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.
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.
THEIR UNQIUE PROGRAMS
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.
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.
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.
Wheresky™ Softer Spirits
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 Whiskey™ Classic 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.
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.