Vodka Cannons, Distillery Cats and more – Visiting Seattle’s Sound Spirits Distillery

Sound Spirits, Seattle, WA
I’m always fascinated by how small distillers have wildly different still setups. Some use a single hand-built still for everything, like the infamous Lost Spirits still. Others, like Lyon Distilling, use a number of identical, manufactured stills. But Seattle’s Sounds Spirits stills are among the craziest setups I’ve seen yet. Among their hand-built stills is a “Vodka cannon”, unlike any other still I’ve ever seen. At first glance it looks like flag pole in a large plastic planter, bent in half after blowing over in a wind storm. A closer look at the top section reveals that’s it’s a finned radiator for heat dissipation – No water cooling for this still! A rotating column inside one of the sections acts like a cement mixer to keep the condensed alcohol circulating, enabling more efficient reflux and optimal ethanol purity.
Vodka cannon at Sound Spirits

Radiator fin cooling for the Vodka cannon at Sound Spirits
Hailing from Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, Sound Spirits is one of Washington State’s first craft distilleries, starting up in 2010, soon after a 2008 law was passed making it easier for smaller distillers to get started and to sell their products. Fun fact: Washington State is now home to 10% of the nation’s distilleries. Sound Spirits makes a number of well-reviewed products which fall into these product lines:
  • Ebb & Flow: Vodka and Gin
  • Sound Spirits: Old Tom Gin and Aquavit
  • Depth: Ginger, Menthe, Cacao, Vow of Silence

The original purpose of my visit was to meet and chat with Bradley Feather, creator of Bradley’s Kina Tonic, a small batch Cinchona syrup for making high-class Gin & Tonics (stay tuned for a future report on Kina Tonic). Bradley works at Sound Spirits, so it was a natural meeting place. Like many small distilleries, the Sounds Spirits’ facility is housed in roughly 3000 square feet of an industrial building along with other businesses.
Bradley Feather working at Sound Spirits
Upon arriving I met Steven Stone, Founder and Master Distiller of Sound Spirits. Steven has a day job as an aerospace engineer and was the original president of the Washington Distillers Guild. Bradley, Steven, and I had a fantastic time chatting about all sorts of spirits topics (spirit safes, anyone?) while I tasted my way through the entire Sound Spirits line. Stephen graciously agreed to show me the back room with the grain, mash tanks, stills, and all that other distillery fun stuff!
Steven Stone and Mr. CHO
Entering the main distillery area with its well-used concrete floors, I was greeted by Mr. CHO, the coal-black distillery cat. CHO is short for C2H6O, aka ethyl alcohol (clever, they are at Sound Spirits). A row of oak barrels runs along one wall. In a corner is a pallet stacked with bags of malted barley from Palouse, a farming region in eastern Washington State. Ebb & Flow vodka is 100 percent made from this barley, as is 50 percent of the Ebb & Flow gin. Mr. CHO seems to enjoy spending time around the grain bags, no surprise there.
Directly in front as you enter is a small, shiny copper still, probably two gallons max. Steven uses it for small scale dilation experiments before committing to full-on production. The eyes are then drawn to a rather odd looking vessel with curved sides and two flat, hinged lids. Formerly a dairy tank, Steven now uses it as the mash tun. Nearby are two square, lidded vessels–the fermenters.
Stripping stills at Sound Spirits
2nd pass stills at Sound Spirits
For non-vodka distillation, the distillery uses four hand built pot stills using kettles from Blichmann Engineering and condensing columns from The Amphora Society. Each sits on a gas-fired stock pot burner. The two leftmost stills are used for the first (“stripping”) distillation run. The two stills to the right are used for the second distillation pass, and slightly differ from each other: One has two condensing columns and is used for gin, while the other is used for all the other non-vodka spirits and has a single condensing column. It’s worth noting here that the Ebb & Flow gin is “pot style” gin, meaning the botanicals are introduced after the stripping run, and go into the kettle itself, rather than into a “gin basket” that the distillate vapors pass through. The end result of pot style gins is more intense flavor.
Bottling area at Sound Spirits
Tucked around in the back of the space is a general purpose area where all the bottling occurs. Given the amount the product that Sound Spirits sells, it surprised me that all the filling is done by a single, hand-fed bottling machine. Filling happens four bottles at a time, and takes about 25 seconds to complete. The middle of the room is dominated by shipping boxes holding the final product. In a corner sits a pallet of empty 750 ML bottles used for the Ebb & Flow products. The reverse printed Ebb & Flow labels are designed to be viewed through the bottle and its contents. The label and the distinctive bottle shape combine to make a product that begs to be held.
Bottling machine at Sound Spirits
Bradley, Steven, and I talked about how some distilleries open with a dream of producing whiskey, but first sell gin, vodka, and other simple spirits that can be produced quickly in order to generate a revenue stream. Sounds Spirits doesn’t seem to be in that camp. They could obviously cut corners, focus on just a few products, and favor profit at the expense of innovative spirit making. However, given the array of somewhat niche products like their Old Tom Gin, Aquavit, and the line of Depth liqueurs, I get the vibe that Steven and Sound Spirits care more about making interesting, high quality offerings rather than just another “me too” lineup.
The ever vigilant Mr. CHO
The Sound Spirits tasting room is open seven days a week. There are no set tour times, there are no tours or tastings till after 4:30 PM on some days. However, it’s a laid back affair: Show up, taste some samples, and odds are you’ll be able to take a spin though the distillation area. Currently the Sound Spirits lineup can be purchased in retail stores all over Washington State. They also have distributors in Illinois and Minnesota, and at least one online store carries some of their products.

