Innovation and Tradition Mingle at Seattle’s Award-Winning Copperworks Distilling Company
Copperworks Distilling Company, American Distilling Institute’s 2018 Distillery of the Year thrives in an historical building on the Seattle waterfront, right across from the Seattle Ferris Wheel. It’s everything a craft distillery should be. It’s in a great location, beautifully designed, efficient and looks spectacular with its gleaming Forsyth copper stills and stainless fermenters. The tasting room has a wonderful ambience, adjacent and above the still room, with the other side looking out towards the busy waterfront.
But what really makes Copperworks Distilling Company are the two very successful brewers-turned-distillers at the helm, namely co-founders Jason Parker and Micah Nutt.
Recently, on a busy summer day, Jason happily pulled himself away from doing payroll to give me a tour of the distillery.
Slipping out through a secret door at the back of the tasting room bar, we clattered down the metal stairs onto the distillery floor. Looking up at the ceiling I took note of the carefully laid out piping and electrical, all symmetrically perfect. With his numerous years of brewery experience, Jason was able to tap into a wide group of experienced artisans and technicians to build out the facility, which took 1 1/2 years to complete.
Jason and his long-time friend, business partner and Copperworks co-founder Micah set the bar high, when they decided to open a distillery. “We knew we didn’t want to open in an industrial park, we wanted to open in a tourist area. I had that experience with breweries,” he said and knows the value of being in front of a lot of people. "Our vision was to bring brewing science into the distillation process," Jason explained. "Really high quality mash production of high quality malted barley; really high quality fermentation using brewers yeast and then traditional Scottish distilling. Take what the Scots had done, a wonderful job of distilling but improve the mash with 150 years of brewing science that they are not taking advantage of."
“Everyone has a vision of what they are doing and why. We believe in our science, we believe in our process.”
But Jason and Micah were fortuitously re-directed from their original mission of having their own brewery and a still house, when the building, which they had already leased, was placed on the Register of Historical Buildings. The associated restrictions forced them re-think their options.
Once again, Jason’s experience in the brewery industry opened opportunities to partner with the Elysian Brewing Company and Pike Brewing Company. “So instead of building a small brewery and small still house, we decided to build a still house that mirrored the larger size of production,” he said. The sweet wort is created at the breweries, using Copperworks recipes, mash design and profiles, thus producing the super high quality that is the cornerstone of Jason’s and Micah’s vision. Once the wort is ready, it’s shipped to Copperworks for three weeks of fermentation; a week of fermentation and two weeks of cold conditioning.
What could have been a real problem, turned into a great solution, by allowing them to spend the money earmarked for the brewery on much larger, custom-designed and steam heated Forsyth pot stills. There a three pot stills and a column still in the still house.
Copperworks now partners with three local breweries, The Elysian Brewing Company, Pike Place Brewery and Fremont Brewing, to produce the hops-free beer, which is the base of all the spirits. “So we are making a beer,” Jason states emphatically, “a beer with no hops. That’s the one difference. We actually use fresh yeast out of the cone from Elysian Breweries.” Copperworks has two recipes: 100-percent pale malt that becomes whiskey and vodka and gin. And a 75-percent pale malt and 25-percent caramel and crystal malt which becomes Copperworks American Single Malt Whiskey.
In keeping with Scottish tradition, Copperworks whiskey goes through two distillations, a stripping one first, which in the small-batch, craft distillery world, is unusual. Distilling only once means “You have to either throw away those heads and tails or you have to make wider cuts to get the alcohol and that was the thing that we never wanted to do,” Jason explained. “We decided to buy the two pots, do the two distillations.” He laughed, saying, “It adds a lot more copper to the bottom line, but we’re Copperworks, after all! We’ll have to work for the rest of our lives to pay for the all of the copper.”
Once the distilling is complete, the experimentation and innovation begins. “Everything we make is a limited edition,” Jason said and explained how, as a small distillery, they can try new combinations of different recipe percentages, different entry proofs, aging techniques, different barrel types, toasts and charring. “We aren’t trying to be consistent.” Currently they have about 60 experiments going.
With every release, the distillery posts a 3-5 page .pdf of everything they’ve done for each release and each release is different. Jason explained, “We pick 4 – 8 barrels that we think have a wonderful set of flavors, we mingle them together, and we marry those flavors together for 3 more months, then we mingle them again and proof them to the highest proof we can, without it hurting, so it proofs usually in the triple digits. We’re experimenting, so we’ll never be able to make the same whiskey again!”
Being well-capitalized from the beginning, allowed Copperworks to start making whiskey from the start, as well as gin and vodka. “Everyone has a vision of what they are doing and why,” he continued. “We believe in our science, we believe in our process.”
Winning this year’s coveted ADI Distillery of the Year award is proof that their philosophy works.
Copperworks Distilling Company
1250 Alaskan Way
Seattle, WA 98101