 4, 2016

Distilling With Local Ingredients

An Interview with The Seattle Distilling Company

Not long ago, we got a chance to sit down with Tami Brockway Joyce, one of the co-owners of Seattle Distilling, a family-run craft distiller in Vashon, WA, a small island not far from Seattle. Seattle Distilling focuses almost exclusively on small-batch liquors made with carefully selected local ingredients. They’ve been open only a short time, since 2013, but they’ve been making big waves in the distilling world, winning awards for their gin, vodka and coffee liquor, and inviting folks from around the country to check out their little island community. We love their focus on sustainability and local ingredients, and were psyched to hear more about their distilling philosophy and technique. Hope you all enjoy!

Focusing on local

The local, craft food movement is nothing new, but there’s a big difference between saying you’re local and actually living local. Our pals at Seattle Distilling take local seriously, sourcing barley, grain – even coffee – from nearby farms or shops. They built their still by hand, using a technique Paco Joyce, one of the co-owners, learned from his uncles back in Butte, MT. (There’s even a story about those uncles once distilling liquor out of grass clippings – making us believe the old adage that desperate times call for desperate measures.) They use a small-batch method to process and ferment their ingredients, and only use the hearts from the distilling process to create their liquors, not the heads or tails. Their process is paying off: In less than three years, Seattle Distilling has taken the distilling world by the horn. Their first gold medal award went to their coffee liquor, brewed using beans from a local coffee roasterie. They credit their small-batch process and the quality local ingredients they’ve been able to use for their success, and they made us see just how critical local ingredients can be in creating successful, delicious liquors. We can’t wait to share some of their secrets with you.

Spirit Making Process

Clawhammer Supply: We often hear the word “craft spirits” or “craft distilling” thrown around. It seems to us that you have taken this craft movement to heart. You guys make all your spirits by hand, in a method you have described as "old-school" and "old-world." Can you describe how that differs from more contemporary distilling processes? How do you maintain this hand-crafted process through larger batches for your customers?

Seattle Distilling: Yes! We make our spirits from scratch using the best local grain we can find. We start with whole grain grown in Eastern Washington. We mill it, mash it, ferment and then distill. This grain-to -glass process is unusual in the larger spirits world. It isn't fast or cheap, but it makes a delicious and really special spirit, which happens to support local agriculture. That's a win-win in our book. So the from-scratch thing is unusual. And also our process is old school. We distill in small batches. Most distilling these days is done in big industrial settings where stills run on a continuous basis. Our batches, on the other hand, have a beginning, and a middle, and an end. That's a good thing because it allows us a lot of control over what goes in the bottle. The beginning of the batch is called the heads, and it's full of congeners, or the things that cause hangovers -- things like fusel oils, methyl alcohols. They taste bad and they make you feel cruddy. The end of the batch -- the tails – is full of water and generally not so good. But the middle, the “hearts,” that's the good stuff. That’s really all you want to be drinking. In a continuous batch method, you have to filter to get rid of that stuff. In our small batch method, you just cut it out. Because we're only putting the hearts of the hearts into the bottle, we never have to charcoal filter our spirits. And that means you get to taste the delicious Washington grain. And you get this really buttery texture, thanks to all the delicious oils in the grain. It is the old way of making spirits. It's slower, it's more expensive, but it tastes amazing. And bonus: you may feel a whole lot better the next morning.

Clawhammer Supply: We love that. With the care you guys take in your processes, do you find offense to distilleries that use the word “craft” when they are simple re-distilling, or even rebottling, GNS (grain neutral  spirits)? We have found over the years of visiting “craft distilleries” that is common practice. It seems a shame that it is hard to distinguish between the true craft distilleries.

Seattle Distilling: That's such a great question. We came into the business naively believing all craft distilleries were really making their spirits. I remember visiting a craft distillery just before we opened ours, and we went on their tour. At the end I was so confused because we never saw a still. The tour guide told me "oh yeah, we don't really do that, we filter it and that's what makes it special. And we flavor it with things, too." It's no wonder I had such a headache after tasting their spirits in the tasting room! There's nothing inherently wrong with redistilling or rebottling -- but I do think it's important to be straightforward. You can make some tasty spirits that way. So just let people know that's what you're up to. I'm not a fan of claiming to be craft or handmade or that you're using grandpa's Prohibition-era recipe when you aren't.

Mashing, Fermenting and Distillation Equipment

Clawhammer Supply: We know you guys built your own still, and that Paco (one of the co-founders) learned how to build stills specifically so you guys could open this award-winning distillery. What type of still did you settle on as the best for your products and why?

Seattle Distilling: Paco learned how to build stills from his uncles who grew up in Butte, Montana in the 60s. There's not much to do in Butte, and their dad had a welding shop out back, so building stills was pretty much inevitable. Paco was always a tinkerer and loved hearing stories of their adventures (one summer they made hooch out of lawn clippings!) So he has been tinkering for many years. Building the big still was a fun challenge. Our partner at the time, Ishan, who founded the company with Paco, was a biochem major with an engineering brain, and between the two of them they designed a very clever and versatile still. It's a combination pot and column still, with a gin column in back. It’s big, which leaves us room to grow. And it can make everything from vodka to gin to whiskey!

