Inside Wildwood Spirits — The Only Chef And Sommelier-Owned Distillery In The Country

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When a partnership is divinely guided, there is very little man – or this case, Erik Liedholm — can do to change the course of its destiny.

It was 2001, and the sommelier was happily working at his job with the Hyatt in downtown Seattle, when Chef John Howie practically railroaded him into coming on board as Wine Director at a new property (Seastar Restaurant And Raw Bar) he was opening in Bellevue.

Chef John Howie’s big determination wore down Erik’s confident protests, and a partnership was finally formed that lives on to this day as one of the most successful chef-sommelier pairings in the United States.

But restaurants weren’t the only things the two were meant to do together. The formation of Wildwood Spirits — a boutique distillery that produces a winning collection of world-class spirits — was a triumphant collaboration that was next in the cards.

Wildwood Spirits: A Boutique Distillery Is Born

Erik was dabbling with distilling at the time with a small still in his garage. It was a side hobby for the sommelier, but the art and science of the distillation process totally fascinated him.

Fortuitously, it was also a time when Chef John and Erik were actively seeking out local spirits from craft distillers to see if they found something they liked well enough to bring into their restaurants.

“We met some people who had a pretty good idea of what they are doing, while others were…questionable,” says Chef John. “Our goal was to find something truly special, so we thought why don’t we just make it ourselves?”

Major Start-Up Problems — And A Solution!

Alas, they found they couldn’t do it! The law wouldn’t allow them.

For some curious reason, Washington state laws at the time (they have changed since the state got out of the liquor business) prohibited restaurant owners from owning a distillery or winery as well.

This came as a big blow to the partners’ exciting new plans to start a distillery, but surely there had to be a way to carry on with the project without actually breaking the law?

There was. His name was Kris Berglund, a biochemist at the Michigan State University (MSU). Berglund (who unfortunately passed away last December) was working with some major distilleries to develop spirits at his facility, and Erik was convinced he was the man who was going to help them find the right products for Wildwood Spirits to build its reputation on.

Erik used every trick in the book to get the busy man interested in the Wildwood project (much like the way Chef John had to stalk him into submission at the beginning of their partnership), and when Berglund finally agreed, Chef John and Erik sent 15,000 pounds of Washington red alum wheat out to Michigan State University to begin testing with. “It cost us a lot more to send the wheat out to Michigan than it actually did to buy the wheat,” says Chef John, recalling those early days, “but we knew that is what we wanted to do. Use a local product from Washington to make our first distillant. So with the help of Michigan State University and Kris Berglund, we created our first spirits: Kur Gin and Stark Vatten Vodka.”

Kur Gin: A Marvel Of Fractional Distilling

Erik had always been a huge fan of Negroni (a cocktail made with a London dry gin and campari) and the partners decided to produce a unique London dry gin as homage to this preference. “I was fine with Erik’s palate and the way he tasted things, so I figured it would turn out great,” says Chef John.

Erik decided he wanted to try fractional distilling, an artisanal and painstaking process that involves extracting and storing each botanical element separately to ensure a steady supply of seasonal ingredients throughout the year.

Sourcing the right botanicals at their prime was after all the biggest challenge. Erik grew some of the local ingredients they needed like Braeburn apples in his own backyard, and had two Douglas fir trees that produced enough needles to make the gin’s essential essence. But they still needed things like Seville oranges and juniper, which don’t grow in WA, and had to be imported and preserved.

No wonder, fractional distilling made so much sense! In spite of the time investment and production complications involved, this rarely-used procedure allowed Wildwood to keep its commitment to preserve peak seasonality in their botanicals. An attribute that makes the resulting product – Wildwood’s Kur Gin – stand out as a class of it’s own and win prestigious awards year after year.

“Sometimes people are confused by the name,” says Chef John, referring to the interesting back-story that is attached to the naming of this gin. “You see, `Cure’ was the original word we came up with, as a salute to the gin doctors from back in the day who prescribed the spirit as medicine to cure common ailments. But TTB, the federal agency that approves all alcohol labels didn’t quite see it that way. We had to rename the gin, and finally went with the Swedish spelling of the same word: Kur. With Erik’s Swedish background in the creative mix, we thought it still gave the name a bit of a back-story and relevance.”

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Stark Vatten Vodka: A Truly Handcrafted, Local Product

Then came the next spirit from Wildwood that creatively combined the chef ethos with a sommelier’s one: Stark Vatten Vodka(Swedish for `strong water’).

Wildwood is the only distillery in Washington that actually mills its own grains to make vodka. “Most distilleries will buy cheap neutral grain spirit, process it and then call it `handcrafted’,” says Erik Liedholm. “Stark Vatten is produced with Washington heirloom variety red winter wheat and pure, filtered water to create a clean, viscous, oily vodka that displays a definitive classic European style while remaining a distinctive local product.”

Another winning product in other words, that – like the Kur Gin – is decorated with awards year after year.

“A large part of our success comes from the fact we only use the heart of the distilling process,” says Chef John. “In the distilling process, there is a head, a heart and a tail. The less head and less tail you allow to be in your spirit, the better the spirit will be. True, you’re taking part of the spirit away in the process, and therefore it’s not cheap, but we wanted to make the best – not the cheapest. Of course we could make a lot more gin and vodka if we left the heads and tails in, but they simply wouldn’t be as good.”

