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Friday
Aug072015

Westland Distillery: Day 3 – The Building Blocks of Industry

Being from California, I consider my state the spirtual home of the old west, the final destination for the entrepreneurial pioneers who headed West in search of gold. However, as I was reminded yesterday at Filson, the Pacific Northwest had its own spell of gold fever and Seattle’s industries at the time adapted to meet that impending influx of mountain men and the remnants of that era are still actively at work. When thinking of today’s technological boom, I suffer from the same sort of tunnel vision. I work right smack in the middle of Silicon Valley. I’m more than aware of what’s happening with continued expansion, population increases, and all of the headaches that come with that progression, but I forget that it’s happening elsewhere, too. Apparently, Seattle’s traffic has become an absolute nightmare due to the increase in population, and as Amazon expands its central campus, along with new developments from Expedia and Facebook, the city is racing to create more affordable housing in response. Much like San Francisco, Seattle is changing, adapting, and modifying itself in response to these pioneers of the new frontier. It’s in the middle of this transition that Emerson Lamb looks to add Westland to the modern age of Seattle’s industry leaders.

We began our third day with a ferry ride west, across Elliott Bay to Bremerton. Due to my many journeys to Islay—the mecca of single malt production off the western coast of Scotland—taking the ferry is something I naturally associate with whisky. It made complete sense that we would travel by boat to visit a Washington peat bog. Ferries and peat bogs go hand-in-hand in my mind.

We hit land at the Bremerton dock and began the drive southwest to a small town called Shelton, where the Wright Brothers own a company called Organic Solutions, specializing in nursery, lawn, and garden needs—including peat moss. Behind the main building is a dusty path that leads to a six acre pond, created especially by Westland and Organic Solutions for the harvesting of local Washington peat.

What strikes you immediately about Islay—and really Scotland in general—are the colors. It’s all browns, greens, dark blues, and dark grays. With the exception of the timber, Western Washington shares much of that same natural color pattern. There’s a similarity in the feel of both locales—the cool breeze coming off the ocean, the moisture in the air, and the brooding darkness looming beyond the horizon.

Let’s talk about peat for a minute (because not all peat is equal). Because the structure of peat depends on the decomposition of vegetable matter and minerals, the deeper down you cut into the earth, the more the composition of the peat itself begins to change. Top-cut peat, for example—the peat that’s closest to the surface level—is less broken down, and therefore less dense. When burned, it releases strong phenolics and it catches fire easily due to its more-fibrous structure. Most of what’s harvested for malting purposes is top-cut peat, dug out in rows along the surface of the Scottish bogs. Hence: many Islay whiskies carry the stronger, phenolic aromas and flavors from that matter.

What Westland is beginning to do, however, is very different from any other producer I’m aware of. They’re using a tractor to dig much deeper into the earth (up to thirty-five feet under the lake); extracting both middle-cut and bottom-cut peat as well, then separating the three groups to create a variety of peat options. When ignited, middle-cut peat creates a much milder smoke, whereas bottom-cut peat—with its incredibly-dense composition—burns slower and cooler, releasing lighter aromas and heathery notes. Using strictly the high temperatures of top-cut peat to dry one’s barley can have adverse consequences, however, such as damaging the structure and integrity of the barley itself. What Westland is looking to do is blend various cuts of peat to combine the slow-burning, cooler flame of the bottom-cut peat with some of the more-flavorful compounds of top-cut peat to increase the absorption of smoke, while creating a more dynamic set of aromatics and flavor. Emerson and Matt are every bit as serious about the many possibilities of peat blending as they are about every other factor of their whisky production. It’s mind-boggling how deep they’re willing to go in the name of better booze (in this case, both literally and figuratively, with a "bog" pun thrown in for good measure).

Upon leaving the bog, we continued west towards the coast and the town of Aberdeen—famous for being the home of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain (and the subject of the new HBO documentary Montage of Heck). Immediately next to Aberdeen, is the adjacent town of Hoquiam—the hometown of Emerson Lamb and the seat of his family’s industry empire. If you weren’t already aware, the Lambs are a bit like the Hearsts of the Pacific Northwest. As you drive through Aberdeen and into Hoquiam, you travel down Emerson Street—and, no, that’s not a coincidence. The name Lamb is ascribed to the side of numerous factory buildings; more and more often as you get closer to the Westland warehousing.

