Vashon’s first distillery has yet to produce a drop of alcohol. But one would never know that based on the attention and anticipation surrounding the small operation.
Vashon’s liquor store and The Hardware Store Restaurant are already making plans to promote the new distillery’s first products, set to hit shelves this month. The distillery’s owners are getting calls from total strangers interested in investing in the business, and people passing through Center often stop by the distillery’s new shop there to see if they can get a look.
“Some people know we’re here, and some people just see the sign and come over to check it out,” said co-owner Ishan Dillon, sitting outside the shop with his partners one sunny day earlier this month. “Everyone who knows of our product and what we’re doing is overwhelmingly excited,” he said.
Dillon, along with IT manager Paco Joyce and graphic designer David Waterworth, have spent the last nine months transforming a 1,300-square-foot log cabin off of Vashon Highway near Center, once an auto repair shop, into a state-of-the-art craft distillery that can pump out rum, gin, vodka and whiskey. While also juggling day jobs and children — a small play set for their kids sits outside the shop — the three men have jumped through all the hoops required to become the state’s 50th craft distillery.
And now, after weeks of waiting, they recently received their label approval, a final step that means they can begin legally producing booze.
“When you jump into it, you realize it’s a very regulated business,” said Joyce. “It’s quite daunting.”
A few Vashon restaurants have already said they’ll carry the Island-made spirits, and the men are in talks with a national distributor that will offer their products as well. While the operation’s name, Seattle Distilling Company, gives no nod to their Island home, the men believe it will help the brand compete in a burgeoning national scene for small craft distilleries.
“It’s a very marketable name, worldwide even,” Waterworth said.
Dillon, a real estate agent who moved to Vashon about a year ago, said that for years he had dreamed of putting his biochemistry degree, passion for alcohol and experience in home brewing to use at his own distillery. When he discovered that Joyce, a fellow home brewer whom he met through his children’s preschool, shared the same dream, they decided almost immediately to collaborate. They soon brought Waterworth on board, building what they called the dream team to produce the first Island-made liquor.
“The timing was just right for all three of us to meet,” Joyce said.
“It’s amazing how well it worked out,” Dillon added.
The red-stained log cabin — which will eventually house a tasting room as well — is now filled with large bags of wheat and barley and towering stainless-steel equipment that has been tested and retested while the team waited for the proper government approvals. The large tanks and intricate piping system was custom designed by the men, who humbly call themselves “garage tinkerers.” The equipment was largely hand-made, with much help from Island builders and welders.
“Where we’ve needed knowledge or help, we’ve been able to find it pretty locally,” Joyce said.
The process, Waterworth said, has saved them tens of thousands of dollars.
For example, a modest still — the vat used to boil the mash — can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 to purchase new. The men, however, crafted their own still using a large, 1955 cooking kettle that they purchased from an elementary school in Texas.
“The amount of money we saved on building our own equipment is incredible,” Waterworth said.
The handcrafted set-up also means they can more easily tweak the taste of their products, a customization that they say is one of the greatest appeals of craft liquor.
Large craft distilleries have used the same recipes for vodka, gin and rum for years, Waterworth explained, meaning most big-label bottles taste more or less the same. Only when small craft distilleries began to emerge was the status quo challenged, he said, as those smaller operations experimented with recipes and tried new flavors.
“You start tasting some of the new micro stuff, it’s very different,” Waterworth said. “There is an endless sense of how you can make your product taste.”
Many of their spirits will have an Island flavor, the men said. They plan to use Island-grown fruit, berries and even lavender and vegetables in their seasonal and flavored products, some of which may be produced in limited batches available only on Vashon.
“We’re always looking for local ingredients,” Joyce said.
Alex Van Amburg, a manager at The Hardware Store Restaurant, says he believes Seattle Distilling Company will find a welcoming market both regionally and nationally. Much like the microbrewery movement, he said, there’s a growing interest in liquor made on a smaller scale using quality local ingredients.
In recent years state laws have been more favorable toward craft distilleries, and small operations have popped up all around the Puget Sound region.
“I’m excited that someone on Vashon is taking the bull by the horns,” Van Amburg said.
He said the restaurant will likely create a special drink to introduce the new distillery to diners.
“They have a passion for creation, and there is a passion for micro-distilleries,” he said. “They will have followers.”
For more information, visit the company’s website at www.seattledistillingcompany.com.