Brew your own beer, go to town. Brew your own liquor, go to jail. A legal beagle master distiller from the shores of Puget Sound crusades to help the pour. By Wade Krichko.
Get caught making basement liquor in Canada and you face a year behind bars. The United States? Try five. In fact, home distilling is still against the law in most countries. One Washington State micro distillery wants to put the liquor back into the hands of the people. “Americans are interested in making things themselves,” says Justin Stiefel, the CEO and master distiller at Heritage Distilling Co. in Gig Harbor. “People love seeing the ingredients, feeling it in their hands and tasting a finished product.”
Heritage is the first hard-alcohol producer in the country providing aficionados with a legitimate hands-on distilling experience. Called “My Batch,” the program lets participants pick a liquor—whisky, bourbon, vodka or gin—choose how much of each essential component they’d like to add, and cut and sort raw ingredients to create a unique flavour profile. Liquor is then proofed and blended, and customers walk out with their own bottle. The whole process takes about three hours. Equivalent beer and wine seminars can take up to six weeks.
It’s an idea that came to fruition after Washington State relaxed restrictions on micro distilling in 2008, making it easier to attain a licence and start a craft-alcohol business. Stiefel, a native Washingtonian attending law school in Washington, D.C. at the time, saw an opportunity to return home and start a unique operation. “[The Northwest] is where a lot of great things that our country enjoys come from,” says Stiefel. “It all starts with the entrepreneurial spirit you find here.”
Heritage is the first hard-alcohol producer in the country providing aficionados with a legitimate hands-on distilling experience.
Opened in 2012, Heritage has stayed true to that spirit and its regional roots, even using wine from the Yakima Valley to make its signature vodkas. Traditionally, the clear liquor uses a sugar base from either grain, potatoes or, in this case, grapes. Starting with wine instead of grapes eliminates some of the fermentation process, explains Stiefel. Additionally, he notes, there is no shortage of locally-sourced vino in the Evergreen State.
As micro distilling takes off —Stiefel says the 200 nationwide distilleries that existed when Heritage started in 2012 is now over 900—the 49-year-old is putting his legal background to work, fighting to patent his home-distilling process before the DIY bubble bursts. In the meantime, Heritage has gained national acclaim, earning the Most Awarded Craft Distillery at the American Distillery Institute’s Craft Spirits Conference the last two years, including 14 medals in 2015 alone. It’s a testament to Stiefel’s hard work and unique business angle, but also a sign of a customer base thirsty for new flavours.