Steven Stone is a Boeing aerospace engineer who specializes in preventing "flutter" in planes, a deceptively adorable term for the event when a structure basically vibrates until it destroys itself. He is the founder of Sound Spirits Distillery, which holds the honor of being the first distillery to open in Washington State after Prohibition. In his stills in Interbay, he uses unusual ingredients and 18th-century distillation techniques to make spirits that are exceptionally smooth, complex, and unlikely to vibrate until they destroy themselves. You can stop by the distillery for samples and meet Steven's friendly cat, CHO, short for "Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen," the elements that make up ethyl alcohol.
How does being an engineer influence the way you run your distillery?
There are always problems that arise with production processes. I can use my skills as an engineer to troubleshoot. Fermentation and distillation are heavily influenced by basic chemistry.
What was the first liquor you made?
I started with vodka, because it's the base of so many other products. It's even the gateway to whiskey. Vodka comes out 190 proof. Whiskey is distilled to a lower proof, and that's where the flavor comes from. The spirit is drawn in and out of the wood [in the barrel], and a natural filtering takes place. Depending on the level of char on the barrel, you'll get different oaky flavors. One theory about the original use of charred barrels is they were reusing barrels that had contained something nasty.
How did you choose your elegant liquor bottles over more convenient packaging, like old Snapple bottles or water balloons?
In this business, you want to stand out, in the quality of the product as well as the presentation. We put a little built-in advertising in each bottle. We do struggle with the cost, especially because of the higher prices that resulted from the privatization measure. They're from a French glass company called Saver. We knew customers would also like the bottles because they're a good shape for cabinets.
When you're drunk, are you more likely to take your clothes off or wear objects that aren't intended as clothing?
Probably more likely to take my clothes off. Especially if there's a pool nearby. What is it that's so fun about booze and skinny-dipping?
Do you listen to music while you work?
I've been hitting up KEXP's set lists. Then I do Spotify to listen to what's trending. I do the same thing by reading The Stranger's reviews. It's been Random Access Memories by Daft Punk, Boards of Canada, a Toronto band called Austra. I like this band called Kuba.
Where are your current favorite places to eat?
I live in Ballard. It's been amazing to see so much coming into the neighborhood. Stoneburner, Billy Beach for sushi, Delancey for pizza, Ocho for tapas. I had amazing browned brussels sprouts at the Sexton the other evening. It's like high-end Southern food. To this day, I go to the Sloop for fish and chips.
Being in the industry, I range out a little more for cocktails, to see who's doing what. I really like Rob Roy and Liberty. Vito's, Canon, the Hideout. I like Artusi. Vessel is always good. Oh, you know about Rocco's? Their bar is amazing. The Hazlewood is always cool.
Do you have a booze baron hero?
Personally, I love the lady with glass legs full of beer from The Saddest Music in the World. From Ken Burns's Prohibition documentary, I found out Seattle had a famous bootlegger named Olmstead. He was known for being a good guy who didn't want his men to carry guns.
All-time favorite cocktail garnish?
The Luxardo maraschino cherry. They're the real maraschinos. The ones that are really red and sweet and not very good are poor copies of them.
Have distillation experiments yielded any fabulous surprises?
Distillation is an old art form. I'd say there's a lot that will be rediscovered because Prohibition set us back, but eureka moments in distillation are rare. That said, we had a eureka moment with our Depth cacao liqueur, but that will have to remain a company secret.
How about memorable disasters? Has anything exploded?
Early on, I was using a yeast that had too much salt in it. It reacted with the copper still, and a beautiful but poisonous blue liquid came out.
Your gin and vodka are unusual because they're made with barley. Do you use any other unconventional ingredients?
Our gin has a brut, rather than a completely dry base, and one unique ingredient—elder flower.