Moonshine for the masses

 By Alex George

Since the 1980’s, Washington state has seen a boom in the winery and craft brewing industry, but due to state and federal laws local distilling never took off. Recent legislation however, has greatly eased the process of opening a distillery and since 2008 dozens of craft distilleries have popped up all over the state, including three, Bellewood Acres Distillery, Chuckanut Bay Distillery, and Mount Baker Distillery in Whatcom County.

Washington State banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol in November of 1914, five years before the 18th amendment was passed and made alcohol illegal across the United States. Washington remained a dry state for 18 years, when the ratification of the 21st amendment in December of 1933 made alcohol legal again. Restrictions were still tight however, in fact alcohol was not allowed to be sold in restaurants or bars until 1948.

Brandy casks at Bellewood Acres. Photo by Alex George

Other than Northwest Distilleries, a short lived distillery in Seattle that operated between 1934 and 1940, post-prohibition distilleries in Washington didn’t make an appearance until 2007, when Dry Fly Distillery was opened in Spokane

Although opening a distillery was never technically illegal inWashington, complex state and federal laws made it extremely difficult to own and operate one. After Dry Fly opened state legislators passed House Bill 2959, which made the application process much easier for opening a craft distillery, and ensured that distilleries would use at least 51% locally sourced ingredients in their products.

Between Bill 2959’s passage in 2008 and 2014, 87 craft distilleries were registered in Washington. Considering that in 2014 there were only 450 craft distilleries in the nation, it’s fair to say that the liquor business is booming in Washington state, and Bellingham as well.

Bellewood Acres is an apple orchard in Lynden that’s been open since 1996, but started distilling liquor in the last 3 and a half years. Bellewood uses the apples grown on site in all of their products.

“It’s a very rare thing,” said John Belisle, president of Bellewood, “to grow and distill [on the same site].”

“We have some apples that don’t make color grade or are ugly.” Said Belisle, “We had to do something with them.”

Bellewood makes several products including vodka, gin, and apple brandy, all of which have been recognized as being high quality by Sip Magazine. They also make an apple Eau de Vie, which is a European style unaged brandy, and a seasonal pumpkin liqueur.

“[The pumpkin liqueur] would go well with coffee or cider,” said Belisle, “or you can just drink the damn stuff.”

Mount Baker Distillery opened in 2012 and holds the distinction of being Bellingham’s oldest distillery.

An assortment of liquors at Mt. Baker Distillery, alongside a photograph of the owner’s ancestor, Abraham Smith, a Civil War veteran and moonshiner who came up with the original corn whiskey recipe. Photo by Alex George.

“We were technically first,” said owner Troy Smith, “but I think only by a couple of weeks or something.”

Mount Baker specializes in moonshine style corn liquor, using locally grown, organic and GMO-free corn.

“By definition moonshine is non-taxed liquor.” said Smith, “We definitely pay taxes.”

The traditional corn whiskey recipe has its roots with Smith’s ancestor, Abraham Smith, a moonshiner and soldier in the Civil War who later moved to Portland, Oregon during the Reconstruction.

Although mostly associated with Prohibition era bootlegging, moonshine style liquors have started making a comeback in recent years.

“When we first went on the shelf we were the only moonshine,” said Smith, “now there are three or four other local moonshines out there.”

Mount Baker’s moonshine whiskey is unaged, so it only takes about a week and one day to make from start to finish. Smith has put some thought into making an aged whiskey but so far customers are enjoying the current product.

“Last year we distilled 391 gallons and we sold 391 gallons.” said Smith, “We’ve been selling it all so we can’t age any of it.”

Matt Howell, owner and head distiller at Chuckanut Bay Distillery, worked for a liquor distribution company until an unexpected proposition came up from his current business partner Kelly Andrews.

“[Andrews] reached out to me out just sort of out of the blue,” said Howell, “he said to me ‘You’re already working 80 hours a week, why don’t you work 80 hours a week for yourself’.”

Howell started Chuckanut Bay Distillery in 2011 but wasn’t able to actually start making liquor until 2013 due to having to apply and receive permits to comply with federal and local liquor license laws and fire codes.

With the rise of craft beer brewing and liquor distilling, Bellingham is starting to be well known as a hub for the industry.

“Bellingham is really becoming a place to go for [making alcohol].” said Howell.

Despite three distilleries opening in Bellingham in recent years, the distilling scene still hasn’t gotten too crowded.

“The great thing is that the three Bellingham distilleries all do their own thing,” said Smith, “so we don’t really view the other guys as competition.”



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