Checking out Amaro di Angostura with a New Cocktail Recipe – The Gaspar Grande

Even non-cocktailians are aware of Angostura bitters, the ubiquitous bottle in bars everywhere with the oversized white label, which bartenders use like salt and pepper in all sorts of drinks. Recently, the Trinidad-based company took a bold step and released a new spirit — Amaro di Angostura. Unlike the brand’s well known orange and namesake Angostura bitters, the Amaro Di Angostura isn’t intended to be used just few dashes at a time. I was intrigued enough to contact Angostura USA’s PR firm and they graciously sent me a bottle to review.

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Lost Spirits publishes second rum gas chromatograph paper – What’s in your 33 year aged rum?

Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits is at it again. Armed with a gas chromatograph and an extensive library of rum, he’s undertaken extensive chemical analysis of various rums near and dear to the heart of rummies worldwide.

In the first paper on the Lost Spirits site, he covered how trace carboxylic esters are responsible for the fruit flavors commonly found in rums, as well as the effects of column vs. pot stills. In the second paper, Bryan focuses his chromatograph on a 33 year aged pot still rum and how the semi-volatile organics (SVOCs) change with barrel aging. Now, it’s natural to wonder which rum this is. While Bryan won’t reveal, I will assert that there are very few pot still rums that are aged 30 years or more, and which are generally available – Do your own digging.

Among the interesting tidbits that jumped out at me on first reading was that the gas chromatograph appears to prove that some amount of sugar was added at some point in the process. Up till now, work by Richard Seale and Johnny Drejer have measured sugar contents by indirect methods (specific gravity). To my knowledge, Bryan’s study is among the first detailed published studies to show the addition of sucrose by more direct, chemical analysis.

There’s lots more rummy science to wonk out about. Check it out here.

Checking out Lyon Distilling’s Dark Rum

Although rum is most frequently associated with the Caribbean and Central America, its production has a long history on the eastern seaboard of the United States, going back to the colonial era. Using molasses imported from the Caribbean, rum was produced in distilleries in New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland. Eventually, nearly all the Northeast’s rum distilleries went under, victims of economic forces, prohibition, and a swing to other spirits such as bourbon, which could be produced from locally grown grains rather than imported goods. With the recent upswing in craft spirits, distilleries such as Boston’s Bully Boy and Lyon Distilling in St. Michaels, Maryland, have revived the east coast rum tradition. Lyon Distilling has three different rums for sale, and here I’ll take a look at their most popular version, Lyon Dark Rum.

