Saturday, November 24, 2012

Parliament Distillery: A Dream Becomes Concrete Reality

Hand finished concrete bar, by Jarrett himself.
The depth of color and professional finish translates
 quite well into his whiskey making. 

Jarrett Tomal has been distilling for quite some time.  After 16 years of pouring concrete, he decided to pursue his passion. So, he and his buddy Flynn friend put together their hard earned cash to start a distillery in Sumner, Washington.  Along with “Tall Matt” McCartney, who put in a huge amount of sweat equity and elbow grease to get it up and running, the three moved Parliament Distillery from the realm of lunch break dreams to real-world reality.

You could say the idea of opening up a distillery literally hit Jarrett in the face a few years ago. I confirmed this story on his website is true:
“It all started one wet October day while pouring a concrete slab in Eatonville. While waiting for the concrete to set up a bit he noticed a very old barn in the field behind him. He decided to check it out. As he entered the decrepit old barn he noticed in the corner was a very old moonshine still… He opened the front hatch of the still to get a look inside, just than an all-white barn owl (also known as a ghost owl) flew right out of the still into Jarrett's face knocking him to the ground. The owl flew up into the rafters of the barn and cocked his head sideways starring at him.”

He also adds that the Ghost Owl hit him on his face with its talons, but didn’t even scratch him, let alone shred his face if it wanted to.  So, when he founded his company years later, in honor of that owl he named it Parliament, after a gathering of owls.

Most of the small batch start-ups that have sprung up over the last few years start off by selling vodka & gin, as they don’t require any aging.  This gets their product to market faster so they can stay afloat, and start squirreling away whiskey in casks for future releases.  Because of this, many of them own column stills, which are optimized for vodka & gin production.

Jarrett isn’t a huge fan of vodka, and would rather concentrate on making whiskey that he’d love to drink.  If there is some sort of cosmic scale that measures the makeup of a man, with one side representing the corner-cutting businessman and the other side representing the creative artisan, the scale would soundly tip towards the latter with Jarrett.  So, they took a risk & invested in a 50+ year old alembic still.  These stills, which are very similar to the pot stills used in Scotland for making Scotch, produce more depth in their flavor than a column still.  But, this presents a business survival problem.  If you use regular-sized barrels, whiskey takes a couple of years to mature.  Smaller casks impart flavor more quickly, as there is more surface area touching the liquid.  But, even quarter casks take months to mature, and even then the liquor still has a freshness (or kick in the face harshness if you do it wrong) that is not what people expect when they buy an American whiskey.  How do you stay afloat long enough to get your product into the hands of your customers?

Moonshine on the left, Whiskey on the right
Their solution was to release moonshine first.  By definition moonshine, aka white dog, is unaged whiskey.  Most of the moonshine I’ve tried is barely drinkable on its own.  It can be used for cocktails, or the hobbyist can put it in a barrel & age it himself.  Parliament’s Ghost Owl Pacific Northwest Moonshine is an exception.  It is very drinkable and very smooth.  I enjoy sipping it neat.

After they completed their first batch of moonshine, the guys went to a ton of different bars in Washington, and sold it out of their 1984 Brown Chevy pickup.  Jarrett has a fierce loyalty to those who supported him early on.  The bars that picked up their unaged whiskey are going to be the first ones to have access to their new whiskey releases.

That first batch kept them afloat, and in the meantime, they squirreled away as much booze into casks as they could.  They used special casks from Black Swan to get more flavor into the whiskey faster.  But when they were ready to bottle, they realized that this was not enough.  If necessity is the mother of invention, then limitations are the mothers of creative innovation.  And when people get creative, they often come up with a better result than anyone would have otherwise.

This defines their second release, Parliament’s Ghost Owl Pacific Northwest Small Batch Whiskey.  Their single malt barley has some wonderful pepper notes, caramel, vanilla & spices.  But on its own, it wouldn’t have enough depth of flavor.  As Jarrett says, “You can’t beat Father Time when it comes to aging”.  There are things that happen over time in the cask that makes whiskey taste the way it does.  By adding 40% 5 year old bourbon, they get that depth and smoothness.  This results in what Jeff, a visitor during my interview, referred to as “Caramel Corn”.  He was loving it, and so do I.  I tasted something closer to a Maker’s 46, which has additional complexity by being aged with French Oak staves.  But, Jarrett assured me that he is using all first fill American Oak casks in the blend.

