Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sound Spirits

Last week, our friend C sent Shawn home with some vodka. The vodka, called Ebb+Flow, is from a distillery that opened it's doors to the public on 9/17. This is the first distillery to open in Seattle since prohibition. The vodka was different from any other that I've tried before. It has a definite flavor and was a tad sweet on the tongue. It wasn't cloying and it made a good martini. C had the owner's (and sole employee) business card and on it was a note for me to call him.

On Tuesday I sat down at work and wrote him an email. His day job is being a Boeing engineer. He promptly returned my email with an invite to come down, try out his products, and get a tour of the facility. We scheduled it for 4pm on Sunday. In addition to Shawn and I we were joined by 3 friends.

Steve, the owner of Sound Spirits, told us that the flavor of his vodka came from his small batch distillation process. He makes what he calls a single malt vodka using barley from Washington. He distills his product twice, using pot stills with taps made by a local company (low end stills bought on eBay). He does not filter the product saying that doing so ends up with a bland flavor. Steve was clearly an enthusiastic distiller. He also gave us samples of his early incarnations of gin (very good), aquavit (a little light on flavor), and absinthe (a little heavy on flavor). We spoke about the process and his ingredients. He clearly is seeking input from his customers.

We also spoke about the challenges ahead. For instance, how to translate his small batch process into a larger system and maintain the quality of his product. As he becomes popular, he's aware that he'll have to write down his formulas and then hire a master distiller. Will the process allow for him to move into larger, more expensive equipment? On the plus side, Steve has a business plan and he's ready, when the time comes, to seek investors and bank loans to finance growth. He's done his research on the business end even as he maintains the books and stuff himself. His main concerns are currently in the processes.

Finally, we spoke about the initiatives in Washington. Steve's main concern about them is the lack of certainty that they provide. Under the current system he knows what to expect. It's established and he understands the rules to work within it. He doesn't necessarily like or agree with all of the rules, but the path to market is clear and proven. If the Costco initiative passes, then that certainty goes by the wayside. Steve expressed concern about finding a distribution channel as well as the time it would take for that channel to set up. For instance, how long will it take before the mom and pop niche stores arrive that would be willing to carry his product? Steve favors the Costco initiative over the competing one. I told him that I thought that neither initiative serves the public or the small distillers well and that the legislature should craft a bill the moves towards privatization in a thoughtful and careful way.

Good vodka; good sense.

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