The Westland rackhouse and bottling line are closer to the ocean than appears; so close, in fact, that they sit on top of a rocky landfill in what was once part of the sea itself. There are two main warehouses, both dunnage style, neither of which are temperature controlled. Again, Emerson is committed to the idea of Westland as a distinctly Washingtonian single malt. Much like the aforementioned whiskies from Islay—aged near the sea and shaped by the salty island winds—he wants the rainy, maritime climate of Hoquiam to influence the flavors of Westland’s ultimate profile. If you thought Seattle was rainy, it’s got nothing on Hoquiam.

There are a lot of casks at Westland’s Hoquiam facility; much more than I had previously imagined. Like I've mentioned before, Westland is not some rinky-dink little stab at creating a single malt whiskey company. Emerson lobbied his family’s business with its ample funds and deep pockets to go all in with this project—either everything or nothing. If Westland fails, it won’t be for lack of trying. I think you have to visit to really comprehend the level of commitment here. This is truly America’s first serious single malt whiskey operation. No one else is even close.

Tasting from the cask is always fun. It’s always an insight into the purest of possible samples.

And then it was time to visit Westland—no, not the distillery, but rather the original Westland: the Lamb family estate, high upon the hill overlooking the town. The name of the distillery is Westland because the story of Westland begins here, in this very manor. While Emerson and Matt run and operate the day-to-day logistics of the Westland whiskey company, the business itself belongs to Enterprises International—the various interests and trusts behind the original Lamb magnates, still operated today by Emerson's family. The Westland estate is where that story begins, and the property itself is spellbinding. It's everything you think it will be when Emerson tells you about his childhood.

Take a bit of Wes Anderson’s Royal Tennenbaums and combine it with Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and you’ll begin to understand Emerson Lamb and his family’s legacy. Westland is filled with artifacts from around the world, a vast library with original copies of anthropological books and travelogues from the 19th century, and various treasures that have a fascinating history beyond the likes of anything I’ll ever own. Adventuring seems to be innate in the family blood. His mother had just flown in from Europe—a quick jaunt through Croatia and Montenegro. There are manifests from various expeditions all over the main study. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if Emerson had told us he had to leave later that evening to go grizzly bear hunting in Alaska. I didn't think people like this existed in real life. I thought it was purely the childhood fantasy of Jacques Cousteau nostalgia a la Steve Zissou, but it's here and it's happening.

But if we're talking about Gatsby, and Emerson is indeed the new-world version of Howard Hughes, his presence is never decadent, ostentatious, or off-putting. Emerson Lamb is only in his mid-twenties, yet he shows the maturity, mannerisms, and determination of someone much older. At over six feet tall, he's a powerful, sturdy figure. He talks exactly like Johnny Depp, so much so that I would sometimes close my eyes and see if I could pretend it was him. He's captivating, mysterious, and magnetic—all signs pointing to his pre-determined destiny as the Lamb family's latest mogul and the American whiskey industry's next tycoon. But beyond all of that is the fact that he's well-intentioned. He wants you to know who he is and from where he comes, if only to prove to you how hard he's had to work in spite of it. He wants to bring industry back to his roots—to Hoquiam; a town ailing from the declining lumber trade.

The best part is: I'm rooting for him all the way. I'm just excited to know that I was there; that I saw this thing forming from the initial stages. And then it turned into something beyond any of our wildest dreams. A new American single malt whiskey industry. An Islay in the Pacific Northwest.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Aug062015

Westland Distillery: Day 2 – Setting the Scene

Maybe it's just me, but in my mind I just can't separate the Pacific Northwest from David Lynch's cult television show Twin Peaks. But it's not as if the former CBS series is my only association with the state. My mom was born and raised in Washington and I've been coming here for summer vacation since I was an infant, but when I walk into a store like Filson and see the stone fireplace incorporated with dark wood paneling, flannel shirts, and a giant moose head, I imagine I'm with Agent Cooper at the Great Northern Hotel and a warm feeling of nostalgia washes over my soul. What Emerson and Matt wanted to establish with today's activities was a greater understanding of Seattle's community, along with the partnerships and producers that make the city what it is. They wanted to instill in us the same sense of pride and optimism that they feel towards their locality, to help us better understand where Westland fits in amidst the grand scheme. I thought it was a great concept, but they were really going to have to bring it if they had any visions of supplanting Laura Palmer in my cerebral cortex.

What is Filson, you ask? Imagine the Pacific Northwest version of Levi's, but add in the outdoorsy North Face element and cross it stylistically with a dash of John Varvatos. Then add in the fact that all their clothing is 100% American-made, in house no less! You can actually go to the Filson flagship store in Seattle, look through the windows in the back, and watch them cutting out leather patterns, sowing together bags, and laying out long sheets of rugged twill. If you even remotely care about fashion, it's an inspiring sight to see. If you're like me and you love clothes, along with all that other hand-crafted, historic, authentic, and locally-sourced shit that we talk about with whiskey, then you're going want to make Filson your first stop upon landing in the city. We were lucky enough to tour the entire site to get a more in-depth look at the operation.

