In 2008, the Washington state Legislature passed a bill allowing small craft distilleries – hard liquor versions of micro-breweries that can produce up to 60,000 gallons of hard alcohol a year – to launch businesses.
Ever since then, in a state that now boasts more small liquor makers than anywhere else in the country, it’s been boom city for Washington distilleries.
Now, courtesy of the newly opened Blackfish Distillers, Auburn has joined the ranks of communities with their own locally-produced hooch.
Open since last November, Blackfish makes its whiskey, vodka, gin and flavored brandies at 420 37th St. NW., just a stone’s throw away from Emerald Downs.
In addition to the distillery, Blackfish operates a small tasting room in the same location where customers can stop by to sample the latest batch, as well as buy liquor and merchandise.
“We give anybody who comes by a tour and a taste,” said owner and operator Michael Gifford. “They’re both free. We share our philosophy and show them what we’re doing. We’re pretty wide open.”
Talk awhile with Gifford and you’ll surely hear the word “local” pop up, and often. The distillery is a family affair. Blackfish’s sons, Matt and Nate Gifford, and his father-in-law, Larry Brewer – the namesake of the company’s Doc Brewer’s Rye Whiskey – and family friend Tyler Strandjord run the business.
“We want to be the local distillery that is providing drinks you can only get in Auburn. Like the local donut store that makes the donuts for the local people,” Gifford said. “We don’t have any plans to expand anywhere else.”
Blackfish may be Gifford’s first foray into distilling, but the family’s lineage boasts a strong connection to liquor makers going back to the families’ roots in England.
“The first one on record is John Gifford, who in 1670 joined the Worshipful Company of Distillers in London,” Gifford said. “I grew up on the family farm in Maine, which was a maple sugar farm. But it also had a grove of juniper trees hidden in the woods for making gin. Many farms had stills, in fact a lot of them in this area (Auburn) still have them. It’s an agricultural business that our family has been in for years and years.”
Think local, use local
Gifford’s plan is to guide the company, according to those homestyle-farm principles, using local products to formulate and produce his wares.
“We actually feel the seasonal effects as any agricultural business does,” he said. “The farmers around here are excited about this as well. They’re excited to share their cultural drinks, some of which have names I can’t pronounce. It was their idea to make the cherry brandy.”
Additionally, Gifford said, the company uses Washington state grain for the whiskey and sends spent grain off to local farms for use as feed. Washington state Golden Delicious apples were used in Blackfish’s recent Apple Brandy offering.
“Fitting into this community is a total surprise,” Gifford said. “When you first look at this community, it’s a huge industrial park. But there is an agricultural community that is still here.”
Aside from the draw of returning to his family’s roots and what some of its members did before the advent of Prohibition – a national ban against the making, importation and consumption of liquor that was the law of the land from 1919-1933 – Gifford said the challenge of starting up a distillery from scratch appealed to the engineering part of his soul.
“The excitement and challenge of the engineering involved in this and also the opportunity to change careers was what drew us in,” he said. “We were inspired by our visits to other distilleries but also by encouragement from friends. They said, ‘Mike, you’re always making different things, couldn’t you make moonshine?'”
Gifford said a visit to Dublin, Ireland and more to the point, the Guinness Brewery and Jameson Distillery, sealed the deal.
Gifford turned to his sons, Nate – formerly an underwater archeologist – and Matt – a former astrophysicist – and Brewer, a retired obstetrician and Blackfish’s secret weapon, according to Gifford.
“The final decisions are the taste decisions, and those are made by Matt, Nate and Larry to decide what we’re going to put our label on,” Gifford said.
It is those decisions, along with the emphasis on small batches, that separates the quality of Blackfish’s offerings from the bigger distributors.
“A big company with a big still can’t compete with an artisan who makes a decision on the spot that impacts those final flavors,” he said. “We’re treating each small batch as a different product.”
It’s also that artisan spirit that makes the company’s rye whiskey special, Gifford said.
“Once it goes into a barrel it ages to the appropriate time,” Gifford said. “Larry has a saying about when it’s time to take it out of the barrel. He says ‘You take it out when all the whisky has married with the barrel to get the right flavor.’ You don’t take it out sooner or later. There is no specific time for taking it out of one of our barrels. The little ones can be a one-night stand, while the bigger ones require a longer relationship.”
The methodology at Blackfish is paying off with customers.
“We can’t keep that whiskey on the shelf, and we haven’t even told anybody about it,” Gifford said.
It’s also been a hit with other distillers.
“We just got back from Proof Washington (the Washington Distillers Festival, July 11 in Fremont) with 40 other distillers,” Gifford said. “And that was just a blast. It was a confidence builder; it was our first big event. We are in good standing with a lot of distillers around here, so we’re doing some really nice home cooking.”
Gifford said the company will soon be able to sell its products online in the state and host up to 12 events annually at the distillery.
To learn more, visit www.blackfishdistillery.com.