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Checking Out the Partida Tequila Lineup

Tequila is one of those spirits that has fought a long battle for respect from the casual drinker. All too often, people’s tequila perceptions are formed in some drunken college haze ending in an incident with vague memories of pressing their face to a cool tile floor, causing them to declare “I don’t do tequila.” Even if an early experience doesn’t cause people to keep a wide radius, there remains a wretched culture of tequila shots, the assumption being that tequila tastes so awful that it must be pounded with a lime and salt chaser. There’s even a blog and Instagram account devoted to tequila face. The truth is, artisanal tequila can hold its own with the world’s great spirits.
The basics of tequila are simple: It’s made in Mexico using the heart of the agave plant, which is baked, crushed to extract the juices, which are then fermented prior to distillation. Per Mexican government regulations (known as NOMs), to be legally called tequila, the agave must be of the Weber Blue variety and the production must occur within the Jalisco region of Mexico, on the western coast of Mexico about 1300 miles south of the US border. Tequila is a subcategory of the broader category of mezcal, which I’ve writtenabout previously. The short synopsis of the difference between tequila and mezcal is that mezcal can be made with a wider variety of agave, and within a larger region within Mexico.  So in short, all tequila is mezcal, but all mezcal is not tequila.
As with many spirits, tequila is sold in both aged and unaged varieties. Formal categories denote the amount of aging:
  • Blanco (little or no aging)
  • Reposado (more than two months, but less than one year)
  • Anejo (at least one year)
  • Extra Anejo (at least three years)

The typical drinker’s perception of tequila starts and ends with Jose Cuervo. This and other low-end tequilas (known as “mixtos”) are required to be made from at least 51% agave, with the remainder coming from “neutral cane spirit,” essentially vodka. Slightly more advanced consumers drink Patron, which occupies the “high-end” tequila niche in most people’s minds.

Beyond the heavy hitters in the tequila space– Jose Cuervo, Patron, Sauza–are quite a few smaller, artisanal producers who make topnotch, thoroughly enjoyable spirits, yet with a price point that’s a bargain compared to more trendy offerings like bourbon, scotch, and “premium” vodka. Dozens of smaller tequila brands, such as Corzo, Fortaleza, Casa Noble and Don Julio, are taking their share of shelf space, and the space is heating up with celebrity owners, two notable examples being George Clooney’s Casamigos and Sean “Diddy” Combs’s DeLeón. In this post I’ll take a look at the Partida line of tequilas, well-regarded by tequila aficionados. I received 50 ml samples bottles of the Blanco, Reposado, and Anejo bottlings for this review. Partida also offers an extra Anejo, but at $300 or more for a bottle, review samples are understandably scarce.
The origin of the Partida line starts with Gary Shansby, a California native who made his fortune in marketing brands such as Famous Amos cookies, Mauna Loa macadamia nuts, and Vitamin Water. After these successes, he was looking to build a company from scratch that integrated his personal passion for Mexico. Around 2005 (dates differ depending on the source), he partnered with Sofia Partida, a California woman with family connections in Mexico.  These connections include her uncle Enrique Partida, who farmed 5,000 acres of agave crop in Amatitan, southeast of the city of Tequila and northwest of Guadalajara. Sofia, an executive at Partida, functions as a global brand ambassador. Given the current interest in artisanal tequila, it’s surprising that Partida hasn’t been snapped up by one of the big liquor conglomerates like Diageo or Pernod Ricard, perhaps because Shansby isn’t looking for just another corporate payday.
When selecting agave to harvest, Partida uses stock that’s reached at least seven years of age, letting the agave heart reach an optimal sweet flavor profile. The Partida Reposado and Anejo expressions are aged in once-used Jack Daniels American oak barrels. By sticking with one barrel supplier–and one with an enormous pipeline of stock–Partida can maintain its consistent taste profile. Shansby’s strong marketing background is evident in the bottle design: Rather than a standard cylinder or squared bottle, Partida’s rounded horseshoe shaped bottle (for lack of a better description) make the bottles distinctive and very easy to spot in a crowd. All three versions of the Partida come in at the typical 80 proof.
The Blanco has a very pleasant nose that reminds me of creamed honey – I enjoyed it quite a while before sipping it. The initial sip has a very slight burn on entry, a nice mix of spices in the middle, and ends with a bit of pepper. Upon subsequent sips, I noticed a buttery, creamy note which I’ve experienced before in certain agricole rhums. Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits distillery tells me this is likely the presence of ethyl lactate, commonly found in distilled spirits.
For comparison, I tried the Blanco side-by-side with Cabeza tequila, my normal go-to for a solid mixing blanco-style. The Cabeza is fruitier and has a tiny bit more burn, not surprising given that Cabeza is three percent higher in ABV. I found the Partida Blanco to be quite enjoyable by itself, but it would also be great in a Ti’ Punch-type drink, simply subbing the Blanco for the normal agricole rhum. Mrs. Wonk wasn’t as much a fan of the Blanco, calling it “too earthy” for her tastes.
Next up is the Reposado. It also has a wonderful nose, although quite different from the Blanco. I get lovely spice notes, bringing to mind a great-smelling men’s aftershave. Tasting it, I found none of the creaminess that I get from the Blanco. Alongside the obvious agave notes is a hint of orange, bringing to mind a nice curacao. There’s very little burn, making it an excellent sipper.
Placing the Partida Reposado side by side with Patrón Reposado, I found the Patrón to me much sweeter and less complex. In this regard, the Partida Reposado was the clear winner. Of the three Partida expressions, Mrs. Wonk and I agreed the Reposado was our favorite. It’s refined, but the interesting characteristics haven’t been smoothed away by the aging process. The Reposado would be outstanding in a tequila-based Old Fashioned (tequila, simply syrup, bitters).
Finally, the Anejo.  Somewhat surprisingly, the nose wasn’t a more intense version of the Reposado, and instead is closer to the Blanco’s nose. Tasting the Anejo, I found it to be very smooth and round, to be expected given the additional amount of aging, and there’s no burn to speak of. Unlike the Reposado, I didn’t taste the curacao note. Make no mistake, the Reposado and Anejo are very different animals.
I also put the Anejo head-to-head with Corzo Anejo, one of my favorite sipping tequilas. The Corzo is more buttery (again, I’m guessing ethyl lactate) and also had cinnamon notes I didn’t perceive in the Partida Anejo. I’d happily enjoy a dram or two of the Partida Anejo neat so as to best enjoy all the flavors within.
Pricewise, the Partida bottlings are within the range of other premium tequilas such as Patrón or Corzo. Checking online at my usual sources, the Blanco can be had for around US $37, the Reposado for around $42, and the Anejo for $49. If you have to choose just one, I’d recommend going with the Reposado as the best mix of bold flavors yet refined enough to enjoy drinking neat.

