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

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