You are here

The Business and Art of Craft Distilling at Skip Rock Distillers

I had been curious what it would take to start a distillery in Washington State, so in late February, Gavin and I scheduled some time off work to get a better understanding of the craft distilling business. We had signed up for The Business and Art of Craft Distilling, a 3 day course hosted by the Northwest Agriculture Business Center (NABC), and this was how we found ourselves driving north to Skip Rock Distillers in Snohomish on a cold, dark Thursday morning.

Skip Rock can be found a half block from 1st street, in downtown Snohomish. Owned and operated by Ryan Hembree, Skip Rock prides itself on using ingredients farmed from the fertile Skagit valley, and challenging customers to explore unique and intriguing flavors.

After meeting the other attendees, we got started with a tour of the facility. We spent a good deal of the morning talking about the importance of workplace flow and storage. Right before lunch we finally got dirty. Ryan Hembree and his head distiller had planned a rye mash, so we rolled up our sleeves and started hefting buckets of grain up into the mash tun. Our hard work was rewarded with a tasting of Skip Rock’s Raspberry liqueur, before it was proofed and sweetened. Essentially this was 180 proof spirit with whole raspberries from the Skagit valley. The front of the sip brought a dry fire that immediately evaporated, leaving behind a basket of berry flavor. The crisp, clean, high quality was a sign of things to come.

Achieving a product of uniform excellence appeared to be a tricky process. Even with references to previous notes on equivalent batches, and a scientist’s method for measuring and monitoring, the number of variables seemed endless, but Ryan reveled in the magic that comes from experimentation. A variety of intriguing liqueurs seemed hidden throughout his workspace, Gavin and I often found ourselves pointing and asking, “What’s that?”

With only a handful of people in the class, Ryan was able to dedicate time to every question. Detailed answers often ended with an opportunity to sample a variety of thing like spiced apple liqueur or green walnut nocino (which I insist tastes like Christmas).

Over the next couple days we learned what it takes to manage a successful distilling business. Guests from the Washington State Liquor Board helped us to make better sense of the permitting and licensing requirements. Advanced Labels Northwest explained the value of label design, and talked about bottle shape. We even had a chance to hear from a lawyer who walked us through the steps of setting up a distilling business. In one of the more enlightening exercises, we did a cost analysis on a fictional potato vodka. Filling a bottle with $5.77 of product would sell wholesale for about $10.50, but after markup and taxes would leave a retail outlet register at a whopping $41.38!

These mini classroom lectures were balanced with time spent making a potato mash for a run of vodka, hydrating yeast, and filling fermenting tanks. In the middle of this we were treated to an appearance from Mac Kenney, the head distiller at BroVo spirits, who wanted us to sample some of the amaros they make out in Woodinville. Amaros are bitter herbal liqueurs, and BroVo has got them figured out. Chocolate, rose geranium, and lavender rounded out some of the flavors, making perfect additions to the spirits found at Skip Rock.

Finally, by the end of the workshop we were learning about the different flavors and knowing when to make our ‘cuts’, running the still, and tasting the distillate as it dripped into a 15 gallon bucket. The experience was exactly what I had been looking for.

After tasting nearly 20 spirits in 3 days, Gavin and I made a few purchases, and prepared to share them with our friends and family. This was an experience I would recommend to anyone interested in furthering their understanding of craft distilling in Washington State. Just remember to drink plenty of water.

Spirit Society recommends these Skip Rock spirits:

Barrel Proof Rye
Potato Vodka
Raspberry Liqueur
Spiced Apple Liqueur

Cheers, Todd