A growing distilling scene like ours in Washington goes through a series of stages. First, everyone’s excited about what might become available. Next, the clear spirits show up, the gins and vodkas, followed by the darker numbers, the brandies, liqueurs and whiskeys. After that, though, the individual distilleries personalities really begin to shine. This is the stage we’re in now, as a number of local distillers are releasing spirits and liqueurs that deliver deliciously uncommon flavors.
A more intriguing bottle can come from a variety of situations. Sidetrack Distillery, for example, began experimenting with a spirit distilled from sugar beets, which the distillery planted as an experiment on its farm in Kent. The distiller thought the spirit would be neutral enough to act as a base for fruit liqueurs, but it had too much character. “We couldn’t use it as intended—but we loved it,” says Linda Person, who runs the distillery with her husband, Larry Person, and partner David O’Neal. This led to releasing a beet spirit, calling it Bete.
For others, the choice has a bit more planning behind it. A serious love of bacon and the belief that there weren’t enough savory spirits drove Sven Liden, Stefan Schachtell and Chris Marshall of SoDo-based Black Rock Spirits to create their celebrated smoky Bakon vodka. In a similarly bar-focused way, Sodo Spirits’ K.C. and Amy Sheehan expanded their single-distilled line of this popular Japanese spirit with a chile version. K.C. “liked the idea of chiles, because the flavor complements various cocktail combinations.”
Despite the diversity of inspiration, many of the distillers putting out highly individualized products tend to share one desire: They want to have a bottle that is unforgettable from the first sip. Steven Stone of Sound Spirits in Seattle remembers tasting the first batch of his herbaceous Vow of Silence liqueur, when he was “struck by how different it was from anything I had ever tried.” Considering the recipe was found in an antique French distilling manual, it’s unusual indeed.
Of course, being wacky for wackiness’ sake doesn’t deliver memorable results. But we’re awfully lucky that we have so many dedicated distillers who are traveling the spirited road less traveled and experimenting until they get that singular flavor just right.
Lavender and wild rose liqueur, San Juan Island Distillery ($25/375 ml)
Made with an apple-brandy base—San Juan Island Distillery also makes wonderful cider—this liqueur takes its taste from island-grown Pelindaba lavender and damask roses. The end result is reminiscent of a field of flowers, without ever being cloying. It’s perfect shaken with gin and lemon juice and served over ice. Tasting room: Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, 12 Anderson Lane; 360.378.2606; sanjuanislanddistillery.com
Bete, Sidetrack Distillery ($32.95/375 ml)
A spirit distilled from sugar beets may sound odd, but after a sip of this one-of-a-kind drink, it won’t seem odd in the least. Bete is smooth and savory, with a unique vegetal taste that opens up a range of drink options; I suggest trying this on its own first, then over ice, then mixed with your favorite bitters, and then start subbing it for gin in your top cocktails. Tasting room: Kent, 27010 78th Ave. S; 206.963.5079; facebook.com/sidetrackdistillery
Rosemary-flavored vodka, Oola Distillery ($37.95/750 ml)
Made with Tuscan blue rosemary and perhaps the only rosemary vodka available, Oola’s spirit has an herby essence, with hints of citrus and caramel and a light green glow. Try it in The Evergreen (created by Jim German from Jimgermanbar in Waitsburg, Washington), made by shaking 1 ounce of the vodka with 1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice and 1 ounce Josef Hofer Zirbenz stone pine liqueur. Sales and Saturday tours at the distillery. Capitol Hill, 1314 E Union St.; 206.709.7909; ooladistillery.com
Bakon Vodka, Black Rock Spirits ($35.99/750 ml)
At first, you might be wary of this one, with bacon being so trendy and with so many poorly flavored vodkas out there. But it’s a revelation. Smoky, lightly salty, with a flittering herbal underbelly and a hint of sweetness, it never tries to overpower with an artificial bacon-ness (it’s suitable for vegetarians). Substitute it in a Bloody Mary and your morning will get better quickly. No tasting room; bakonvodka.com
Vow of Silence liqueur, Sound Spirits ($40/750 ml)
This liqueur has a lineage that goes back to Trappist monks. Its taste also echoes layered French and Italian liquid inspirations, with cardamom, mint and other secret spices smoothly coalescing on the tongue. It’s worthy as a digestif after a big meal, but also can take the place of Chartreuse in cocktails. Tasting room: Interbay, 1630 15th Ave. W; 206.651.5166; drinksoundspirits.com
EvenStar shochu distilled with chiles, Sodo Spirits ($24/750 ml)
Made from pearled barley and wildly popular in Japan, shochu is a brisk, clear spirit that’s lower in calories and alcohol than what’s regularly served here. This version is highlighted by Japones chiles (an Asian chile), an infusion that brings a refined but memorable and well-balanced smoke and heat, followed by a trailing sweetness. It mixes well with citrus fruits and spicy food. Tasting room: SoDo, 2228 Occidental Ave. S; email@example.com; seattleshochu.com
For sophisticated cocktail recipes and more local spirits suggestions, follow A.J. Rathbun's weekly posts on the Seattle magazine blog.