Award-winning sommelier and wine director of John Howie restaurants, Erik Liedholm likes to maintain a low profile. But his mastery of the beverage space, and the many awards that collect each year on his mantelpiece, constantly draw media attention to this debonair and erudite man whose longstanding partnership with Chef John Howie is a story often told in the Pacific Northwest’s fine dining circuit.
For a sommelier who is always being `paired’ with wines, it is interesting to know that Erik is a master distiller as well. And Wildwood Spirits, the boutique distillery in Bothell, is his playground where he painstakingly produces small batches of Kur Gin and Stark Vatten Vodka that – not surprisingly! – also wins best-in-class awards from all quarters, year after year.
“With an Economics professor for a dad and a music professor for a mom, I suppose the co-mingling of art and science had been baked into my DNA,” says Erik. “I was always destined to do something that involved both analytics and artistic inspiration. Plus, the fact that I originally set out to be a chef, and had a naturally affinity for taste and palate, in the broadest sense of the words.”
Incredibly, Erik Liedholm is a bona fide chef as well! “People always ask me about my wine background,” he says. “But technically speaking, I went from the chef world to the wine world to the spirit world – in that order. All through college, I cooked to make some money on the side, and my intention was to become a chef some day.”
His passion for food led him to his first full-time job at an upscale restaurant in Michigan, where he worked in the kitchen during the day and managed the restaurant floor at night.
Stardom had started courting Erik Liedholm quite early in life, and as luck would have it, the chef-owner of the restaurant was none other than Milos J. Cihelka, the first certified `master chef’ in the world. Working with a culinary maestro of that caliber, Erik gladly gave up on `life’ and embraced food as his full-time preoccupation – until fate put yet another stalwart in his path. This time, it was American wine specialist and master sommelier Madeline Triffon, who just happened to be dining at the restaurant.
Impressed by Erik’s passion and knowledge about wine while he opened a bottle for her table, she offered him her card, saying he really ought to join her tasting group.
That was it. Erik took her up on the offer and the world lost a promising chef, because he had found his métier in beverage.
Erik moved from the kitchen to the dining room. The left-brain, analytical side of him knew this was a smart choice because restaurants make most of their money off beverages. And given that his talents were omnidextrous, he could easily jump from F to B in the F&B sector, without wasting any talent in the transition.
The gamble paid off.
He was general manager at a posh resort in Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA, when – as is always remarkably timely in Erik’s career – the stars aligned again, and the Pritzker family of the Hyatt hotels fame bought it. They asked him to open their new property as F&B director in downtown Seattle – an offer that finally brought Erik into our neck of the woods, so we could proudly claim him as our own.
Chef John Howie, the inimitable chef proprietor who always has his ear to the ground, heard about Erik in Seattle, and knew what a treat of a partnership it could be if Erik would only agree to join with him at John Howie ventures. Seastar was a dream project about to happen for John, and co-opting Liedholm would be a crowning achievement for the flagship restaurant in Bellevue.
As nothing has ever gotten in the way of Chef John Howie realizing his dreams, he mercilessly courted his future sommelier and partner, ignoring Erik’s early hesitance, knowing this would be a tie-up that would change the course of culinary trends in the Pacific Northwest.
He showed up at Erik’s workplace at the Hyatt with a blank sheet of paper that Liedholm could write anything on. At the time, Erik wasn’t sure who John Howie was, or even where Bellevue is, but he wanted ownership of what he going to do in the future and be involved in every decision within this joint venture.
They signed, and Erik was on board. The first John Howie restaurant – Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar – opened in 2001 with an inspired symbiosis between food and beverage like the Pacific Northwest had never seen before.
The pair successfully opened more restaurants, but Erik had yet another passion he wanted to explore: distilling.
He was just an enthusiast at the time, dabbling with distilling and making grappa in his backyard because the art and science of the process fascinated him.
In those days, the tied laws in Washington state did not allow restaurants to produce their own alcohol. If you owned or even had a piece of ownership in a restaurant, you could not manufacture any kind of spirit, brew or wine. In 2012, that tied law caveat was lifted, and Erik paired up with a buddy (Richard) to make grappa out of petit verdot for the mere pleasure of production.
