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The Northwest whiskey rebellion

Entrepreneurs are lifting spirits with a rash of new distilleries in the region, putting a little more zip in the agri-tourism boom.

The Northwest's rural areas are looking to agri-tourism for a boost. Commodity crops are old hat and don't attract visitors, so the trend is toward the exotic. In Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula, they've embraced lavender in an attempt to make themselves over as a kind of northwestern extension of Provence; in the Skagit Valley, it's tulips. From Woodinville to Walla Walla to the Willamette Valley, the buzz is about wine.

Last fall, I took a tour of San Juan Island. We stopped at an alpaca ranch to pet some of these peculiar, big-eyed, mutton-chopped Anime creatures much treasured for their wool. Down the road, we spotted a herd of llamas and later in a field we spotted a single, adult dromedary that was reputed to have been purchased on Ebay. Welcome to agri-tourism as brought to you by Dr. Dolittle.

If all this seems a bit twee, you can find relief in another budding trend. Seventy-five years after the repeal of Prohibition, distilleries are making a comeback. For decades, the only locally made hard liquor you could buy hereabouts was something cooked up in a Darrington still by the descendants of Appalachian pioneers – if you knew where to find it. But that's changing.

Following on the heels of the winery and microbrewery boom, the whiskey makers are coming. The Associated Press recently documented the trend. In Oregon, AP reports, the number of distilleries has doubled to more than 12 in the past two years. Sales of locally made craft liquor is increasing in state liquor stories, topping "14,000 cases in the 12-month period ending November 2007, compared to 9,331 cases in the previous 12 months." Oregon has approved a law that now allows distillers to have tasting rooms and sell to the public, just like wineries.

Washington is headed in the same direction. The first distillery since Prohibition is now up and operating. Spokane's Dry Fly is making whiskey, gin, and vodka from locally grown crops. (The Spokane Spokesman-Review has nice video of their maiden efforts.) Also, bills are working their way through Olympia that would permit distillers to give free samples and sell their wares directly. Currently, hard liquor in Washington can only be obtained through state liquor stores. The new rules would also require distillers to buy at least 50 percent of their raw materials from in-state sources, a boost for local wheat, barley, and corn growers.

This not only gives good cheer to local drinkers but helps local farmers. It's a new market for their crops and a way to add some sex appeal to grains, which Washington grows in abundance. I have previously written about the challenges of agri-tourism in wheat and barley country, which finds it tough to compete to the with food-and-wine appeal of areas with flourishing vineyards. My story on Pomeroy and Garfield County contained the following observation: "I recently asked an Eastern Washington farmer what it would take to boost wheat country's tourist appeal. 'The only way to get the public excited about wheat,' he replied, 'is have a naked woman run through the field.'" After naked women, making booze seems like a good second choice.

I reported that Garfield County was the possible site of a distillery, and since my story I have found out a little more about that effort. The project is the brainchild of an entrepreneur named Tom Lix, who previously launched Public Interactive, a company that the creates and distributes interactive online tools for public broadcasting. Lix sold the company in 2004 and turned to something more down and dirty: Bulldozer Camp, basically a giant sandbox where grown-up boys and girls could play with earth-moving equipment, from bulldozers to rock crushers. A search for a camp site led him to Garfield County. He liked the people, fell in love with southeastern Washington, and acquired 536 acres on the Snake River for his camp.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 9:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Cut to the chase: Instead of dinking around the edge with direct retail sales and tasting rooms, why can't the legislature simply sell the state liquor stores to private owners and allow hard stuff to be sold in grocery stores and mom and pop package stores? The existing hyper-regulated retail scheme in Washington is one of the last vestiges of Prohibition, and it's time to bid it adieu.

Costco took on the Liquor Control Board a few years ago over its arbitrary pricing and distribution rules that did nothing but add cost to beer and wine, and it was successful in having them struck down in federal court. At the time, the legislature wasn't all that keen on addressing the issue because opening the spigot on more booze rarely is at the top of anyone's legislative agenda and because Democrats are rarely willing to dimantle any Rube Goldberg-like regulatory scheme that takes cash out of the pockets and purses of citizens and puts it into state coffers with zero benefit to those citizens.

But sometimes it's just time, and maybe this is the time. While I won't be planning any excursions to Eastern Washington whisky tasting rooms anytime soon (I'm a beer man), anything that fosters economic development and opportunity and reduces the size of government is worth supporting, whether on a micro, as in Dry Fly Distillery, or macro, as in eliminating the Liquor Control Board and its arcane rules, basis. Elliott Ness needs to be removed from the state payroll.

Why wait for happy hour?

The Piper

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Hendrix Electric Vodka: Has anyone tried Jimi Hendrix Purple Haze vodka? I bought a bottle for the holidays. It's distilled and packaged in Rigby, Idaho. The packaging is fancy, and the contents was the best Idaho vodka I ever had.

