Passion Distilled

San Juan Island Distillery

 Getting there is half the fun!

Getting there is half the fun!

“Fire in the hole!” rings out in the misty afternoon, followed by a loud bang blasting from the miniature cannon manned by Hawk Pingree, one of the three partners of the San Juan Islands Distillery in Roche Harbor. A round of applause follows as the proud buyer of a bottle of Spy Hop Harvest Select Navy Strength Gin swipes his credit card in the Square card reader, a big grin on his face.

There’s a story behind that particular gin, just as there are stories behind every bottle of spirits and cider at the Distillery and Westcott Bay Cider.

With climate conditions identical to those of Normandy, France where farmers produce traditional hard ciders and the fine French brandy called Calvados, the island is a natural home for the burgeoning boutique hard cider industry. Hard cider, called cider in Britain, cidre in France and sidre in Spain, had all but disappeared from the American beverage scene until a little over 15 years ago. Since then, several ciderworks, including Westcott Bay Cider, which is the second oldest cidery in Washington, have resurrected the fine art and the general public is slowly becoming aware of this refreshing alternative to beer.

 Local apples for the cider and apple brandy.

Local apples for the cider and apple brandy.

When Suzy and Hawk, retired communications professors from Wisconsin visited France on sabbatical, they developed a taste for Calvados, a mature apple brandy. While visiting Suzy’s sister on San Juan Island several years ago, they happened upon Richard Anderson’s apple orchard and immediately said, "Why isn't that guy making apple brandy with those beautiful apples?" And the rest, as they say, is history.

Calvados is the reason behind the distillery but brandy needs a minimum of three years to age. The first batch is being carefully taste-tested periodically by the three partners and still has at least a year to go. From the start, Suzy and Hawk were impatient and decided that while they waited for their brandy to mature, they would turn their hands to other spirits, the primary one being an apple alcohol-based gin.

The distillery and cidery is in a fair sized, unassuming barn less than a mile from Roche Harbor, within easy walking distance for yachties. Because it is both a distillery and a cidery, areas have to be separated from one another. In one area are the big stainless cider fermentation tanks and apple press, in another the 55-gallon oak aging barrels. In yet another are the showstoppers – a 200-liter hand-beaten copper Adolf Adrian pot still and a 30-liter copper Portuguese pot still.

What is most striking about these spirits and cider is the passion and care that goes into them. Hawk is a fountain of knowledge about the technical processes used in brewing both the ciders and the gin. A true educator, he imparts his knowledge to visitors in ways that are fun and easy to understand. Explaining why a cider is dry, he said, “It’s dead dry because the yeast ate all the sugar.” And even though he gives his talks repeatedly, his passion for the process doesn’t dwindle.

open sign

Suzy is the lead distiller and her creativity is unlimited. “We use the small still for our seasonal gins,” Suzy said, as these micro-batches allow her to try out different combinations and flavors. Her enthusiasm bubbles up as she describes the flavors and the joy she gets from creating her gins.

She starts with the traditional juniper berry (or it wouldn’t be gin!), cardamom, star anise, orris root, lemon peel. But that’s where the similarities to commercially-produced gins end. For the Pingrees, it’s all about local. The addition of locally-grown and foraged botanicals that reflect the essence of the Island is what makes these gins stand apart. Surprising additions include Madrone bark for a spicy touch, lavender from Pelindaba Lavender Farm and the small wild roses that in spring, festoon the local roads with color.

Kari Kosti, a local Islander who hand-crafts herbal tonics and seaweed healers, works alongside Suzy. They warn that when they are driving around the island they are not looking at the roads but are looking off into the forests for new botanicals for the next Spy Hop Gin seasonal creation. Summertime is berry season and Suzy adds sweet thimbleberries or foraged elderflowers. In fall, plump, purple salal berries add a citrusy note on the finish. In winter, the Spy Hop Gin is barrel-aged in oak barrels from Chateau St. Michelle and in spring, you can expect a bright green note from stinging nettles.

On a recent visit to the Distillery and Tasting Room, which is open most weekend afternoons, the tasting areas were staffed by not only the older Pingrees, but also their two daughters and sons-in-law, who all pitch in to help. Both daughters live on the “mainland” and spend most weekends on the Island. In between directing the hoards of visitors to the self-guided tour around the plant, Haley said her parents have always been creative and avows, “I will never be as cool as my parents.” And sister Paisley agreed.

 Hawk and guest in the tasting room.

Hawk and guest in the tasting room.

In the cider tasting area, Haley’s husband Peter leads a group of guests through a tasting, describing the flavors and how to best pair the drier or sweeter ciders with food. For instance, he suggested drinking the very dry cider with oily foods like salmon or rich cheese and pairing the slightly sweet one with spicy foods. At a different tasting station, Hawk describes the types of apples - vintage apples with wonderful names like Kingston Black, Yarlington Mill, Dabinett and Sweet Coppin. Then suggests a short walk down the road to see Richard’s orchard overlooking Westcott Bay, where it all started.

About those stories mentioned earlier? Take a trip to Roche Harbor and visit the tasting room. There’s no charge; “that would be unfriendly.” You will be regaled with stories and come away with an in-depth understanding of distilling and brewing, provided by two passionate educators.