Their still produces only 5 gallons for their moonshine runs, as they make tight cuts for a smoother flavor, and in Jarrett’s words, “It contains less of the fusels that can cause a hangover”. They employ a few extra tricks to get the fusels out of the whiskey after distillation too. “It’s done all the time in Scotland, but it seems that people over here with their huge production runs don’t feel the need to do the extra steps.”

These same fusels are what turn into wonderful fruit notes in an aged whiskey, after it has been laying in the charred innards of a barrel for long periods of time.  So, for their runs that are to be laid into casks, the still produces about 6.5 gallons.

He distills by smell & taste, just like the old timers. Often, newfangled equipment will say what is coming off the still is good when it wouldn’t meet his standard.  His cuts are tighter than larger distilleries.

Trader Joe’s is expanding their liquor selection to include more locally made whiskey.  After their buyer got a taste of theirs, they called up and bought nearly the entire run of their first batch of aged whiskey, grabbing 90 cases before anyone else could get to it.

Right now, besides Trader Joe’s, about the only place you can get their aged whiskey is from the distillery itself.  I have seen their unaged moonshine in other places, such as Wine World & Spirits.  I encourage you to go out and grab some now, while it lasts. The next batch isn’t going to be ready until after Christmas.
Parliament Distillery

13708 24thst East, suite 103
Sumner WA 98390
Hours of operation:
Noon to 6:30pm,
7 days a week!
(253) 447-8044

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Heritage Distillery Company is Now open in Gig Harbor!

“A lawyer, an engineer and a teacher decide to open a distillery”… If you have a good punch line for this joke, send it our way. In the meantime, we'll be enjoying the fine, fine spirits of Heritage Distilling Company. Because, that is what happened on November 3rd in Gig Harbor. Financed by 18 friends and family, this craft distiller promises to deliver some incredible offerings, as well as some new and very exciting programs. They are located just past the Inn at Gig Harbor. For those staying there, the distillery & attached pub are a pleasant surprise in easy walking distance.  Founded by the husband/wife team of Justin & Jennifer Stiefel, Heritage Distilling Company, (HDC for those in the know) has a lot of things going on:


Nonna, the production still
Hailing from Italy, this 2000 liter pot still features an offset bell, which adds depth to the flavor of the final product. Instead of injecting additional steam into the system, they are using latent heat of condensation to drive the column, which is the next step in the process of making vodka. This gives their flavor more depth, and results in a better product. Justin spent a lot of time researching different stills, and I'm impressed with his decision.

The MicroStills
When HDC is experimenting to make a new offering, they use one of their micro stills; O'Neil, George, Harold, Lester, Jake or Olson. They all come from Hillbilly Stills out of Kentucky.  They are named after Jennifer’s and Justin’s grandparents and old family names.
More importantly, these are the same stills that they use for their “My Batch” program.

The names of the microstills are named after the Stiefel's grandfathers, because they like to tease that Grandpa can get the job done, but when you really need someone to do the dirty work efficiently, you go to Grandma (Nonna). The grandfathers are: George, Harold, Lester, Jake, Olson & O'Neil.

My Batch™
This program is the most exciting thing I've heard of in the local distillery industry since I started following it. I swear 6 months before I had even heard of HDC, I was wishing that someone would start up a business to do this. Here's why:

Right now it is illegal for an individual to distill alcohol as a hobby in their own home. And, the paperwork, building codes, licensing process, and cost of equipment is almost always too big of a hassle for the hobbyist to overcome. But, there are a lot of law-abiding citizens out there who have always wanted to give it a try (I certainly am one of them). HDC has worked through all of the legal issues, and now you can distill your own liquor at their distillery, under their guidance. When you are done, the product can be bottled, and you can buy it at a reduced price. When combined with the My Batch fee, the cost of each bottle is still very reasonable.

