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.
Crosscut archive image.
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.

But Bulldozer Camp fell through, so Lix hatched a new idea: a whiskey distillery. The plan is in transition while Lix deals with a family illness. However, he says via e-mail, "I expect to ultimately produce not only organic distilled spirits from locally grown wheat and barley but also expect to generate a significant portion of my energy needs with the considerable wind and solar available on the property." Until then, Dr. Lix is a visiting assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Lake Erie College in Ohio.

If the distillery does get off the ground, it would be a big assist to an area that has seen adjacent communities like Waitsburg and Dayton benefit from the spillover of the Walla Walla wine miracle.

I doubt Garfield County had this much excitement concerning liquor since the days of bootlegger "Diamond Dick" Dickson.

The beauty part is that local distilleries of the 21st century are not only legal again but can feature locally grown grains, utilize alternative energy sources, and boost the local economy with new markets for crops and generate tourism.

Plus with a jug of craft bourbon on hand, the 100-mile diet seems a lot more doable, doesn't it?


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.