C.C. Filson founded his namesake company in the late 1890s when it was clear that the Great Klondike Gold Rush was going to bring many a pioneer to the Pacific Northwest. He made rugged gear for rugged conditions—wool blankets, sleeping bags, down jackets—and he stood by the quality of his work. As gold fever eventually faded into history, Filson's reputation for top-quality materials did not and the lifetime guarantee he offered on every piece he sold helped solidify him as a man and merchant of the utmost integrity. He continued to design jackets, shirts, vests, and bags for the Washington outdoorsman and the line continued to expand. Today the brand continues to offer that lifetime guarantee on all of its merchandise and is actually working on a new restoration project, taking the remnants of old Filson products and piecing them together to create new ones. We got to see some of the advance line before launch and it was truly spectacular. I dropped a serious amount of coin before leaving that store. So far, the boys were one for one. I was loving this tour.

After working up an appetite on the Filson salesfloor, it was time to eat. We headed over to Duke's Chowderhouse on the shore of Lake Union to sit outside, have a drink, and eat some fish. Duke's looks like your standard Pier 39-ish tourist spot, but—remember food snobs—looks can be deceiving. This chowderhouse was actually one of the first restaurants in the nation to be certified as providing nothing but 100% sustainable, all-natural ingredients. All of their seafood is traceable and much of it was sourced by the restaurant themselves. You might even find Duke Moscrip himself catching wild salmon up in Alaska. A chowder sampler please! And a round of Westland cocktails. I'd definitely come back here on my next trip. The food was fresh and delicious, and the view even better. We watched seaplanes land and take off right next to us as we chomped down on our various mussels and clams.

After lunch we walked over to the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI, as it's known locally) to check out their latest exhibit about Prohibition. Among the various booze artifacts and antiquities there's an entire floor dedicated to Seattle's conception and the creation of its many bridges, waterways, and bustling port area. Can you spot which guys are the illegal bootleggers and which guy is the legitimate distiller?

Then it was time for yachting. Matt Freerks, Westland's sales director for Washington, absolutely cracks me up. He has this amazing look that really works for him. It's part Southern gentleman, part rockabilly, and part playboy. When we walked out of the museum and over to the docks, there he was: perched on the stern, one leg crossed over the other, holding a drink like it was the most natural thing in the entire world; like what else would he be doing at this very moment?

As we boarded the vessel, Matt pointed out the various snacks and drink options available to us. There was plenty of cheese and plenty of Westland booze.

And so we sailed; through Lake Union, under a few drawbridges, and into Lake Washington.

There were plenty of ridiculous photo ops. Images of the sporting life.

Men and women, aboard a ship at sea, eating and drinking with reckless abandon.

Everyone from Westland was very excited to open up the main bridge, mainly because they're usually the ones stuck in traffic, waiting impatiently, while some schmuck in a sailboat holds up the line in the middle of rush hour. "We get to be that guy!" Matt told me with a smile.

We docked at Westward: another hip Seattle spot with amazing seafood and great views of the lake. The weather was perfect, the atmosphere heady, and the company warm and welcoming. Alright guys: I'm in. I'm ready to move to Seattle. Is that what you wanted? You win.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Aug042015

Westland Distillery: Day 1

Westland Distillery is located in the SoDo neighborhood of Seattle; SoDo being short for South of Downtown district. It's like the SoMa region of San Francisco in both abbreviated name and character (in fact, take away the skyline and it looks the corner of 4th & Brannan with that B of A on the corner). There are warehouses and industry yards, along with modern-style lofts and architecture, intermixed with various states of urban neglect. As Emerson Lamb would later tell me: "It's as close to downtown Seattle as a single malt distillery can be." There are a lot of zoning issues that need to be addressed when you're distilling ethanol. Plus, how in the hell do you expect to take delivery of thousands of pounds of malted barley in a crowded city street?

The distillery itself is located inside what was once the Ederer crane manufacturing building—a 13,000 square foot space that was established in 1919. Before being taken over, Ederer produced many of the beams in the retractable roof of Safeco Field, and there are remnants of that steel inside the revamped Westland site. Along with its sleek and modern decor, the furnishings of Westland are incredibly personal and mapped out with extreme detail. The magnificent wooden bar counter, for example, was carved from a dead tree on Emerson's family estate (they wanted to do something with the wood before it began to disintegrate). Much of wood along the walls and ceiling was taken from an old pulp mill in Yakima once owned by Emerson's ancestors. As the paper industry continues to decline, single malt whisky is the endeavor that Emerson hopes to replace it with; establishing a new family enterprise built from the remnants of the past. Every thing here has a very specific meaning and intention; and much of that intention is meant to celebrate the state of Washington—both it's history and it's potential future.

