One Dish: A clear day for Manhattans

Local distillers make the classic cocktail but with their own twist: clear whiskey. That and other new spirits await at the area's growing number of craft distilleries.

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Boeing engineer Steven Stone in his Seattle distillery, Sound Spirits.

Local distillers make the classic cocktail but with their own twist: clear whiskey. That and other new spirits await at the area's growing number of craft distilleries.

The black-and-white glamour of flickering, flappering moonshine is making a comeback.

The drink may look like a vodka martini with a twist, but it's not. It's that steakhouse staple, a Manhattan, except that this one is clear, without any of the amber color or vanilla notes of your grandfather's bourbon, unless your grandfather happened to own a still in the hills of Kentucky or Tennessee or West Virginia during Prohibition. In which case, you'd probably understand the notion of a perfectly clear, unaged spirit called, variously, White Whiskey, White Lightning, or White Dog.

Now, the woods of Woodinville are not exactly crawling with revenuers on the hunt for illicit stills. It was entirely legal for former high school buddies Orlin Sorensen and Brett Carlile to set up shop, as Woodinville Whiskey Co., in an industrial park backing up against the Sammamish River.

Carlile had made a career in sales; Sorensen flew Bombardier jets for Horizon but lost the chance to fly bigger planes because he didn't have perfect eyesight. (Rather than feel sorry for himself, he started a motivational program to help others improve their vision through eye exercises.) At any rate, both men harbored a strong desire for some sort of joint commercial adventure and decided on a craft distillery, a business category authorized in Washington since 2008.

Better yet, Sorensen and Carlile had the good sense to hire a savvy consultant by the name of David Pickerell, who was the master distiller for Maker's Mark, no less, for almost 15 years. Pickerell helped several small distilleries get off the ground last year, has a dozen clients lined up for 2011, and loves what he sees in Woodinville. "These guys work their tails off," he said, "and they're willing to experiment. That's the strength of the small distilleries: experimenting."

Woodinville's first release, bottled while the rest of the production was aging, was White Dog. Yes, Pickerell's boys will eventually release an aged whiskey, but they're in no great hurry. Meantime, you can age your own. Seriously, they're selling age-your-own mini-barrels, a huge hit. To go there: 16110 Woodinville Redmond Rd. N.E., Suite 3, Woodinville, 425-486-1199.

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The federal government has a few rules about liquor labels. No flags, no living persons (without their permission), no cartoon characters. The state imposes a production limit for "craft" distillers. Dry Fly, in Spokane, was the first under the new "Craft" category, and is still the largest. In fact, the authorized production of a craft distillery was tripled, from 20,000 to 60,000 gallons, by the last legislature because Dry Fly was bumping up aganst the previous limit.

The first legal distillery since Repeal within Seattle city limits opened in that no-man's-land called Interbay a month before Woodinville Whiskey. It's called Sound Spirits, and it's the dream of Boeing engineer Steven Stone. The first release was a craft vodka called Ebb+Flow, an unfiltered, single-malt distilled from Washington barley. Rather than a bland, iceberg lettuce of spirits, Ebb+Flow has a floral nose and sweet, multilayered flavors. Coming soon: gin and more. You can legally buy two 750-ml bottles of the vodka at the distillery, at $31 apiece. Location: 1630 15th Avenue W., phone is 206-651-5166.

At least two dozen licenses have already been issued statewide, and another two dozen applications are pendng, according to the Liquor Board's website. Some licensees look forward to selling their premium brands through the state-approved channels, with on-premise sales a welcome bonus. But many new distilleries want to be more appealing than the warehouse-style state-run liquor stores; they see themselves as neighborhood cafes that happen to offer spirits rather than coffee or beer.

For instance, there's Pacific Distillery in Woodinville making gin and absinthe, two spirits that require a good knowledge of herbal lore. Find them at 18808 142nd Ave. N.E. Suite 4B, Woodinville, 425-350-9061. The distillery's Pacifique Absinthe was singled out by Wine Enthusiast magazine in its selection of the top 50 spirits of 2010 and its Voyager Gin has been featured on a couple of TV travel shows.

There's also Bainbridge Distillers, the state's first organic distillery and an old-fashoined, father-and-son operation to boot. The waiting list for their whiskey (still aging) is already closed, but gin and vodka are available at the distillery, 9727 Coppertop Loop N.E., Suite 101, Bainbridge Island, 206-842-3184.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).