Tahoma

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 11:18 a.m. Inappropriate

What's the competition?: Is 'best Idaho vodka' like saying 'top restaurant on Mercer Island'?

I'll personally vouch for the fine -- even outstanding -- quality of Dry Fly's gin. It's currently being offered at Steelhead Diner in Pike Place Market as an inspired signature cocktail: Dry Fly, lime and sage. It's selling like the martini equivalent of hotcakes.
Lucy Mohl

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 5:28 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Cut to the chase: Piper,

It is a sad statement about the State of Washington that they are not "progressive " enough to go beyond 1930's era blue laws and privatize the distribution of hard liquor. Sales jumped when they experimented with Sunday Sales. Just think of the revenue potential for the State, B&O; taxes, reduced State payroll, no properties to manage or lease, no high priced managers. Competition might even mean lower prices to the purchasing public... You have motivated me to have a taste of the amber nectar...Here's to your health.
Cameron

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 5:53 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Cut to the chase: It's said that nothing is more sanctimonious than a reformed rake. I suggest that even more sanctimonious is a blue-nose liberal who knows better than you what's best for you.

Why not? Why shouldn't adults be able to buy Dry Fly single malt or vodka at a Safeway or even a Bartell's? Or Jim Beam, Glenfiddich, or even Old Yakima Rock and Rye? Why must the busy-body State of Washington be involved at all aside from the cut they take from any retail sale?

Is there an initiative in here? Tim Eyman, are you listening?

The Piper

Posted Mon, Jan 28, 7:53 p.m. Inappropriate

I'll Drink to that...: Its not liberals, and never has been, that have been keeping WSLCB in "business".
It was religious temperance activists, people who could be called "conservatives" by any reasoned observer.

Us Liberals, (and you will know me by the big scarlet "L" I am required by law to wear on my back) believe in the freedom to manufacture and distribute ALL types of intoxicants, without state interference.

Now if you will excuse me, a conservative farmer is chasing me out of his cow pasture with a shotgun, all because of some mushrooms...
Ries

Posted Tue, Jan 29, 11:42 a.m. Inappropriate

WSLCB the first cut is the deepest: So let me get this straight, the WSLCB is controlled by the conservatives in charge of Olympia? Hmmm. The Governor, if she was a leader, could certainly bring forward a proposal to eliminate the State Monopoly on the distribution and sale of hard spirits here in Washington. She could have done it three years ago, Gary Locke could have done it for the 8 years prior to that.

It really is a shame that this State insists on maintaining anti-competitive monopolies and price gouging the consuming public. If they were truely progressive they would open the market and realize the increased tax dollars without maintaining the infrastructure/distribution and personnel overhead associated with the current system.

The real reason that the State maintains the staus quo is greed and social control.
Cameron

Posted Tue, Jan 29, 12:05 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: WSLCB the first cut is the deepest: Hey! Don't forget Booth Gardner, Mike Lowrey and all the Democrats in the legislature.

Come to think of it, the lot of them have driven most of us to drink, so this must be the grand marketing scheme for the WSLCB.

The Piper

Posted Wed, Jan 30, 9:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Oops!: Costco's federal district court victory over the Washington State Liquor Control Board was just overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which held that the liquor board can restrict price advantages given high-volume retailers and dictate certain methods of distribution.

So the depression mentality, Prohibition era thinking of WSLCB lives on, albeit tethered to ridiculous legal life support. Some solace, though, since the Ninth Circuit is the most frequently overturned court in the United States, a prospect that apparently has some...uhm...appeal to Costco management.

Wouldn't it be best just to junk WSLCB and all the Packard and Pierce Arrow-like rules and regulations and simply let whoesalers, retailers, and consumers resolve things in the market place?

The Piper

Posted Thu, Jan 31, 9:45 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Oops!: Well even though I hate having to feed the Government monopoly by purchasing Liquor from the State. I am rasing my glass once again to the removal of David Goldstien from the airwaves...somethings are worth the inflated prices to celebrate.

Cameron

Posted Thu, Feb 7, 11:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Bootleggers...: Around 1990 my neigbor and I got the idea to distill 15 gallons of questionable Pinot Noir wine. It was concluded we needed to make groppa to save the wine. We rigged up a hot plate on a timer, converted a 2 gallon pressure cooker into a still, and sure enough we made groppa. My mother loved it. We actually aged it in small oak barrels. It was pretty good.
One weekend my neighbor forgot to tell me he was leaving for weekend and that I needed to watch the still. Well the still went dry and exploded. It must have been loud as hell but no one heard it. When we opened the garage Monday night there were bits of metal all over the inside of the garage. Fortunately we had the still in the center of the garage on the cement floor. We were lucky the garage did not burn down as it would have been difficult to explain it to the fire department and the BFAT. We never resumed distilling again.
Tahoma

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