No one knew just what would happen when Washington closed its 233 state-owned liquor stores a year ago this week.
Some fans of the free market predicted booze prices would fall. On the contrary, thanks to higher taxes, hard liquor is pricier than ever in a state that already had among the highest prices in the land.
Others worried about big-box stores like Costco coming to dominate the liquor business. So far that hasn’t happened either, despite the arrival in Washington of two new national alcohol-driven chains, Bevmor and Total Wines. In fact, more and more mom-and-pop-sized operations have braved the thicket of regulation to add a modest range of popular liquor brands (displayed safely behind the check-out counter, since shop-lifting has proved a nightmare in more open-plan locations).
One prediction made by fans of deregulation has been abundantly confirmed: The range of alcoholic beverages available to the consumer has expanded enormously. And among the unfamiliar bottlings confronting buyers are some real novelties: dozens of brands of booze are produced right here in Washington state.
Almost all are what the trade calls “white” product. Making liquors like whiskey and brandy requires barrel-aging to achieve the classic flavor (and color), which is why what one sees on the locally-produced shelf now is overwhelmingly clear spirits: white rum, vodka, cordials and gin. “A lot of people don’t want to wait a couple of years to break into the market,” says David Leclaire of Seattle's Wine World and Spirits. “Once you’re licensed, it only takes a couple of months to produce a white spirit.”
And, he might have added, no particular skill. There may be hundreds of vodkas on the market, but except for exotics like Stolichnaya’s memorable buffalo-grass variety, a blind tasting of all would produce no results beyond a tearing hangover.
Gin is a different animal. Federal regulations demand that to be called gin, the “predominant” flavor must come from the fruit of the evergreen shrub juniperus communis. Even that’s not much of a definition, because juniper bushes exist in dozens of subspecies, including some so strongly flavored that they make turpentine (also extracted from evergreens) taste like spearmint.
But beyond juniper, gin is and always has been made with a huge range of “botanicals.” Among the more common are orange peel, coriander seed and nutmeg. Plymouth, “the gin of the Royal Navy,” boasts just seven such ingredients and identifies them all, but the formula for most gins employs dozens, and they are kept secret from the competition.
The recent popularity of Scotland’s Hendrick’s gin, with its juniper flavor all but dominated by exotics like cucumber and rose petals, has encouraged distillers to create “gin” that explores new frontiers of flavor, often without warning the buyer that surprises may be in store.
Some of the surprises afforded by the new Washington gins are agreeable. Sound Spirits, in Seattle's Interbay neighborhood, claims that its Ebb+Flow “is amazing to sip” on its own, and also produces a fine dry martini.
Anyone who tries this with Oola, distilled on Capitol Hill, is in for a shock: Oola distiller Kirby Kallas-Lewis loves lavender so much that drinking his gin is a bit like sucking a sachet. A reviewer in Seattle magazine chose Oola as one of the five best new local spirits, but recommended mixing it with maraschino liqueur and crème de violette to complement “its wistful bouquet.”
With most of the local products costing well over $30, before sales tax, even a venturesome gin drinker may hesitate to buy a bottle that may turn out tasting like a licorice whip, mouthwash or a gummi bear. That’s why it’s a good idea to taste before you buy. Unlike wine, liquor can be consumed on-premises only with a special one-time license, but such events are becoming more frequent.
On Sunday, June 2, from 2 to 5 p.m., LeClaire’s Wine World & Spirits is celebrating the anniversary of legal local liquor with a tasting of Washington spirits at its cavernous facility in Wallingford just off the freeway. Tickets are $25 and available from www.udistrictfoodbank.org.
And please, don't drink and drive.