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The flowing spirits of Bainbridge Island
Washington has carved out a niche for itself in the subculture of craft brewing and wines, but there is a new libation on the scene and it’s got spirit.
Washington’s craft distillery industry is emerging fast, and Bainbridge has access to a corner of this scene through the Bainbridge Organic Distillery — among many that have recently been founded across the state, yet stands out as one of the more unique, and ethical.
“People seem very interested in small-scale or specialty spirits production,” said Keith Barnes, owner of BOD. “(It shows) how much more interesting the products can be when they are made by hand versus a big factory.”
Barnes opened the distillery in Coppertop Loop off Sportsman Club Road with son Patrick in 2009. Their first product, Legacy Organic Vodka, came in 2010 and was soon followed by Battle Point Whiskey. Last September they released a gin under the monicker Heritage.
The most recent small batch of Battle Point Whiskey was released on Dec. 3. Of the 250 bottles available, eight remained by the end of the first day. Those sold within 15 minutes of opening the next day.
“Business has continued to grow,” Barnes said. “We’ve ramped up production so we’re making more products than we were a few months ago and we are selling them faster.”
The Washington scene
With enthusiasm for craft products, Washington now leads most states in the nation with its number of distilleries. To put that in perspective, Kentucky and Tennessee, both of which are famous for their Bourbons, have a combined 38 distilleries between them. Washington has 38 licensed distilleries alone with 11 more awaiting approval by the Washington Liquor Control Board.
At the end of the 2010 fiscal year (June 30), the state only had 20 licensed distilleries — a year later that number jumped to 35 before adding three more by the end of 2011.
“I think there is specialty food or organic food, and there is specialty liquor, and there are people who actively look to support those kinds of things and they come in here to support us,” Barnes said. “Most other craft distillers in the state are probably going through the same thing. They see a lot of support from the areas that they are in.”
In 2008, the state passed legislation regulating craft distilleries by limiting production to 20,000 gallons. After some distilleries met that number with ease, it was increased to 60,000 gallons in 2010. In addition, Washington distilleries must use more than 50 percent of the grains they use from within the state.
According to Steven Stone, founder of Seattle’s Sound Spirits and president of the Washington Distillers Guild, the large number of distilleries doesn’t mean the state produces more spirits than other regions. Large distilleries have the ability to produce in one day what some craft distilleries make in a month, he said.
“Craft distilleries, breweries and wineries are a part of the ‘localvore’ movement,” Barnes said. “Bainbridge is a great place for a business like ours.”
Many distilleries are operated by owners working other jobs just to maintain their passion, including Barnes, who has worked for more than 25 years marketing for various liquor companies. When Stone isn’t tending to Sound Spirits, he works his day job as an engineer at Boeing.
“I wanted to create spirits that were new and different, something that had not been done locally for decades,” Stone said. “That is a powerful motivator.”
According to Stone, many distillers and admirers cross over from the craft brewery or wine fields.
“There’s a strain of people that you would call enthusiasts – some are craft or home brewers and this is an extension of that,” Barnes said. “On weekends, most of our traffic is from the other side of the (Puget) Sound. When we have a whiskey release, we always have people who drive up from Oregon, and we always have one guy who drives in from Idaho, and people who come down from B.C.”
However, the “enthusiasts” are not his only customers. Both Barnes and Stone note that there is no typical visitor. People of all ages walk into Bainbridge’s distillery coming from Seattle, Kitsap Peninsula and the island itself.
In the spirit
A conversation with Barnes reveals that he has an extensive knowledge of the distilling process, and the organic world — from genetically modified organisms to where to find the most organic-friendly enzymes used for distilling. With this knowledge, his distillery puts a sense of ethics in each bottle.
“When we first started, Patrick and I discussed how much the environment is degraded through the application of agricultural chemicals,” Barnes said. “…We decided that we wanted to do this the ‘right way.’”
From the ground to the bottle, BOD is a part of every step in its own unique process. The very basic version of making BOD’s spirits involves grinding wheat into grist that will be processed with yeast, creating alcohol. Eventually, the resulting mix is then distilled, and in the case of whiskey, aged in barrels. It is a complex process and being an organic-based business, BOD produces its products a bit differently than others.
Barnes and his son have forged relationships with Washington wheat farmers — the grain they chiefly use. They go so far as to select the grounds on which grains are grown based on proximity to non-organic crops that may cross pollinate.
BOD also uses “old school” methods. For example, distilleries may use phosphoric acid during the process to adjust pH levels. However, the production of phosphoric acid can have a large environmental footprint. Instead, BOD uses citric acid, which hasn’t been commonly used since the 1960s, according to Barnes.
“When you are an organic distillery, many of the things that you use are old school,” Barnes said. “They’re not the current technology ... technology has grown leaps and bounds and made minerals more pure and made enzymes more effective. But the byproduct of that is that you’re using some processes that kick it out the door for being organic.”
When the ambient island air bears that saltwater scent, Barnes opens all the doors in the distillery and rolls casks of whiskey outside. The idea is that as whiskey ages, a certain percentage of the alcohol evaporates out of the barrel — distillers call it the angel’s share. As the alcohol leaves, it is replaced by the salty air adding to the unique flavor of the spirit.
Barnes hopes that BOD will continue to succeed and be sustainable, perhaps so that someday his grandchildren can take part if they choose to.
“We’re not looking to make it huge,” Barnes said. “It will get as big as it feels like it needs to get, but we’re definitely looking to drive the business and not let the business drive us.”