Stories in the Bottles
Keith Barnes, owner, head distiller and chief storyteller runs Bainbridge Organic Distillery from amidst his antique whiskey bottle-laden office, surrounded by an eclectic collection of guitars, robots and kites. The open door looks out into the tasting area where high bar stools and tables, replete with samples of the aromatics that go into making the organic spirits, entice visitors to come in and enjoy the fruits of his labor. Dividing the tasting area from the still room, on one side, wooden shelves loaded with filled spirit bottles sparkles under the lights, allowing the yeasty aromas to waft through the entire building. On the other side, stacked aging barrels yield up intoxicating scents, offering up glimpses of the future.
It’s All About the Story
Every one of Bainbridge Organic Distillery’s spirits has its own story to tell. The award winning Bainbridge Organic Vanilla Vodka, the Yama whisky, all the other products have a story attached. Each one is an expression of the energy, the people, the place and the ingredients that go into creating it. Keith is a passionate distiller who loves to tell the stories. He wants people to know how the human imprint and values that are attached to the inert alcohol in the bottles are what give the spirits their unique qualities.
With Keith’s strong background in food industry marketing, and with his concerns about what is “allowable” in the food industry, he vowed to be transparent about all his processes and ingredients, something that is not always done in conventional distilling and food processing. “You can’t look at some of the things that are allowable without thinking, ‘how is that in anyone’s best interest? Whose interest does this serve?’”
From the initial concept of his own distillery, he stated that “When we set out to start this distillery, we were going to discover if we were capable of making an organic distillery.” And he vowed, “If we weren’t, we were going to close. No option to be other than organic.” With strict rules set by Washington State Department of Agriculture and the USDA, that get stricter every year, Keith claims, “We don’t have to have a rule that tells us what is right to do. We only have to live with ourselves at the end of the day and we feel better about doing it this way.”
With that parameter firmly in place, Bainbridge Organic Distillery, Washington State’s first certified organic distillery has grown exponentially since 2008, holding to Keith’s ideals. By choosing to be an organic distillery, many advances in American distilling are off the table, so old school methods that have been used by distillers for generation are utilized.
It took a lot of driving around the state to find the farmers whose grains were the quality Keith was looking for and who were capable of consistently supplying the distillery on a regular basis.
In 2008, the original grain supplier on the Olympic Peninsula provided not just the grain but a connection to Keith’s history. Always looking for the story, he said his grandfather was a whiskey bootlegger who ran booze all over the Peninsula. He called it “a confluence of circumstances” when he discovered the grain he was buying came from “where the boats came in, right inside the Dungeness Spit, where it’s sheltered.” Continuing, he said he was charmed by this, that it felt like fate.
Unfortunately, fate doesn’t always pan out and this particular source didn’t work out long term. However, during this time, Keith was also scouting for alternate suppliers. With the help of an old family friend, a wheat and barley farmer in Columbia County, the current organic growers were discovered in Walla Walla and Skagit counties. Hudson Bay Farm in Walla Walla County farms over 3,000 certified organic acres and consistently supplies high-quality wheat. Hedlin Family Farm in Skagit Valley, on just over 400 acres, supplies the barley. “It doesn’t get any better than those guys,” Keith affirms.
A story Keith loves to tell from those early years, when craft distilleries in Washington State were coming on, is about farmers who came to visit the distillery, perhaps looking to see if there was a place for them in the burgeoning industry. When they saw the full grain totes, they all consistently had exactly the same response. They would scoop up a handful of grain in one hand, bring their faces close to it and with a big gnarly finger on the other hand, paw through it. And they all said, “My, that’s a pretty little grain.”
The grains used in Bainbridge Organic’s spirits are all grown within Washington State and are strains developed in the 1960s and 70s. Some would call them Heirloom grains, but Keith prefers to call them Old School, eschewing the Heirloom term as froo froo! These grains, developed through tried and true cross pollination techniques, have robust growth profiles that work in the natural environment. These are all organically grown to comply with the strict WSDA and USDA organic standards.
Conventional grains, in an effort to improve yields, are subjected to artificial fertilizer and pesticide spraying, which removes them from the organic pool. Adding in that many of the processing agents are genetically modified and designed to work with a specific grain for a particular result, also removes them from the organic distiller’s arsenal. Using technology versus distilling or mashing techniques is just not an option for organic distillers. This is where Keith’s early pre-med schooling, which included chemistry and physics, comes into play, providing the expertise needed to really work with and understand all the chemical processes in the entire distilling operation. And his art training adds a different dimension to his craft. “I don’t look at science the way most people look at it. It’s like painting a picture. You get to interact with it; there are as many options as you can think of and you take an educated guess that doing the different things will create a different kind of outcome. You try a lot of things; you throw a lot of stuff away because it didn’t work. You know what you’re after, you know when to stop. You don’t stop when it tastes good, you stop when it tastes right.”