But as always, Chef John Howie was watching and listening…
“Why can you not do this on a larger scale?” he asked Erik. Like any dreamer with a smart business brain in his head, Erik sensed a new opportunity in his internal creative sitemap. This could be a very neat idea!
But making grappa in your backyard is a `hobby’ that may or may not translate into a real life business. He needed training. Gifted with his inherited penchant to learn, Erik went to London to get a Master’s certification in distilling. Once he was done, he even worked as a “stagiaire” in British distilleries – an unpaid apprentice of sorts who learns as he works and gets no salary.
When he returned to the United States, the notion of owning a boutique distillery was no longer a cherished fantasy. Wildwood Spirits was going to materialize, and the next step was to find the right products for Wildwood to distill.
While Erik was researching craft distilling, one name kept coming up: Kris Berglund, biochemist at the Michigan State University (MSU). He was in pharmaceutical development and working with ethanol – though not the kind you drink. However, Kris Berglund was also working with some major distilleries to develop spirits at his facility, and Erik was convinced that Berglund was the man who was going to help him find the right products for Wildwood to build its reputation on.
Erik made a phone call to Berglund, and used every trick in the book to get the busy man interested in the Wildwood project. He said he was a former student of MSU, his father was a fellow-professor and he was half-Swedish — because Erik found out that Berglund teaches half the year at the Luleå University of Technology in Sweden.
His persistence finally paid off and Berglund agreed to look into his proposed Wildwood project. Erik flew to Michigan and shipped 15,000 lbs of Washington wheat to MSU, so they could begin experimenting with some winning formulas for a great vodka and gin.
The quandary at this beta-testing stage was this: if they were going to make a London Dry style gin, how was theirs going to be better than everyone else’s? How could they use seasonal ingredients while incorporating the chef ethos and sommelier ethos to a spirit? The problem with seasonal ingredients is sourcing them at their peak – which is only one time a year.
While trying out different botanicals for the Kur Gin, they found Seville orange to be the best choice because of its high content of Limonene – an organic compound in citrus fruit peels that imparts the orangey-citrusy essence. But Seville oranges were at their peak during only two months of the year. So would Wildwood only be making great gin for eight weeks, annually?
The solution was the artisanal and painstaking process of fractional distilling. By distilling and storing each botanical separately, they would always have a ready supply of the best ingredients throughout the year.
Fractional distilling is not a practical process, and it takes eight times as long to make Kur gin. But the procedure also sets Wildwood apart because there are few distilleries – if any at all – in the United States who commit to this arduous system.
“The Sipsmith, a microdistillery in London used to do it [fractional distilling], but when they were bought over by Beam Suntory, they were forced to give it up because fractional was too complicated and time-consuming to make any financial sense,” says Erik. “But the process still works for us because our production is small. Our batches are 600 lbs that produces about 15 cases.”
Erik grows ingredients like Braeburn apples in his own backyard, and has two Douglas fir trees that produce enough needles to make an essential essence for Kur Gin. By committing to stay hyper-local with ingredients, and insisting on fractional distillation to preserve peak seasonality, Kur Gin stands out as a class of its own, and Wildwood wins nice awards every year for it too.
“We make our second gin, Läka Gin, in the traditional method, and we’re not so concerned about seasonality of ingredients with this one,” says Erik. “The bold, London Dry style uses up material that’s left over from the Kur production, and being inexpensive, the Läka Gin is also very mainstream in its acceptance and appeal.”
So far as the Stark Vatten Vodka goes, Wildwood is the only distillery in Washington that actually mills their own grains to make the spirit. “Most distilleries will buy cheap neutral grain spirit and then process it and then call it `handcrafted’,” says Erik. 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.
So what’s next for Wildwood Spirits?
“We’re releasing a bourbon called Dark Door very soon,” says Erik. “All the wonderful press we’re fortunate to get for our gin and vodka has built up an anticipation already for the bourbon. We did some pre-sells, 100 bottles from each of our two barrels, and they will be available in February and May.”
To find out more about Dark Door, and the inspiration behind this amazingly oakey bourbon that is set to be yet another milestone in Wildwood Spirits’ journey of product wins, keep watching this space!