Not content to merely add yet another gin to the cabinet of small-batch spirits fans, two Washington craft producers are incorporating island ingredients to impart a Northwest spin to their spirits.
San Juan Island Distillery By Anne Casselman
This Roche Harbor-based spirits and ciderworks, infuses its gin with island botanicals for a truly unique—dare we say it—gin-noire experience.
“The gin is really about the San Juan Islands,” says Suzy Pingree, retired journalism professor and present-day craft distiller, one half of the team behind San Juan Island Distillery. “It’s distilled with regular gin botanicals, but we add special San Juan botanicals: madrone bark, lavender, wild roses…” Suzy’s begins to rattle off a list of all the secrets in the sauce, but her husband Hawk cuts her off half-joking: “Don’t give it all away!”
The end result of the couple’s experimentation and foraging of local botanicals is gin that bottles the very essence of Pacific Northwest terroir. “It’s just so fun to play with these ingredients that you can find in the forest here and make the gin so much more about the San Juan Islands,” says Suzy. “More than one person has said it tastes like a walk through the Northwest woods.” About half of the botanicals that go into their Spy Hop Gin are hand-foraged by Suzy and Hawk on the island. In three permutations, their Spy Hop line of gin pays tribute to the spirit’s stalwart botanicals such as juniper berries, orris root, and cardamom, and includes one version—denoted as “Seasonal”—that changes face based on what’s in season.
Last August they made a thimbleberry-infused gin. In October they made a salal berry gin. In spring they foraged for nettles to add to the mix. And then there’s their unique Harvest Select gin that’s distilled from apple cider (not a neutral grain spirit), which Suzy describes as “a warm hug from the inside.”
For the Pingrees, the unique flavor profiles of their gin speak to the sustainability of the island and its resources. “The First Nations people were able to live here without doing agriculture, they could just forage,” says Suzy. “That’s the beauty of this place.”
It’s a new world approach to an old world spirit. Gin itself dates back to the 17th century when it was first peddled as a medicinal cure-all. The potent and coarse concoction had a bumpy ride before settling into today’s dry and refined spirit, a neutral spirit alcohol imbued with botanicals, which fortifies cocktails the world over. For all of modern science, there’s still an art to extracting and condensing the flavors and alcohol of gin… And innovation, if you consider the fact that San Juan Island Distillery is using their 200-liter copper still to make cider-distilled Spy Hop Harvest Select gin. “We thought, ‘Why not make it out of cider?” since that’s the ethanol we have,” explains Suzy. “Nobody’s doing that!”
San Juan-style Gin
San Juan Island Distillery makes three gins in their Spy Hop line, each with its own distinct character reflecting where and how it’s made. The labels draw inspiration from the Orcas that visit the waters surrounding the island, while the name is derived from the term “spyhopping,” which refers to when a curious whale rises partially out of the water for a look-see.
Spy Hop Gin
This, the distillery’s flagship gin, and their Seasonal Spy Hop Gin are based on a neutral spirit sourced from Pacific Distillery, to which the Pingrees add their proprietary blend of traditional botanicals—juniper, lemon, star anise, cardamom, and orris root—plus local botanicals such as blackberries, wild roses, lavender, and madrone bark. $45
Seasonal Spy Hop Gin
The flavor of this gin changes with the seasons as the Pingrees forage in the forests of San Juan Island for berries, barks, leaves, and other seasonal botanicals that they can add to their standard gin recipe. $50
Spy Hop Harvest Select Gin
This gin is made with the same botanicals as the standard Spy Hop, but its base spirit is distilled from the heirloom apples grown at the orchard next door to their distillery. It is an extraordinary sipping gin and great in cocktails, especially ones built around apples. $35 (375ml); $60 (750ml)
INFO: 12 Anderson Lane, San Juan Island, WA, 360-378-2606, www.sanjuanislanddistillery.com
Bainbridge Organic Distillery By Cole Danehower
As the first Washington producer of USDA certified organic spirits, Bainbridge Organic Distillery takes its ingredients, and its Northwest character, seriously.
