And Then There Were Two

Gin is a deceptively simple spirit to create, since it needs no aging. Once you distill neutral spirits with various herbs and spices, it’s only a matter of weeks before you’re shaking or stirring. The trick is in the flavoring.

Marc Bernhard, owner of Pacific Distillery, the second distillery the Washington Liquor Control Board has licensed since Prohibition, is all about the botanicals. Joining the ranks of Boeing nerds supplying our fishing village with alcohol, Bernhard is producing a gin that will be making its way into bars this week, with absinthe to come soon after. Though he works in the flight deck safety department at Boeing, Bernhard used to have a mail-order herb business. So he was keen on what he wanted for his spirits and knew where to get it. What he could not get, he grew: Not only does he have a backyard lined with wormwood and hyssop, he’s commandeered plots of land from friends and family to grow herbs.

Pacific Distillery is located in a business park on a hill in Woodinville. Bernhard procured the space in May, installed the still in June, became licensed in August, and had his first batch of gin bottled by October. A small, sparsely appointed garage cubicle in a warehouse, the headquarters could barely hold a van, but is plenty big enough for a half-dozen stainless-steel tanks and Bernhard’s striking copper alembic still, which he had custom-built in Portugal. The garage door was up when I stopped in for a visit last week, and as soon as I rounded the corner I was pummeled by the smell of fennel.

A large rack in the back is stocked with the botanicals that will color his absinthe and flavor his gin. The herbs are everything: Whereas Washington’s first licensed distiller, Spokane’s Dry Fly Distilling, starts with raw materials, obtaining results that carry an echo of the grains used in production, Bernhard is so focused on herbs that he buys the purest pharmaceutical-grade alcohol to act as a stark canvas. Each herb is grown, dried, and added in accordance with a few antique distilling manuals that Bernhard owns. He is determined to uphold traditional practices such as allowing his wormwood to cure for a year before using it in distilling, and these details are evident in the final fiery product.

With Bernhard, I tasted his products straight out of the still before they’re mixed with distilled water to lower the alcohol content and relax the flavors. Tasting still-strength spirits is a wild experience, especially when you’re dealing with flavored spirits. The botanicals of the Voyager single-batch distilled gin, at nearly 150 proof (75 percent alcohol), had a savory quality.

If I had to Hollywood-pitch the Voyager, I’d say it reminds me of the flavor and feel of Tanqueray but with the juniper turned down. When I tasted the finished product, bright citrus and a broad yet subtle spectrum of piquant herbs led to a balanced, viscous mouthfeel, and the gin’s quiet, herb-sweet finish lasted past the mild alcohol burn. Unlike some overly produced small-batch gin, this is a spirit fit to be served up in your martini—with vermouth and olive or mixed with tonic, though I wouldn’t want to dilute its finesse too far.

Bernhard’s Pacifique Absinthe knocked me out, and not just because I tried it at still strength. As the human equivalent of a beagle, I could pick out the herbal notes that resulted from Bernhard’s shrewd choices. Pacifique contains two kinds of wormwood, common and Roman, and a hefty portion of a special fennel that allows for more than just anise to shine through. It was that fennel I’d smelled when I first walked into the garage, and it will haunt me for weeks. I am an absinthe snob, not to be confused with those preposterous spoon-and-flame fetishists, so beware, bartenders: I will smack you if I ever see you flaming this stuff.

If you want to start looking for Voyager Gin around town, hit up Zig Zag or Liberty this weekend. For now, you can only special-order the gin by the case at your local liquor store, but once Pacific Distillery’s listing approval goes through, state liquor stores will begin carrying bottles in late February or early March (the projected retail cost will be under $30). The Pacifique Absinthe should hit stores in a few months, LCB willing.

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