While most craft distillers use the same yeast for all their products, as the yeast industry hasn’t caught up with the craft industry yet, Keith chooses to use a different yeast for each of his products. These yeasts and enzymes are imported from Europe, where GMOs are prohibited. By combining time-tested, traditional methods and experimentation, Keith has developed six outstanding products.
Looking for Inspiration
As a hobby, Keith collects antique whisky, which do not sit unopened on his shelves! Along with one bottle he bought came an old bottle of vodka, which did sit on the shelf for years, unopened. “when we first started I didn't give a shit about the vodka because I thought that making vodka would be easy. I cared about making whiskey, which I viewed as being much more difficult,” he claims. But when he set about looking for inspiration for his unique products, he found it during an exploration of vodkas, both modern and old.
He bought a wide variety of modern vodkas, from the very cheap to very high end. And he found about 15 more antique bottles and set up a taste testing panel.
He was dumbfounded. “When we tasted the new stuff, it was vodka,” he said disparagingly, with its neutral spirit taste and a bit of a burn. But when they tasted the vodka from the old bottles, they were amazed. “What is this stuff? I couldn’t figure out what it was. It was not my perception of vodka,” he continued. “This stuff was unbelievable. It could be like an eau de vie or a pear brandy.” After much discussion, the tasting panel considered the state of the world back in the time these old vodkas were made, the country of origin and they came to the conclusion the distillers probably had limited access to traditional ingredients. Putting himself in the old world distiller’s shoes, he continues, “What would we make it out of? We’d like to use grain, but maybe we can use fruit, or maybe a combination of both.” And because they might not understand how yeasts really work, they would most likely choose a yeast that is probably used to make eau de vie or brandy.
“This old bottle of vodka completely upended my plan on how I was making vodka. I stopped everything I was doing, and started over. This is what really propelled me to start to dissect and plan what I wanted to make and take the blinders off and decide what it is we could make.” He feels that by looking back before the industrialization of distilled spirits, he can draw on what is possible as long as it is genuinely authentic.
“I want to create a product that has a viable story that at some point, in some way might make a little genuine connection with somebody so that they ‘get it.’ And that what we do is not just put the booze in a bottle.”
The story behind the Bainbridge Organic Vanilla Vodka, which earned the award for the World's Best Vanilla Vodka in 2016, is an extension of what can be, when you take the blinders off and when people do ‘get it’. The distillery runs an Oyster and Vodka event every year. “We’re always looking to do an infused vodka that is a little different,” Keith said. One year, they took high quality, organic Madagascar vanilla beans and infused them in the bottles. “After the event, people kept coming back and we’d tell them we don’t make that anymore.” As the distillery had a few pounds left over from the event, they would give customers three vanilla beans, sell them a bottle of vodka, instruct them how to infuse it and send them on their way. Finally, the blinders came off and now the Bainbridge Organic Vanilla Vodka is a perennial customer favorite.
The Yama Story
The Bainbridge Yama Single Grain Japanese Mizunara Cask Whiskey is another fascinating story. Just take the fact that it is the first and only (as far as Keith knows) craft-distilled American whiskey aged in the prohibitively expensive Japanese oak.
It’s a story that proves it’s not what you know, it’s who you know in the case of actually being able to get the rare wood. Add to that, the whole process was being kept completely secret, as Keith tried for years, as a foreigner, to source the wood. “Credit to us we could keep our mouths shut for that long,” he said, laughing. Eventually, after much frustration and many dead ends, a friend’s wife’s mother who knew “everyone” in Japan was able to source the wood and arrange for it to be shipped out of the country.
Still keeping it secret, the wood was sent to a cooperage in Arkansas, where each stave was carefully created. “Mizunara leaks like a sieve,” but has other very exotic qualities and “some aromatics that are pretty cool,” according to Keith. The whiskey aged in the small barrels for three years, and he bottled the first batch at the beginning of April 2016. “When we first started tasting,” he noted, “It was definitely an eye-popper!” Now, there are orders coming from collectors around the world.
The bulk of the profits from the Yama Whiskey go towards helping restore the abandoned Japanese village of Yama on Bainbridge Island.
The Core Concepts
Keith Barnes’ core concepts and his passion are evidenced through all Bainbridge Organic Distillery’s grain-to-bottle products. “We allow our spirits to be a magnifying glass on the quality of the Washington-grown ingredients.” He said they want to showcase all the “fantastic” agricultural products in Washington State and produce products of sufficient clarity that one can taste the ingredients in the spirits. He continued, “It’s beneficial and a privilege to actually be able to work with the farmers and select the exact grade that you want and have a better understanding of where it really come from. Grain comes from the soil and from hard work and it comes from nature. It doesn’t come from a bag.”
And further, “Knowing where it comes from gives you a better understanding of how much you should value it. It also gives you a better understanding of what quality is and what quality isn’t. It gives you provenance. It allows you to have that level of transparency people want.” No doubt there will be many more stories to come.
BAINBRIDGE ORGANIC DISTILLERS
9727 Coppertop Loop NE Suite 101
Bainbridge Island, WA 98110