While they have to get every recipe approved by the government ahead of time, the recipes are written generally enough so that if a very hardcore 'student' wanted to try different varieties or proportions of the base ingredients there is some wiggle room to do so. For example, one recipe lists “Malted barley” but not the exact variety or malting method.

Details here:

Cask Club
When you join this club, HDC will take unaged liquor of your choice and put it in a 10 liter cask at barreling strength (approaching 160 proof) with your name or company on it. This can be liquor that they made, or you can pour the results of your My Batch™ session into one of the casks.

You can sample it whenever you like, and when you think it is ready for bottling, they'll bottle it for you. You can even take the cask with you if you like once your product is done aging! I must admit, while I do my own aging of store bought unaged liquor at home, it still would be nice to have the Washington Whiskey Watch logo on a cask for all who come to visit. And, the wife would be more than happy to get my current casks out of the garage. This is a very popular program, so make sure to get your own cask while there is still room.

Details here:

Example Casks belonging to the Cask Club™. Reserve yours now while their is still room!


Washington's Rye Whiskey
In addition to their two programs, they are making some incredible unaged rye whiskey, based off of George Washington's original recipe. I tried it on opening day, and it is not what you'd expect from a unaged whiskey (white dog). It is smooth and sweet. It still has plenty of flavor. It's a smooth medium finish, and is surprisingly complex. No smoke or peat at all (this is Washington, not Scotland). It's fine to sip on its own, or to add to a cocktail. There is more depth in the flavor than one would normally expect from an unaged whiskey. If you have your own micro barrel, it would be a fine addition to a barrel aged cocktail, or even mixed in with the fruits of your My Batch™ labor.

WhereskySofter Spirits
Light whiskey

Of the three, on opening day they had Wheresky Vodka ready to try. Being distilled and carbon filtered an undisclosed number of times (a lot!) this vodka is incredibly smooth. Made from local red wine, it still has a lot more flavor than your run of the mill vodka. Smooth and sweet, and would go well with all sorts of cocktails. There is a slight similarity in flavor between this and Washington's Rye, I think this has something to do with Nonna. And, it tastes great.

The Light Whiskey, not available on opening day, is something that they are looking forward to bringing back to market. It is put in cask at 160 proof, and the cask has to be either uncharred, or used. It will be lighter in flavor and color with aggressive overtones of vanilla and walnuts, and should be easy to sip.

Elk Rider WhiskeyClassic Spirits

These more traditional spirits were not available on opening day. I'm looking forward to seeing the differences between these and the Wheresky™ line.

I talked with Justin at length about his product and his business. He embodies the two diametrically opposed forces in most businesses. One is to keep the business afloat and the other is to create the best product possible.

All of their federal permits and paperwork to set up the distillery were processed in 14 calendar days. This is considered lightning fast when compared to the normal month’s long process of working through the federal government for a distillery permit. The person who processed it said it was the most complete application that he had ever seen. But this level of detail in their building codes and paperwork also is present in the quality of their final product.

Justin is passionate about making whiskey, and is a very driven businessman. And, he's very easy to get along with. Our only minor point of disagreement is that the “My Batch” and “Cask Club” processes are patent pending. While this wouldn't stop other distilleries from holding classes on distilling, the combination of every step in the process would be protected. When I asked him if he thought this was fair, his response was, “If you walk into a fair fight, you failed to prepare properly.” In spite of myself, I found I really like him. And my point of contention is more about how patents are used in America in general than this company specifically.

The tasting bar. It was *packed* on opening weekend!

They will be making gin shortly. Some of the 18 investors have land in Oregon with huge groves of 900-plus year old, old-growth juniper trees. It will be interesting to see how the age of the trees will affect the flavor of berries, and thus the gin!

50ml bottles? A local distillery combo gift pack with spirits from multiple local distilleries? They are non-committal. But, by law they are only able to sell their own liquor at their location or directly to retailers, bars and restaurants. Any combination of multiple Washington distilleries' wares would have to be sold at a liquor store or other retail outlet.

If things go well, they may consider opening more distilleries. All of them are going to have the My Batch & Cask Club programs. I certainly hope they do, as Washington State shouldn't be the only ones having all the fun.