For Keith Barnes, the creation of his Bainbridge Heritage Organic Doug Fir Gin was a deliberate process that combined tasty research with a taste of his place: Bainbridge Island. Keith and his son Patrick run Bainbridge Organic Distillers with the goal of “re-envisioning the farm-distilled products of our agricultural heritage by creating spirits that have a tangible connection to the land on which our organic grains grow.” They take pride in their hands-on approach to distilling , and in their commitment to sustainable practices—including working with suppliers to grow organically. Accordingly, whenever they can, Bainbridge sources the ingredients for their products from local growers.
But not content to simply re-create the farm-distilled spirits that were common in previous centuries, they are bringing a new spirit (if you will pardon the pun) to the creation of their products. “When we’re concepting for a product we want to have a clear idea of the end point,” Keith explains. To develop the idea behind his gin, Keith tasted through a wide range of modern spirits, including 30 contemporary gins, to get a sense of the flavor profiles and distilling styles of today’s gin products.
But he went further in his research. “I have an archive of vintage liquors in the range of 300 bottles,” he says. “we looked at gins going back to the early 1900s to see if there was something in the gin category that had been left behind in the modern products.” He found that there was. “Gins from the early 1900s through the 1940s seemed to possess more fresh and vibrant flavors than many of today’s popular brands,” he notes. “They were pretty unique.” Much of those qualities seem to have been lost as larger brands made gins designed to appeal to the widest possible audience—not something a craft distiller generally tries to do. A lot of the newer, small batch gins display some of the flavor freshness Keith found in the older gins—and that he wanted in his.
As a result of this research he configured his distilling equipment and regimen to render and present the flavors of his formula in as fresh and robust a manner as he could. But he was also not content to simply recreate gins of the past. While his formula certainly emphasized traditional gin flavors—a proprietary mélange of 10 botanicals that includes juniper, coriander, cardamom, angelica root, citrus, and fennel seed (among others)—he added a distinctly Northwest twist: Douglas fir needles.
Somehow it seemed perfectly natural to add a native Bainbridge Island ingredient to give his gin a regional accent. “The essential oils of the Doug fir add slightly to the viscosity of the product,” says Keith. “The fir needles don’t impart a lot of flavor, but they do add a lot of aromatic qualities and have a very positive impact on the gin.” Keith says that the gin’s expected supple juniper quality is well complemented by the more surprising fresh, “alpine-y” character of the Doug fir. “It has a lot of the things you typically associate with a good gin, but also an added pleasant bonus—it’s a really nice combination.”
This new Northwest-style artisan gin is proving popular in the tasting room. “We often have people in here who say they don’t like gin because they are used to the harshness of many gins they’ve had before,” says Keith. “When we persuade them to take a sip of ours, 99% of them say ‘I don’t like gin, but I really like yours’ and they end up buying a bottle to take home.”
INFO: 9727 Coppertop Loop NE Suite 101, Bainbridge Island, WA, 206-842-3184, www.bainbridgedistillers.com
Other Gin-uinely Pacific Northwest Distilleries
This Seattle-based craft distillery scored triple gold at the 2011 MicroLiquor Spirit Awards, the competition’s highest honor, for its gin made with Snohomish grains. Visit their tasting room in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood for a taste.
INFO: 1314 E. Union St., Seattle, WA, 206-709-7909
The base spirit for Sound Spirits’ Ebb + Flow Gin is single-malt vodka made from 100% Washington Palouse malted barley and is based on a recipe that founder and head distiller Steven Stone found in a nineteenth-century British distilling manual.
INFO: 1630 15th Ave. W, Seattle, WA, 206-651-5166
First famous for its potato-distilled vodka, Tyler Schramm of the Pemberton Distillery has branched out to produce a rare beast, an organic potato-based gin. This dry gin is infused with eight organic botanicals including locally grown rosemary and hops.
INFO: 1954 Venture Place, Pemberton, B.C., 604-894-0222
Victoria Gin has the distinction of being British Columbia’s first premium gin, made in small batches in a wood-fired still. They also make Oaken Gin, which takes their flagship spirit and lets its mellow and mature in American oak barrels until amber in color and smooth on the palate.
INFO: 6170 Old West Saanich Road, Victoria B.C., 250-544-8217
More local Pacific Northwest distilled spirits