Mike Gifford, owner of Blackfish Spirits Distillery in Auburn, Washington is obsessive about flavors. His conversation is peppered with references to them and how Blackfish uses them. “The flavors in our spirits are in the primary color range you expect when you’re buying art supplies,” he said. Big, bold and beautiful.
And please don’t suggest that distilling is part science, part creativity. It’s all about the flavors. And about the distillers becoming chefs in the still room. Comparing scientific distilling to cuisine, he said you can follow a recipe and mix the ingredients together and turn out a lump. “Or you can cook and tease out the flavors, and that’s cuisine.”
Three generations work in the distillery, or the kitchen as they sometimes call it – Mike and his three sons, Matt, Nate and Mark and Doc Brewer, the boys’ grandpa. With diverse qualifications, including astrophysics, underwater archeology and medicine, this family of makers took a challenge from a friend, “Can you make moonshine?” and turned it into a successful, growing business and brand. The distilling “bug” caught them, Mike claims. “I lit the fuse, but these guys are the firecrackers.”
With no formal distiller training, the family’s learning has been mainly experiential. “The stills can teach you a lot,” Mike said. “Pay attention to the spirit and it will teach you what is going on in the stills.” Mike continued, “You can make your cuts in a variety of ways,” referring to making cuts scientifically. “None of that makes any sense if it tastes bad.” For Blackfish, this is not a mechanical or scientific process, it’s all about the flavor. “If you do your cuts by flavor, your still will tell you how it’s operating.”
Following the flavors starts when the grain arrives. “Grind it up and put some in your mouth. You’ll get an idea of the wonderful flavors.” And Mike suggests scooping some of the sweet mash into your coffee to taste the “wonderfully sweet liquid.” With a laugh, he suggests to the crew that perhaps they should start bottling it.
Community is a big part of what Blackfish Spirits Distillery is all about. “We make what the community would like to have.” When requests came for a coffee liqueur, they worked with Café D’Arte coffee roasters in Federal Way. The Kirschwasser is a collaboration with the Swiss dairy farmers in the area who have cherries growing on their properties. The farmers get the by-products of the brewing mash for the cattle, and Blackfish gets the cherries.
As slow distillers creating their own spirits, they control all the flavors in the spirits they produce. From the apples in the apple brandy, to the cherries in the kirschwasser and the cacao nibs in the chocolate liqueur, the flavors are intense. There’s no mistaking what’s in the bottles.
The spirits and flavors span a wide range. “People think we’re crazy producing this body of work!” In addition to the whiskeys, gin, barrel-rested gin and vodka, Blackfish produces a wide variety of flavored spirits, ranging from cucumber vodka to coffee liqueur and a very local rhubarb liqueur.
When creating these very distinct flavors, Mike often calls upon consultants in the food industry, including Chef John Hatcher of Café Pacific, who saved their bacon (or a batch of whishkey) when they were working on producing the popular Apple Pie Whiskey. Preparing the flavorings, including a gallon of freshly brewed vanilla essence, Mike asked John how much vanilla to use. Expecting to use the entire gallon he had prepared for the batch, he was amazed when they found just a few drops were all they needed. An expensive disaster averted.
Author's note: A friend and I decided a shot of the chocolate liqueur poured over breakfast yogurt and granola is the perfect start to the day!
And during the creation of the chocolate liqueur, while collaborating with Ronnie Roberts of Gosanko Chocolates of Auburn, the chocolatier kept sending them back again and again to add “more cacao nibs” until they reached the full-bodied flavor found in the liqueur.
Despite being “fairly distracted,” as Mike puts it, Blackfish Spirits Distillery is producing products that are bursting with flavor. “It’s our thing, it’s what we are good at.”
Monday call first
Tuesday 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
Wednesday 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
Thursday 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
Friday 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
Saturday 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
Sunday 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Blackfish Spirits Distillery
420 37th St NW, Ste A,
Auburn, WA 98001