Awards And Accolades: Efforts Paying Off

The world certainly seems to be in full agreement.

Kur Gin has now won well over 10 different awards, both national and international. The spirit has received great recognition from magazines such as Wine & Spirits and Art Culinaire. It won the Double Gold Best In Show award at the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition, where Kur beat out every gin in the world in 2014. It was re-entered for the same competition in 2017 and it received another Double Gold.

In 2017, Kur Gin also received the Washington Cup.

“People think because we’re based in Washington, it was easy play to win the Washington Cup but that’s not the deal at all,” says Chef John. “It is actually a competition held in Ohio that is a blind tasting by spirit professionals. They go through more than a hundred spirits in one category and award 3-5 gold medals in each. Then they come back and re-taste the winners and award just one of them the Washington Cup for the year. So, winning the Washington Cup essentially means you have won a blind tasting and beaten every brand in the United States, and then your product has been tasted a second time and finally considered to be the best of the best.”

Stark Vatten vodka has won the Washington Cup as well, and now, Wildwood Spirits is getting started with their whiskey – a bourbon called Dark Door.

Dark Door Bourbon: Foraying Into Whiskey Production

“In 2018, we were able to start releasing our first whisky, the Dark Door,” says Chef John. “At this point, we have only released four barrels (1,200 bottles), so not very many. In 2019, we will only release another 1,500 bottles. So in 2020, we will get about 4,500.”

From the very first barrel of bourbon that was brought out, one bottle was sent to Berlin for the International Spirit Competition and won Gold Medals – one for the bourbon itself and one for Wildwood as WA’s best distillery.

Thereafter, a bottle of Dark Door was sent to the San Francisco International Spirits competition where it won Double Gold. “We believe we have become even better at making our bourbon since then, and we’ll enter it for a couple more competitions in the near future where we fully expect to be rewarded with great accolades,” says Chef John.

A lot of people think of bourbon as an American product that is only made in Kentucky. But this is not true.

“Bourbon is truly only an American product that has to have a minimum of 51% corn in the mash,” explains Chef John. “The rest of it can be a mixture of other things, such as rye and barley. Our bourbon mash is 80% corn, which is a very high percentage and well over the bourbon regulation requirement. The rest of it is wheat with a little bit of malt, and that combination brings out a real richness that connoisseurs really enjoy in a great bourbon.”

Making Bourbon: Some More Interesting Facts

When you make bourbon – or any whiskey really – it comes out clear in color like vodka. To darken it, the spirit is put in a charred barrel made of American oak. A second interesting fact about bourbon is that the barrels have to be virgin American oak barrels. They cannot be pre-used — and they cannot be re-used. Other spirits can be made in them afterwards but not a second batch of bourbon.

“When you put the spirit into the barrel, it cannot be above 125 proof,” clarifies Chef John. “If you place the spirit into the barrel at 125 proof, it will provide you the highest yield. We have found that placing the spirit in the barrel at a lower proof, approximately 120, draws out more of the essence and flavor that we want in our bourbon. All the sweet, caramel, cherry attributes are more pronounced. So we don’t get as many bottles out of it, but a better bourbon.” Again, sacrificing quantity for quality.  “When the bourbon has finished aging in the barrel, we drain the barrel and add reverse osmosis water to take the proof down to a suitable bottle strength. Most bourbon is bottled anywhere between 90-94 percent.”

Bourbon Barrels: A Crucial Ingredient

To call bourbon a `straight bourbon’, the spirit has to stay in the barrel for a minimum of two years. If you pull it out earlier but follow all the other rules, you can still call it a bourbon. But not a straight bourbon. You can of course allow it to remain in the barrel longer than two years. The longer it stays in the barrel, the bourbon evaporates. They call this the Angel Share. As the bourbon concentrates, it intensifies the flavors as it continues to draw flavor from the barrel.

Which proves how essential the quality of barrels is to the bourbon making process.

“We use very high quality barrels made at a cooperage in Missouri because we believe that barrels impart the best possible flavors into the bourbon,” says Chef John. “Our barrels cost about three times the industry average, but the extra flavor really makes it worthwhile.”

Old 830 Irish Whiskey: A Second Whiskey To Re-Use The Barrels

“One of the things we are doing at Wildwood Spirits Co. is putting the bourbon barrels back to use by filling them with our Irish whiskey called Old 830. “Anybody who has even smelled the barrels as they are aging, are blown away by how great the Irish is already turning out. We’re very pleased with that,” says Chef John.

Wildwood Spirits: A Unique Collaboration

Erik Liedholm takes creative lead in the Wildwood partnership, but Chef John has a palate very similar to his. It is a seamless meeting of minds, passions and taste perceptions, and decisions are taken based on discussion and collaboration.

“We’re really poised to jump out there and make people happy with our spirits,” says Chef John about the future of Wildwood. “I haven’t had a single person try our spirits and not be happy with them so far. We even converted some people who were not bourbon drinkers to bourbon, not gin drinkers to gin and Stark Vatten is now being recognized by many people as their favorite vodka.”

Shop Online For Kur Gin, Stark Vatten Vodka And Dark Door Bourbon By Clicking HERE.

 Or call Wildwood Spirits at 425-826-1102 for a tasting.

 For more information, visit: WildwoodSpirits.co

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