Clawhammer Supply: How big are we talking here? What size did you guys decide was best?

Seattle Distilling: It's about 325 gallons. We wanted to make it big enough that we wouldn't out grow it for many years. It's huge and definitely the centerpiece in our tiny log cabin!

CS: If you could go back in time, would you make it bigger or are you happy with the size?

SD: The size is still working for us! I'll tell you what we would do differently: less copper-to-stainless welds. We would use more brass and less stainless.

CS: What materials did you choose and why did you choose them?

SD: The still is built off of a 1955 steam kettle that worked in a Texas public high school cafeteria. It has since graduated and moved on to booze-making. On top of that, we built the copperworks. The still is mainly copper, with some stainless steel. Copper is a standby for stills because it really makes an exceptional spirit. It acts on a molecular level with the sulfur and results in a tastier spirit.

CS: We agree! Do you have multiple stills or do you use the same still for everything. We know it is common practice to have a stripping still and then to have a spirit still.

SD: We don't use a stripping still, though we may add one soon to allow us to run a stripping run and distillation run at the same time.

CS: Can you tell us a bit about the different runs that are required to create your old-world style vodka? It sounds like a really distinctive vodka.

SD: It's pretty special. We run it through the still and usually one column once, and then one more time through the whole setup to get it to 190 proof. Then we get it down to 80 proof with water (from our island aquifer).

CS: How is your still heated?
SD: Steam

CS: Do you distill on the grains?
SD: Nope. We're done with the grains after mashing. A local farm, Pink Tractor Farm, comes and collects the spent grain to feed livestock. Lots of nutrition left in there!

CS: Do you use open or closed fermenters?
SD: Closed.

CS: Your first gold medal award was for your coffee liqueur, which you make using Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie's Orca Blend. Can you explain how you developed that liqueur and what process you use to maintain the coffee flavor without sacrificing the quality of the spirit? (without giving away your secrets of course!)
SD: You bet! Our coffee liqueur is quickly becoming our most popular spirit, though I suspect whiskey would be if we could make and age enough to keep up with demand. I worked on the coffee liqueur recipe and it took me many, many tries to get it right. We knew we wanted to make a liqueur that was all about the coffee -- not too sweet and really full flavored. I tried everything I could think of from cowboy coffee to stovetop espresso. The stovetop espresso was delicious, but we just couldn't possibly pull enough shots to make a whole batch. So I ended up trying cold brewing, which I thought I invented. (Clearly, I did not, ha!) But it was perfect: balanced and coffee-forward. And boy, is this great coffee. The Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie, our neighbor right next door to the south, makes absolutely fantastic coffee. It's a historic roasterie where Seattle's Best Coffee started and they're still roasting great coffee today. We use their Orca Blend, which is a medium roast and our favorite. It's a killer combo, with a little brown sugar and a lot of our award-winning vodka. How could you go wrong?

Gin, Vodka, and Whiskey Ingredients

CS: We don’t see how you could! So, speaking of coffee, that leads us to our next question: Seattle Distilling focuses so heavily on using local ingredients in its spirits -- local coffee, of course, but also local juniper for your gin, local hard winter wheat for your vodka, even local barley and honey in your whiskey. We love it, but we also bet it presents some challenges in figuring out the best recipes for distilling those liquors. Why are local ingredients so important to you guys? What challenges has using local ingredients presented in your process and how have you overcome them?

SD: Using great local ingredients makes sense for so many reasons. First of all, flavor. Washington grows some of the world's best grain. It's a great place to be a distillery for that very reason. And then we get to support local agriculture and local families. We always said we wanted to work with a small family farm. Well, very soon we will be erecting our grain silo, which will allow us to work directly with one farm. And you'll never guess the name of that farm -- Smalls Family Farm! It's a great family that has been distilling forever -- seven generations ago, they started milling the grain they'd been growing. So, truly, forever. We are excited to work with the Smalls! As a consumer, I'd rather pay a little more and know that someone is making a living off of this product I'm buying. We love mom-and-pop shops because we love that our dollars can make such an impact on a business. Big corporations are doing just fine. I'd much rather support the little guy. And using local ingredients lets us do that on a bigger scale. Besides that, we reduce our carbon footprint and get to know some really cool people. This especially is true in the case of our gin, because we really wanted to make a gin that tasted of this place. Our lavender is grown at Lavender Sisters Farm and our coriander comes from Hogsback Farm, right here on our little island of Vashon. Our gin tastes like the Pacific Northwest because it is made in and from the Pacific Northwest. And really, the same goes for all our spirits, made with delicious Washington grain.

CS: We often hear that most distilleries don’t push the ABV of the mash past 8-9% do you guys follow this rule and why?
SD: Yep, we don't go above 8% and in fact pull it a bit sooner.

CS: Do you have a house yeast and do you use different yeasts on different products?
SD: We use a standard distillers’ yeast on all products.

CS: We have a lot of whiskey fans on our site. Can you give us some hints to the grain bill of your whiskey?
SD: Our whiskey is a single malt, Irish style made from barley grown in the Palouse region here in Washington. We use part malted grain and part green grain to get our unique flavor, and just a tiny touch of Washington windflower honey at fermentation.

CS: So where can our readers find your stuff?

SD: Our web site, which has an online shop! 

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