It smells like malt from the moment you walk in; the blast of hot fermented grain envelopes your senses immediately. It's like walking into Glen Garioch or Springbank. It's familiar, yet we're nowhere near Scotland. Emerson is more than aware of where his distillery is, however, and he wants that location to reflect in his whisky. He's convinced that the Pacific Northwest is the spiritual home for single malt in the United States, so he and his team have borrowed as much as they can from Scottish tradition and added in a few local twists to make something distinctly regional.

To get into exactly what those specifics are, you have to talk to Westland's master distiller: Matt Hofmann. The first thing he'll want to talk about is the grain. Matt could talk to you for hours just about malting and roasting barley; and for good reason: it's a largely unappreciated facet of single malt production that offers plenty of room for innovation. Unlike many Scottish distilleries I've visited, Westland is not using one type of barley from one particular place. They're not even using one singular recipe, and—much like Glenmorangie—they're experimenting with various roasting methods (some of the results taste like Grape Nuts). Because Matt's background and interests stem from brewing, his approach to single malt begins with the barley. To give you an idea of what's happening here, one of Westland's recipes contains 10% Munich barley from Germany, 12% "extra special" (that's the actual name) barley from Wisconsin, 4% roasted chocolate malt, and larger percentages of barley malted in Washington state. They also do a peated recipe using 100% peated barley from Scotland. Then there's a pale malt recipe, and variations within that. Which recipe they distill depends on the time of year and the need.

Following more brewing tradition, the yeast strain for the fermentation was brought in from Belgium and the outfit was promptly named Jean-Claude Van Damme (being "the muscles from Brussels") because of the power it exerts over the fermentation process. Westland does a slow, five-day ferment that allows a fruitiness to come through in the new make, and on through into distillation.

The stills are classic Scottish-style copper pots—one wash and one spirit—that produce a spirit Matt calls: "Double distillation with a twist." Westland uses a very unique process to accent to their already delicious new make. Portions of the discarded heads and tails are combined and redistilled separately (rather than being tossed back into a new batch), and the resulting spirit is married in later to the finished heart cut. It's a bi-weekly process that allows them to capture an incredibly fragrant whiskey, later used to spice up a marriage. Matt is so geeky about whiskey that he's blending his new make before it even goes into wood, but as the boys discovered later: they're not the only ones doing it. Apparently Mortlach uses a similar process in their production, hence the oft-heard "2.5x distilled" when describing their Scottish single malt. In reality, it's a double-distillation with a third distillation on the side. The cuts at Westland are made by nosing the aromas of the spirit. "When it goes from Jolly Rancher fruit into actual fruit," Matt explained, "that's when you know it's time."

Production at Westland is enough to fill about six barrels a day. How those barrels are filled and into which barrels specifically, however, is a whole 'nother can of worms. If you thought Matt was particular about his grains, you should listen to him talk about wood. Westland is one of maybe a handful of distilleries that uses solely oak casks made from air-dried staves. They have two different types of new oak casks: those with staves air-dried for 18 months, and those with 24 months. It's like listening to someone talk about the benefits of dry-aged beef! Then—depending on the cask being used and if it's new oak, refill Bourbon, refill Sherry butt, or refill Sherry hogshead—the proof of the spirit itself must be altered. For example, Matt likes to fill new oak casks at 110 proof, but he might change it up for a refill cask. The reason being that the spirit acts differently with the wood at different percentages, and Matt is always looking to improve on that maturation process by examining the relationship between alcohol and oak. "But I do believe in 'hippie parenting' when it comes to whiskey," he told me. "You can't force a whisky to do what it doesn't want to do. You have to let it go where it wants to."

When it comes to blending, Westland is traditionally Scottish in that consistency takes top priority. They don't want batch variation. They want classic Westland character that's reliable with each and every sip, which is why they need to be as big as they are. "It's impossible to achieve a consistent flavor if you're too small," Emerson explained, "simply because you don't have enough different whiskies to work with." There are variables when it comes to making a consistent spirit throughout the year. Water pressure, for example, can completely change the nature of the new make, and apparently Seattle's water pressure changes during the summer, altering the flavor of the Westland whiskey produced during that period. Emerson and Matt are big believers in the idea that one should have as many tools as possible when crafting a new batch of whiskey. The more variety of flavors one has available, the more accurately one can replicate each blend.

