Gin is Big at Seattle’s Captive Spirits

My GPS tells me that I’ve arrived, but I’m not quite sure I believe it. I’m trying to find Captive Spirits, in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, but I’m clearly on a residential street, and the building in front of me looks like a small, two-story apartment building. Only after I spot the sign hanging off the corner of the building do I know I’m in the right place.

There are no obvious signs of life out front, so I wander around the side of the building. In a long alley/driveway, are a young girl and a dog (“Rosie”), who playfully rushes to greet me. The small girl helpfully points me around to the very back where an open garage door reveals what I’d come to find. Co-owner Holly, whom I’d met a few days earlier, steps outside to say hello.

Captive Spirits is (at the moment at least) all about gin. Not vodka, not whiskey in small barrels waiting to be released. Not fruit infusions, not “moonshine.” Just Gin. Among the major “base” spirits (vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila, brandy, etc.), gin is the only spirit whose flavor doesn’t originate from fermenting and distilling an agricultural product—for example, grains, sugar, agave, grapes, potato, and so on. Gin’s distinct flavor is the result of infusing a neutral, high-proof ethanol with a veritable tea of botanicals. Juniper berries, for one, are used in just about every gin –but beyond that, the remaining ingredients are a gin-maker’s secret sauce.

Although not exactly a well-kept secret, it’s not widely known that many gin makers don’t distill their own ethanol as the base for their gins. The economies of scale offered by large industrial distilleries allows gin-makers to purchase less-expensive, high-proof, 95 percent ethyl alcohol in bulk, and then infuse it with their own particular combination of botanicals. Sure, some distilleries like Sound Spirits, also here in Seattle, do distill their own ethanol, but the availability of bulk product allows gin-focused enterprises to step right into adding their own unique value, rather than trying to compete with a mega-distillery in the alcohol production process.

Outsourcing of ethanol production, and focusing on just gin lets Captive Spirits’ Holly Robinson and Ben Capdevielle do very well in a relatively small space, approximately 2,000 square feet. After releasing their well-known Big Gin to positive reviews, the pair recently released Bourbon Barreled Big Gin, the same product but aged in used American oak barrels for six months. One wall of their small office features a floor-to-ceiling blackboard listing all their distributors in numerous states and several foreign countries, including Australia, Italy, and the UK, as well as notes for prospective deals and future trips to be planned. I was a bit surprised seeing how many outlets they’ve already acquired, being such a seemingly small (but apparently very efficient) enterprise.

 
Within their space, small nooks contain an office, kitchen, and tasting area separate from the main work area. Racks of barrels and palettes of Big Gin cartons fill much of the available room. A clever organizational trick:  Upside-down boxes hold new bottles ready to filled, while right-side up boxes hold filled bottles, ready to ship. The barrels, once-used American oak, have previously nurtured whiskey at Heaven Hill in Kentucky. One small nook holds bright blue 55- gallon barrels filled with corn-based, 190 proof ethanol (aka “Everclear,” which some of you may know from your college days) made by Pharmco-Aaper in Kentucky. The desk in the office is literally a door perched atop two of these empty blue barrels.

Near the tasting area, a lone oak barrel rests on the floor. Previously used for whiskey, and then Bourbon Barreled Big Gin, it now ages a new batch of Bradley’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Kina Tonic. Bradley Feather is the head for Sounds Spirits, a few miles down the road (read about it here). The craft spirits community in Washington State is tight knit – Holly is the group’s current Vice President. Next to the Kina Tonic barrel is a large white bag of dried orange peels, a key player in a future gin batch. On nearby shelves are the less botanical tools of the gin trade: large rolls of Big Gin labels, as well as thousands of corks ready to top a Big Gin bottle.

At the very back of the building is the Captive Spirits main work area. Ben, Holly’s husbandand co-owner, has returned from a trip to the hardware store and is busily working at the large bottling table. Two large cylinders hold several hundred gallons of gin, resting for a week or so before bottling. Holly tells me that after distillation, the botanical oils in the gin take a while to fully integrate. Every week there’s a bottling day where Ben, Holly, and several friends form an assembly line for bottling, labeling, and hand-numbering each bottle before boxing them up. Holly says she usually handles the numbering portion. Captive Spirits ships to international locations, some which require 700ml bottles rather than the 750ml bottles we use in North America, so they need to maintain two different bottle and label sets.
Across from the bottling table is the Big Gin Bike, equipped with a bottle of tasty gin in the bottle cage, and a rack on the front, perfectly sized to hold a case of Big Gin.  Close by are more large white bags of juniper berries, the key ingredient in all gins. The juniper smell is strong in the air as Ben grabs a mesh bag roughly the size of a football and explains how they fill the bags with the juniper, orange peels, and other secret botanicals, then drop the bag into the still prior to starting the distillation run—like making a supersized vat of gin tea. When the run completes, they simply fish the bags out, making post-run still clean out much easier.
The big prize of my visit is naturally the pot stills themselves, labeled “Phyllis” and “Jean,” each honoring dear departed grandmothers. The stills are sourced from Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Kentucky, one of the biggest players in the still industry. Phyllis and Jean each hold 100 gallons and take 90 minutes from a cold start to the point where gin can be collected. Ben tells me they’re direct-fired, meaning heated by a direct flame rather than a boiler. Circling each still’s base is a brick wall of sorts, to keep the heat where it belongs.

I was particularly curious about what exactly goes into the stills, as I knew that 190 proof ethanol is the starting point; it doesn’t make any sense to “distill” a spirit that’s already as pure as it can get. Ben says that the ethanol is blended with water to bring the mix down to 100 proof. Then the botanical bags are added to the solution and distillation can begin, with the collection phase lasting about ten hours.

 

Just outside the building are plastic tanks filled with water. Holly explained the water cools the still’s condenser unit, causing the vapor coming off the still to condense into liquid that’s collected. Rather than cooling with tap water which is wasteful and incurs added costs, the plastic containers hold harvested rainwater which can be recycled endlessly.

As for the gin itself, I will save a proper review for another time. However, I will say that the Big Gin has a particularly bold flavor relative to other gins, which I love. Ben and Holly both stressed that their target was a traditional gin, emphasizing the juniper, rather than a “New American” style product that merely glances in the general direction of the juniper berries. I asked if there was a particular gin that they admired prior to making their own, and Ben quickly answered, “Beefeater.” Both the regular and Bourbon Barreled Big Gin, bottled at a healthy 94 proof, have won medals at the prestigious International Wine and Spirits Competition. While I enjoy the original Big Gin, the Bourbon Barreled Big Gin is particularly smooth and different than anything else in my collection, I happily took home a bottle for the Wonk bar.

Recent Washington State laws provide tax breaks for small distilleries who produce their spirits using at least 51 percent ingredients from Washington State. Captive Spirits doesn’t qualify for these tax advantages, as the majority of the ingredients come from out of state. However, Ben and Holly are adamant that they make exactly the gin they want, rather than twisting their production process to take advantage of a tax break.

Unlike big distillery tours where a guide leads you from building to building, a visit to Captive Spirits is essentially dropping in on artists in their workshop, where the “art” is delightful gin. It’s a particularly laid-back place, so no need to book online or show up at a particular time. If you find yourself in the Ballard neighborhood, poke your head into the office in front, or follow Rosie the dog to the garage at the very back. Odds are, you’ll find yourself chatting with Ben or Holly about gin, Big and otherwise.

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