This month, Don Poffenroth and Kent Fleischmann of Dry Fly Distilling in Spokane officially became the proud parents of the first grain distillery to open in Washington since Prohibition. One small step for local cocktail drinkers is one giant leap for our state.
Dry Fly's still arrived last week from Germany, where it had been constructed by Christian Carl, an industry giant that builds everything from small pot stills to giant distilling plants. Once the still is set up, the Dry Fly facility is set to produce vodka, gin, and whiskey at an initial capacity of 5,000 cases total a year, which puts the operation in the territory of craft distilling.
A craft distillery is marked by a less industrial, more hands-on distilling process. Craft distillers typically only produce one comma's worth of product, contrasted against the big distilleries that crank out millions of cases of booze. Though there are still fewer than 100 small distilleries in America, the craft spirits movement is growing, with Portland leading the charge. With Dry Fly, Washington finally joins in.
To date, whenever I have asked someone from a distributor or winery (i.e., "the business") why there weren't any distilleries in Washington, they've come up with the most cockamamie answers and conspiracy theories. Some have said distilling spirits wasn't legal here. Some told me that the state had made the licensing process technically impossible.
Turns out, our state-controlled system makes the process of owning a distillery difficult, but that's due to the lingering fallout of Prohibition more than any nefarious plot to keep distillers out of Washington. Poffenroth says that, in fact, the Liquor Control Board helped walk Dry Fly through the process, an intensified version of the same process potential winery owners have to undergo.
Given the higher profit margins that distillery owners stand to make, the scrutiny of potential distillers is greater, as is the bonding required. The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, as well as the state Liquor Control Board, want to make sure those getting into the distilling business are able to stay in business—and pay taxes.
Enduring the background checks and opening up their financial histories might have felt like joining the CIA, but Poffenroth and Fleischmann made it through the process without being sent back to the starting point. As Poffenroth advises other budding distillers, "Licensing is not hard; it is just very detailed and takes a long time. You have to have your stuff together, or they will shoot you down. We made it through in the first pass, and it still took six months."
Both Poffenroth and Fleischmann come from high-level jobs in the food industry. They cite corporate burnout as one of the main factors that motivated them to find a trade in which they could work more flexible hours, to allow morning forays to the river (Dry Fly is named for their favorite pastime, fly fishing). Washington wineries share knowledge as commonly as they do equipment, but the two distillers must go it alone for now. Notes Poffenroth, "We're glad to be the first, but we're hoping for company."
Dry Fly vodka, gin, and whiskey will cost around $30, and the duo hope to have their vodka and gin on the shelves of a state-controlled liquor store near you this fall (the company is shooting for October). The distillery's single-malt whiskey then will be ready for stores in 2009. I suggest they name that kid "Poffenroth & Fleischmann Select"; it's a natural.