On September 18, 2010, Sound Spirits celebrates its grand opening and likely becomes the first legal distillery in Seattle since the 1930s. The Interbay-based company operates under a craft distillery license and is the first major distillery in Seattle since Northwest Distilleries ceased operation in the late 1930s. Although other distillery licenses had been issued to Seattle addresses before 2009, Sound Spirits is likely the first distillery in the city to begin (legally) producing and selling hard liquor to the public in 70 years. Unfortunately, the superlative cannot be confirmed due to the incomplete records of the Washington State Liquor Control Board.
Prohibition Comes Early
In November 1914, Washington state passed Initiative Measure Number 3 that created a statewide ban on the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages to go into effect on New Year's Day of the following year. Washington became the 19th state to go dry before the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919. Although alcohol could be legally consumed in a limited fashion in private settings, manufacture and sale was banned outright.
Washington remained dry for the next 18 years until the repeal of national Prohibition with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment in December 1933. The end of Prohibition made it legal again to purchase alcohol from stores, restaurants, and saloons, but new laws dictated that hard liquor could only be sold by state-run liquor stores and consumed in private. It was not until 1948 that Washington voters -- partially thanks to an influx of war workers and returning veterans -- approved the sale of spirits in restaurants and bars.
Distilling’s Brief Return
Although it has been erroneously reported by several news sources, the first distillery in Washington since Prohibition was not Dry Fly Distilling in Spokane; nor was Sound Spirits the first in Seattle. In fact the first distillery since Prohibition was Northwest Distilleries Inc. in Seattle. The error arose partially because the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB) either lost or destroyed many of its early records, which led many to assume the distilleries that arose in the 2000s were the first of their kind since Prohibition.
Located on 1733 Westlake Avenue N, Northwest Distilleries was founded shortly after the repeal of Prohibition and began production in January 1934. The distillery was located in a three-story building that boasted $150,000 worth of equipment. The distillery had a rated capacity of 2,000 gallons per day and employed at different times between 20 and 50 people. The Seattle Times claimed that the company’s still was the "most modern apparatus obtainable" (The Seattle Times).
The original officers for the corporation were: Barney B. Lustig, president; Victor F. Fleischman, vice president; Thomas P. Revelle; Carl Rubinstein, treasurer; and A. M. "Scotty" Liddell, master distiller. The operation was almost entirely managed and owned by longtime Seattle residents.
The first two products offered by Northwest Distilleries were Mello Smooth Dry Gin and Mello Morn Straight Bourbon that both originally sold at 65 cents a "fifth" (one fifth of a gallon). From there, the firm added Briar Springs Straight Blended Whiskey, Princess Pat Sloe Gin, and Prince Henry Dry Gin.
Northwest Distilleries seems to have closed sometime in 1939 or 1940. The corporation disappears from Polk's Seattle City Directory after 1939 and the last known mention of the distillery is from a 1943 Washington Supreme Court case. Former distillery treasurer Carl Rubinstein sought compensation from a cold storage company that allegedly lost nine barrels of whiskey. The Supreme Court found that the defendants were not liable for the lost product. After that defeat, Northwest Distilleries disappears from records.
Rebirth in Spokane
After the rise of both the wine and craft brewery industry in the 1970s and 1980s, the first major step toward the reintroduction of distilling in Washington occurred only in 2007.That year Don Poffenroth and Kent Fleischmann of Dry Fly Distilling in Spokane, with guidance from the Washington State Liquor Control Board, began producing vodka and gin to be sold through state-run liquor stores. Although it is difficult to accurately claim a superlative due to the liquor control board's lack of complete records, Dry Fly is likely the second distillery in the state since Prohibition.
Although distilling was never technically illegal prior to 2007, complicated licensing laws and strict federal regulations discouraged startups from forming. There had been a handful of distilleries in the state that obtained federal distilling licenses before 2007, but none had yet managed to successfully produce anything in accordance with state law.
The Rise of Craft Distilleries
Not long after the rebirth of distilling in Spokane, Dry Fly and other distillers began lobbying for reform of the state’s distilling license system. Eventually two Spokane-based legislators, Senator Chris Marr and Representative Alex Wood, helped introduce House Bill 2959, which created the following legislation:
- A new license being available for "Craft Distilleries," which are distillers producing fewer than 20,000 gallons per annum
- For craft distillers the annual fee is reduced from $2,000 to $100
- Craft distillers may sell up to two liters of liquor per person for off-premises consumption
- Craft distillers may provide free half-ounce samples of up to two ounces of its products per person per day on the premises of the distillery
- Defines distilling as an "agricultural practice" and requires 51 percent of the raw materials to come from within the state.
After passing with only one "nay" in the House and unanimously in the Senate, Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) signed HB 2959 into law on March 20, 2008. HB 2959 was a major victory for the craft distillery movement, giving producers the right to sell their own product, a first since Prohibition, and significantly easing the licensing process.
Distilling Returns to Seattle
The first 13 distilling licenses were issued in cities large and small throughout the state, but distilling would not return to Seattle until the founding of Sound Spirits. Steven Stone, a Ballard resident and Boeing engineer, founded Sound Spirits in the Interbay neighborhood of Seattle and received his distilling license in February 2010.
Although two other distilleries were previously registered in Seattle, Sound Spirits became the first to actually distill when it began producing its maiden spirit, Ebb + Flow Vodka. When Sound Spirits celebrated its grand opening on September 18, 2010, it likely became the first legally producing distillery in Seattle since the closure of Northwest Distilleries. Sound Spirits released its next product, Ebb + Flow Gin, three months after opening.
Much as with Dry Fly in 2007, it was widely reported that Sound Spirits was the first distillery since Prohibition, until that is, the existence of Northwest Distilleries came to light. Although Sound Spirits is most likely the second distillery in Seattle since the 1933, the record, like Dry Fly’s, cannot be confirmed due to the Washington State Liquor Control Board's incomplete archive.
Looking to the Future
In April 2010, the craft distilling industry received another boost from the state legislature with Senate Bill 6485. The bill increased the amount craft distilleries can produce from 20,000 gallons a year to 60,000 gallons. Patrick Donovan of Dry Fly believes that the new limit may still be too low for the rapidly increasing industry; he notes, "In the next couple of years, we’re probably going to push that number ... we don’t want that [limit] to be the only restriction on us" (The Pacific Northwest Inlander).
By January 2011, there were 32 licensed craft distilleries in Washington and 37 more in the application process. From its genesis in Spokane, distilleries have sprouted all around the state. After beginning with the classics of vodka and gin, Washington distillers have expanded to exotics, ranging from the absinthe of Pacific Distillery in Woodinville to the unaged white whiskey of The Ellensburg Distillery. With increasing enthusiasm from distillers and consistent support in Olympia, craft distilling is rapidly gaining momentum and could be the beginning of a major new industry in the state.