Tuesday, December 11th, 2012
Making Spirits Bright in Bellingham
Teresa Schmidt

Apples, corn, potatoes and wheat. For fine spirits aficionados, this is the stuff dreams are made of–especially when they dream of hand-crafted spirits, made right here in Bellingham.

As luck would have it, three independent Whatcom County craft distilleries are busy making dreams come true, by creating fine spirits from local products.

First is BelleWood Distillery, owned by Dorie and John Belisle, who for 16-plus years have been expanding the variety of apples grown at BelleWood Acres, their 32-acre farm just north of Bellingham.

Bellingham distilleries, craft spirits

The delicious and beautiful Mountain Rose apple.

In addition to growing and selling apples, BelleWood also makes fresh cider, apple cider vinegar, apple chips and apple cider syrups. And at their new bistro and bakery, you’ll find piles of impossible-to-pass-up pies, cookies, apple turnovers and cider doughnuts.

But after producing 1.7 million pounds of apples every year, Dorie and John still had plenty that needed to be turned into a viable product. With a cider pressing operation in place, the infrastructure ready to go, and small-batch craft distilleries becoming legal in Washington State, it only made sense to turn those apples into spirits.

Bellingham distilleries, craft spirits

Last Sunday, I took a tour of BelleWood Distillery. Manager Jake Fowler and Distiller Todd Buckley taught our small group about the entire process of growing apples, pressing the juice, and then fermenting and distilling it into vodka, gin and brandy. We even got to peek inside the custom-made, bright copper and brass stills where all the magic happens. And, we were treated to tastes at various points of the process. As you might expect, it was best at the very end! And no, the vodka does not taste like apples.

Bellingham distilleries, craft spirits

Kat is Tasting Room Educator at BelleWood Distillery.

“Distilling sounds mysterious, but it’s just how we get the alcohol out of the fermented apple juice,” said Todd. “Like many distillers, we started with vodka, since it’s ready to bottle and sell after only about three weeks,” he added.

BelleWood is currently offering vodka, gin and eau de vie. “Our gin ingredients include Saigon Cut Cinnamon, California Lemon Peel, Guatemala Cardamom and Canadian Coriander Seeds. It blends really well with juices, as well as tonics,” said Todd.

With raspberry, lavender and other flavored vodkas on the way, as well as liqueurs, whiskey and Pommeau, BelleWood Distillery will be giving local spirits lovers plenty of reasons to stop by for a tour and a taste!

Bellingham distilleries, craft spirits

BelleWood Acres, open 9 – 6 every day. Distillery tours $10, weekends only. Reserve online or just stop in. 360-318-7720.

Mount Baker Distillery is a family business started by Troy Smith, who inherited his knack for distilling whiskey from Abe Smith, his great-great grandfather. Abe made moonshine just after the Civil War, and is immortalized today on every Mt. Baker Moonshine label.

Troy saw an opportunity to revive the tradition when the law changed, and he decided to start his own distillery, making moonshine whiskey and handcrafted vodka from local corn.

I recently had a chance to observe the distilling process at Mount Baker Distillery. Troy starts with a mash of corn, yeast and malted barley (which turns the starches to sugar). For about a week, the mash produces CO2 and then, it magically turns to alcohol. The liquid is then drained and goes into one of the 25-gallon reflux stills. The byproduct corn goes to an Everson farmer, who feeds it to his cows.

Bellingham distilleries, craft spirits

Troy Smith stirring the mash.

“We make both our 80 proof vodka and our 100 proof moonshine from the same mash,” said Troy. “Next we’re planning on flavored vodkas, with raspberries and blackberries from [local grower] Barbie’s Berries.” The flavored vodkas are awaiting label approval—which always takes longer than expected.

Future products include blueberry moonshine and bourbon, which will age for two years. For now, they’re sticking with unaged spirits. “We plan to keep using local produce and expanding throughout the state,” said Troy.

On Fridays and Saturdays, Troy and family offer samples in their Mount Baker-themed tasting room, located on Fraser St. in Haskell Business Center. With real log walls, supplied by Troy’s father-in-law, and chinked by Troy and his kids, it feels like you’ve stepped into Grandpa Abe’s cabin.

Bellingham distilleries, craft spirits

I tasted both the Mt. Baker Moonshine and the vodka. The corn flavor comes through in the moonshine, but not at all in the vodka, which is smooth and sippable. It’s also conducive to a “bottoms up!” approach. Troy enjoys the moonshine with just a splash of water.

You can find Mount Baker Distillery spirits at the tasting room or any Whatcom County liquor store. Pick up a Mt. Baker Moonshine t-shirt or hat online or at the tasting room.

Tasting and sales room open Fridays 2 – 6 and Saturdays 11 – 6. For tours and tastes outside these hours, call ahead, 360-734-3301.

Kelly Andrews and Matt Howell decided to start Chuckanut Bay Distillery two years ago. After some licensing delays, things are coming together and the duo hopes to be in production any day now. When I talked to Kelly and Matt last week, their excitement about opening their doors was evident.

Bellingham distilleries, craft spirits

“With our backgrounds and affinity for distilled spirits and the history of spirits, we loved the idea of starting a distillery using local produce,” said Matt. “Distilling is a natural progression for Kelly and me, and we’re almost there. It’s been quite a process.”

Kelly’s experience includes a stint at Hale’s microbrewery in Seattle. Matt, with his background in distilling and fermentation, will be running the day-to-day operation, which is located on Railroad Avenue in Bellingham (next to Boundary Bay Brewery’s beer garden, with an entrance on the alley).

Production will soon begin on the distillery’s first spirit: vodka made from 100% organic, local Yukon Gold potatoes. Then, they’ll start distilling gin and whiskey from winter wheat. Matt and Kelly said future production will include “a coffee liqueur, made from real, French pressed, organic, wonderful coffee,” plus their vodka.

Bellingham distilleries, craft spirits

“Our big focus in on sourcing local produce. The goal is 100% from Whatcom and Skagit Counties,” said Matt.

Chuckanut Bay Distillery plans to have their tasting room open in January or February, and will be in liquor stores as soon as possible. Keep up with their progress on their website.

Ask any of our three distillery owners about obtaining the various federal, state and local licenses required to run a distilling operation, and they’ll tell you it is far from easy. “For every step we expected to take, we ended up taking four,” said Kelly. “It’s been quite a learning process.” Would they do it all again, knowing what they know now? “Absolutely!” they said, in unison.

Bellingham distilleries, craft spirits

The Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners” cast visits Chuckanut Bay Distillery.

More info online: Chuckanut Bay Distillery.

With the delightful products coming from these three distilleries, Bellingham and Whatcom County will soon be known as much for fine spirits as for beer and wine. And as far as competition goes, Matt said it best: “Everybody does better together. It’s not about making a choice among the three of us, but rather choosing a locally crafted product over Bombay or Absolut.”

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About the Author:

Teresa Schmidt, a copywriter who owns and operates Sprout Creative, comes from a long line of brewers, bootleggers and saloonkeepers. She moved to Bellingham 13 years ago to write, hike, ski and paddle—but it was the beer that really sold her. She also loves wine. And cocktails. And good food. To work it all off, she runs around in the woods at every opportunity.

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