Death & Co Book Event and Rob Roy Takeover, Seattle

Scotch Lady
New York City’s Death & Co is one of the world’s most well-known and lauded bars, including having won the 2010 Spirited awards for Best American Cocktail Bar and World’s Best Cocktail Menu, and coming in at number 21 on the 2013 World’s Best Bars list. In keeping with the recent trend of books from the brains behind well-regarded bars (PDT, Clyde Common), Death & Co owners David Kaplan and Alex Day, along with writer Nick Fauchald, have given us “Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails.”
In promoting the new book, David Kaplan and a rotating staff of Death & Co bartenders have been traveling to cities around the country, staging “takeovers” of a local bar for an evening. Attendees get a copy of the book and enjoy “bottomless” (i.e. all-you-can-drink) cocktails crafted by the Death & Co team.

Thanks to a friend who provided me with an early heads up, I was able to snag a ticket for the Feb. 10 takeover at Rob Roy, one of Seattle’s most respected craft cocktail dens. The ticket cost about $60, which included a copy of the book, a $40 value (although Amazon offers it for $30). The evening’s cocktail list featured eight different offerings from the book; in perusing event write-ups from other cities, the list is the same at each stop.

Going into the event, I wasn’t sure if the cocktails would be batched or crafted assembly-line style. Luckily, neither was the case. We simply worked our way up to the bar and ordered. The most I waited in line was about ten minutes, as the three and sometimes four bartenders churned though drinks with ridiculous speed, but without taking shortcuts. Okay, one shortcut I noted: Citrus peel garnish was done in advance, but that’s certainly allowable in the context of an event like this. Over the course of three hours, I worked my way through six of the eight drinks–for research purposes only, I assure you. All were something I’d happily have paid a typical Seattle cocktail price for ($13 or so at the moment).

David Kaplan addressing the crowd, Rob Roy, Seattle.
Midway through the event, David Kaplan got the crowd’s attention and gave a short speech, introducing the hard-working bartenders and thanking the Rob Roy crew for their hospitality. Other than that, it could have been any other busy night at Rob Roy, although with most of the patrons dressed a bit nicer than usual. And without the need to close out a big tab at the end of the night! As the event closed down, David Kaplan took time to personalize and sign books.
Little Engine
Moon Cocktail

Kew Gardens Cooler
David Kaplan signed book