What to do, as bitter weather casts a gloom over the entire city? Drink, naturally. Since Washington began licensing craft distilleries in 2008, the local industry has exploded—more than 100 new booze-makers are now among us. Most distillers allow you to sample their booze for free and buy anything you like on-site, perfect for gifts or for filling up a flask as you face the ghastly prospect of holiday shopping. Of the local distilleries I've visited recently, these were the best products I tried so far.
Old Ballard Liquor Co. is tucked away on an industrial avenue in the neighborhood for which it's named. Owner and distiller Lexi welcomes a steady trickle of guests to her little warehouse three days a week with plenty of sass and a generosity of information and attention. Within minutes of eloquently and engagingly explaining the colossal difference between raspberry-infused vodka and vodka distilled from raspberries, the distiller also goes on a tangent about her obscure dream of a Japanese-Swedish food-fusion concept. Lexi lived in Sweden for long enough to develop an affinity for the culture and culinary traditions, extending to her latest project (and my favorite of the selection sampled): her brand-new aquavit, which defies the American style currently dominating the domestic market. She explains that the liquor is traditionally imbibed with food, so while versions that showcase the sweeter members of the licorice family, like anise and fennel, are commonly associated with the genre, Old Ballard's interpretation is more true to the original process, infused with 100 percent caraway and aged with local alder wood. Closer to a boozy Cel-Ray soda devoid of any trace of sugar than its sambuca-esque rivals, a Bloody Mary would be lucky to have it. An operation that takes pride in eccentricities, Old Ballard Liquor Co. is surprisingly accessible, thanks to Lexi's genuine desire to share her ideas and work. (Old Ballard Liquor Co., 4421 Shilshole Ave NW, oldballardliquorco.com; tasting room open Fri–Sun 3–7 pm)
When I step through the door at Copperworks Distilling Company, my choices are either to be herded directly into a group headed for a tour of the glowing pot stills and barrel storage in the hands of a heavily bearded man, or to head straight to the tasting bar, where another heavily bearded man pours samples of gin and vodka. Jason Parker and Micah Nutt are Seattle beer-brewing veterans, and they're in the process of graduating to whiskey production, joining a select few other distilleries in the area. While their whiskey needs to mature in barrels over the next couple of years, they do have two clear products to show for their labors. My favorite was their London dry style gin, an especially juniper- and coriander-forward spirit distilled from malted barley that's botanically exaggerated for its category but tastes good anyway. Thanks to their long-standing relationship with local breweries, the aforementioned barley is turned into mash (in brewing terms) or wort (in the distillery world) at the more space-conducive Elysian Brewery, and then transported to Copperworks to be fermented and distilled. The bearded men describe their namesake copper pot stills with warmth and pride, and the custom-built towers from Scotland shed a warm glow throughout the distillery. (Copperworks Distilling Company, 1250 Alaskan Way, copperworksdistilling.com; tasting room open Wed–Thurs 2–6 pm, Fri–Sat noon–7 pm, and Sun noon–5 pm)
When you first walk in, Westland Distillery looks more like an architecture firm's gift shop. Its combination of custom equipment and structural showmanship is immediately apparent and obviously expensive. Mention the new company to any other distiller in town, and their eyes widen as they speak with envy of the enormous space and its fancy outfitting. Good thing Westland has excellent taste and expertise—their first release is promisingly well-balanced, if especially assertive, as is to be expected of a two-year whiskey. Imagine lightly burning your mouth on a hot chocolate-chip cookie—warm flavors like vanilla and brown sugar, without the mellowing quality brought by letting it cool off (or leaving it to age longer in American oak, in this case). An incomparably beautiful tasting room awaits after the tour, which features rows of promising barrels and an aroma of fermentation akin to warm sourdough bread—Westland crafts and brews their wort in-house from five roasted and kilned barley malts. And they have seats, an amenity strangely missing from other tasting rooms. (Westland Distillery, 2931 First Ave S, westlanddistillery.com; tasting room open Tues–Sun 11 am–6 pm)
If you've ever been coerced into sipping commercially produced limoncello on its own, the experience has likely involved a searingly sweet and artificially yellow liquid, not exactly something that would qualify as a craft spirit. Seattle's local version, however, is a refreshing departure from the saccharine standard—a boozy delight that tastes shockingly like real lemon, distilled with fresh zest and honey for an earthy rather than astringently citrus effect. Skip Tognetti at Letterpress Distilling crafts the best limoncello I've ever tasted, in as primitive a warehouse operation as can possibly be legal—I found the tasting room down a driveway in Sodo with the aid of smartphone navigation and a sandwich board. I chatted with the proprietor about everything from drawing inspiration from his Italian childhood to what he does with the cases of bald lemons left over after zest collection—as it turns out, a local popsicle company buys them, as if the process could get more delightful. Periodic interruptions while we talked were illuminating, as Tognetti propped up a metal tank in his back room with a plank so the last of a lemony solution could be distilled through a plastic hose. There's an overwhelming charm to everything about Tognetti's DIY expertise, from the final product to his future projects—a couple of flavors of amaro (an Italian-style digestif, commonly made with a variety of herbs and spices), which he expects to release next year. Personally, I can't wait. (Letterpress Distilling, 85 S Atlantic St, #110, letterpressdistilling.com; tasting room open Sat–Sun noon–6 pm)
The Letterpress Hot Toddy
Skip Tognetti was kind enough to offer up this cold-weather cocktail, an insta-toddy of sorts to chase away colds and make everything seem a little brighter. In a twist of fate, his lemon and honey concoction marries perfectly with bourbon in creating an extra-boozy version of the classic.
1.5 oz. Letterpress limoncello
1.5 oz. bourbon
.5 oz. lemon juice
3–4 oz. hot water
Mix alcohol and lemon juice, add water, stir, and savor.
This article has been updated since its original publication.