Local Distillers Perfect the Art of Gin Making

A.J. Rathbun spotlights the local distillers who have turned Washington into the ever-gin state
A.J. Rathbun  |   September 2013   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
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Ever since the tweaks in the liquor laws made distilling in Washington state legal, we’ve seen a pretty wide assortment of spirit and liqueur selections become available. But the highest concentration has been of gin and vodka. The latter is understandable—vodka is the most basic of spirits and can be made easily from pretty much everything. Gin, though, is a bit more peculiar. By definition, it’s just a juniper-flavored spirit, but making one that’s both tasty and individual can be difficult, involving careful and precise additions of other flavoring agents. And you have to decide if you want a classic London-style gin (also called “dry” gin), a newer style of gin that gives other botanicals more influence with the juniper, one of the gin offshoots (like Old Tom), or something in between.

So why has our state managed to put out so many good gins in such a short time? Is it because many distillers grew up around pine trees, which smell like gin? Is it an underappreciated influx of U.K. immigrants? Marc Bernhard, the owner and distiller at Woodinville’s Pacific Distillery, whose much-laureled Voyager gin was one of the first Washington gins available, echoes a refrain repeated by most of our state’s gin makers: It’s love. His passion for gin traces back to when he was little and his dad would give him tiny sips of well-made gin and tonic. That taste, and those sips, never left his memory, making gin the natural choice when he started the distillery in 2007.

But how does this love turn into award-winning spirits? It isn’t easy. As Andrew Friedman, owner and bartender at Liberty in Capitol Hill (a bar that carries approximately 80 gins), says, “Anyone can get some juniper and make ‘gin.’ It takes quite a feat to make really good gin.” When Bernhard was crafting the formula that became Voyager, he experimented with batch after batch, and then tapped local genius cocktail-writer Robert Hess (drinkboy.com) to assemble a tasting panel to blind-taste seven experimental batches. He also included a market-leading gin. All his gins scored above the big-name gin, but two specific formulations had the highest marks. He blended those two to create Voyager.

This dedication is found in many local gin artisans. The new Alpinsit gin from Paco Joyce, Ishan Dillon and David Waterworth, the owners of the new Vashon Island–based Seattle Distilling Company is the result of much time spent, as Joyce says, “tinkering with this recipe, adding a little of this, a little of that, looking for that perfect balance.” They’ve also focused on using local ingredients, including “Vashon-grown elderberry, lavender, coriander and hazelnuts” with an eye to “create something of this place, something unique to the Northwest.”

Our gin landscape is particularly intriguing for cocktail connoisseurs and those who sip gin neat because there is such a range of strong and boldly individual flavor profiles. For a bar owner such as Liberty’s Friedman this provides a perfect palette for creating wonderful cocktails. He’s “looking for something with some backbone, something that’ll stand up to mixers.” The end result is better drinks in bars and better drinks at home.