Seattle-area Highside Distilling's Secret Ingredient Gives Its Spirits a Local Flavor

On Bainbridge Island, the Glenn family uses apples to produce gin and amari
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RETIREMENT PLAN: Jeff (right) and Helen Glenn helped son, Matt, launch Highside Distilling last year

This article appears in print in the December 2019 issue. Click here to subscribe.

Jeff and Helen Glenn didn’t anticipate launching second careers when they decided to retire in 2012 and 2015 respectively: he from a career stretching back to the early days of IT, and she from years owning and operating a preschool. But when son Matt, a passionate home brewer, fell in love with whiskey—“essentially the next evolution of beer,” he calls it—after a distillery tour, he talked his parents out of retirement. Together, they opened Bainbridge’s Highside Distilling just after Thanksgiving last year.

Now, you’ll see all three Glenns running the tasting room, welcoming and serving visitors, and distilling. Like many local distillers, they’re driven by a passion for their product, not a desire to make a quick buck. As it took nearly two years from lease signing to the still’s first run—a timeline common for distillers—passion is a necessary ingredient. So is creativity, both in solving problems and for putting a distinctive stamp on products. At Highside, one way these qualities have manifested is in the use of Washington apples as a base for its gin, instead of the usual grain. It started when the Glenns made a batch of hard cider that fell short of the mark. They decided to distill it and voilà! As Matt says, “The resulting spirit was incredibly soft and smooth, and made a great canvas for the particular blend of botanicals we layered on top.”

That gin also serves as a base for two traditional Italian-inspired amari: Amaro Mele and Fernet Lario. In the past decade, cocktail buffs have fallen hard for amari, bitterish herbal spirits renowned for aiding digestion and balancing cocktails. The gin base brings a bouquet of 10 botanicals from the beginning, a different starting point than the neutral grain base traditionally used. The Glenns are experimenting with other amari, as well as a Campari-esque aperitivo, barrel-aged gins (including a “pink” gin that has been resting in a wine barrel previously used for Petit Syrah, and which may have been released by now), a brandy collaboration with neighbor Eagle Harbor Wine Co., and other projects.


You can find Highside's products at liquor stores and, of course, at their distillery. 

The single malt whiskey that Matt originally fell in love with also is on the horizon (the distillery’s name refers to two areas of Scotland: the Highlands and one of its subregions, Speyside). Created using 100% Pacific Northwest barley and a treasured old Scotch ale home-brew recipe, Highside’s first whiskey was barreled in April 2019. It will be a few years yet before it’s whiskey-sipping time, but there’s no reason to put off a visit to the distillery to sample gin and amari in Highside’s lovely little tasting room. My guess is that you’ll find the whole Glenn family there. And, if you stay awhile, you’ll start to feel like family, too.

Three Highside Products to Try

The best way to get your hands on Highside’s products is at the Bainbridge Island distillery, but they’re also available at local liquor stores and in cocktails made at local bars. Pay close attention to the labels; each is loosely tied to mythology. So is the distillery’s logo, which displays a sea monster inspired by Cadborosaurus, or “Caddy,” the Pacific Northwest’s very own folkloric serpent.

Highside Gin ($38)
Crafted with a base of Washington apples and flavored with botanicals, this gin leans more contemporary than London dry in style, with juniper that’s well-accented by pepper and baking spice, and with an apple-forward aroma. It’s what Matt calls a “sipping gin,” as it shines solo over ice as well as in spirit-forward cocktails like the classic Martinez (recipe at seattlemag.com).

Amaro Mele ($46)
Amaro Mele (mele is Italian for “apples”) starts with a base of Highside gin, then brings in five more herbs and spices, including whole bean coffee and the rhubarb root traditionally used in this kind of rabarbaro-style amaro. After the mix rests in former bourbon barrels for three months, the end result is a bold drink that’s bitter, but with a hint of honey to smooth the edges. It’s ideal after a big meal and plays well in cocktails (for one example, see the recipe for The Mighty M, a relative of the Manhattan, at seattlemag.com) and with espresso.

Fernet Lario
($46)
The fernet family of bitter drinks (a branch of the amari family, really) goes back to love-it-or-hate-it Fernet Branca, and this Washington version follows the tradition, but with a twist. Highside gin is its base, to which an array of spices is added. It then rests within once-used rye whiskey barrels for as long as 10 weeks, which unveils more spice without mellowing the aggressive peppermint flavor. For another good after-dinner number, Matt also likes Fernet Lario in the classic Toronto cocktail, with rye, simple syrup and angostura bitters.

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