After a full-scale tour, and even a full-scale dinner at the distillery, we walked out the back door, behind the warehouses, through an open alley, and into a non-descript door illuminated by a single bulb in the darkness of night. Emerson produced a cowboy hat from God-knows-where, placed it on top of his head, and shot me a huge smile. "Do you smoke cigars?" he asked.

I guess I do now. This man knows how to live.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Aug042015

Welcome to Seattle

I landed at around 9:30 AM. I could not wait to get off that airplane and into the cool Pacific Northwest climate. The San Francisco Bay Area has been unseasonably hot as of late, so the chance to feel that cool Seattle breeze against my cheeks as I walked down Pike Place was most welcome. Pike Place, you ask? Really? I know that some people consider the entire waterfront market to be the Fisherman's Wharf of Washington, but selling the heavily-touristed area that short would be a complete disservice to what's really going on. There's a lot of exciting action in between the wandering aimlessness.

You've got the original, first-ever Starbucks, for God's sake! Don't act like you don't go there every morning.

You've got Beecher's cheese shop; along with the glass window that peers into the kitchen where the curds are actually collected. You can eat cheese while you watch it being made. I stumbled in with Westland owner Emerson Lamb this morning, as we picked up a few things for later this evening. If you haven't guessed already, I'm in Seattle this week to drink single malt whisky with the boys from Westland Distillery. Domestic, American-made, single malt whisky, that is. Master distiller Matt Hofmann is with us. We're going to show you the complete operation from top to bottom, along with a little local flare when time permits. That's my goal for this week.

There's also the Pike Brewery; the local beer mecca owned and operated by local legend Charlie Finkel—an Oklahoman-born entrepreneur who spent decades in the wine business before devoting himself exclusively to beer. Charles has been in the craft brewing business since beer geeks used snail mail to share homebrewing recipes. He works with Westland as well, taking leftover whiskey barrels and laying down some of his locally-brewed ales inside of them for extra flavor. We tasted a six-month old amber aged in sherry oak while we snacked and talked shop. It was outstanding, and I'm not normally a fan of richer-styled beers.

If you don't like barrel-aged beer, then try the the "Locale" (prounced "low-kale", I kept asking if it was made from kale before understanding the pun): a lighter, classically-styled ale made entirely from locally-grown barley provided by Skagit Valley Malting. Besides Pike Brewery, Skagit is also currently working with Washington State University and Westland to breed a line of barley particularly suited to growing west of the Cascade Mountains. The hope is to find a type that can express a sense of locality in Westland's single malt whisky. Emerson explained it to me as we sipped: there are two main terroirs in Washington. There's the dry and arid terrain of the eastern side and there's the wet, foggy, almost-Scottish style climate along the western coast. Yet, despite the vast difference in soil and weather between the vicinities, most of the barley being grown across the state is from the same line; a type designed to withstand disease and pests, rather than acclimate itself to the region. Apparently WSU has over 15,000 different lines of barley currently growing in the Skagit Valley, all being tested and cross-bred for research purposes. It's for that reason, when Emerson is asked about a possible Westland Bourbon or rye whiskey, he says: "Over my dead body."

"We've got four ingredients: water, barley, yeast, and oak," he told me, taking a pull from his pint. "There's more than enough room for experimentation and variety within that group right there."

If Pike Place were only about fanatical fish-throwing and tepid tourist traps, there wouldn't be signs like this posted upon the pillars of the down-home merchants just trying to run a local business. My favorite FAQ is number five: Why don't you throw your meat? Because we treat our customers' meats with care.

Not everything is for show, so don't avoid the market. You'd be missing out on a lot of deliciousness by doing so.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Aug032015

Brandyfest 2015

It's on!!

Once again, we'll be taking over the Bar Agricole patio for some serious brandy action; because—if you didn't know—brandy is where it's at. You can fawn over those $150 ten year old Bourbons all you want. I'll be drinking 40 year old brandies in the warm San Francisco evening while I gorge myself on Bar Agricole's tasty appetizers and snacks. Oh....and it's not just us this year. It's a number of other California producers, as well as our Italian friends at Villa Zarri. You know you wanna go. In fact, can you really afford not to go? It's also the 5 year anniversary of Bar Agricole, so it's more than just a celebration of brandy. It's a celebration of drinking, and drinking well.

I'll be there pouring as usual, but I won't be alone this year. Tickets available here

2015 Brandyfest @ Bar Agricole on August 18th, Tuesday, from 6 to 9 PM $60

-David Driscoll