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.

Checking out Afrohead XO Rum

Unless you’re a spirits aficionado, you might not know about blending and the role of the “master blender.” And it might be a surprise to you that, say, a seven year bourbon isn’t simply liquor that sat in a barrel for seven years before it was bottled, straight from the barrel. It’s also not generally known that the identical spirit, when placed in different barrels and stored in different locations, may end up tasting radically different. The role of the master blender is twofold:  To either create a new flavor profile, or work to create a consistent taste, year after year. In the second case, a master blender must be so familiar with an existing product that, working from the available barrels that a distillery has at hand, he or she can determine the precise amounts and ratios of spirit from various barrels to create the flavors that a brand’s supporters have come to know and love. Very few people–with exceptional palates–can do this exacting work. Toby Tyler of Afrohead Rums is one such practitioner.
A few months back I received a bottle of the new Afrohead Premium Aged Dark Rum (“seven-year”) for review. I put it through its paces, wrote my review, and figured that was the end of the story – on to the next rum. In my review of the Afrohead seven-year, I compared it to Angostura’s seven-year rum and found them very similar in flavor profile. After posting my review, the Afrohead PR firm asked if I was interested in trying out the fifteen-year X0. But of course! As luck had it, Miami Rum Renaissance was coming up very soon, and Afrohead was exhibiting. Perfect timing for me to dig in and learn more.

Afrohead booth at Rum Renaissance 2015 in Miami
I won’t repeat the entire Afrohead backstory from my previous review, but here are the essentials: A few years back, Joe Farrell and Toby Tyler, co-owners of The Landing, a hotel on Harbor Island, Bahamas, created a house-rum blend using rum from Angostura Distillers in Trinidad. More recently, an investment group set up the Harbour Island Rum Company in Nokomis, Florida, to import the rum into the US. Currently Afrohead offers two rums: The seven-year and the XO, aged for fifteen years.
Toby Tyler, Cocktail Wonk, Joe Farrell at Miami Rum Renaissance 2015
Immediately upon entering the Rum Renaissance show the first day, the large Afrohead booth jumped out and demanded attention. I immediately spotted Joe and Toby (I’d seen photos) and headed over for what would be a lengthy conversation, where I got answers to all sorts of questions I’d had after my review of the seven-year, as well as learning more in advance of this review of the XO.
Toby Tyler at Angostura Distillery (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
Blending room at the Angostura Distillery (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
First and foremost on my mind was the similarity between the Afrohead seven and Angostura seven. Toby (Afrohead’s master blender) told me of his experiences at the Angostura blending laboratory where he worked side-by-side with Angostura’s master blender to create both the seven-year and the X0 blend. At one point he grabbed his iPhone to show me pictures of his more recent trip (a few of which he has generously supplied for inclusion in this post); Toby was at Angostura last July and will go back again soon. Once he develops his exact flavor profile, the blenders at Angostura will replicate it, but Toby still visits the blending house to confirm that each batch is consistent with what he believes the Afrohead expressions should taste like. One thing Toby emphasized several times during our meeting is that the Afrohead rums have a very “clean” finish, with no added sugar and very little palate fatigue after repeated tastings. I have to agree with Toby in that regard – the finish is very clean.
Sample bottle at the Angostura Distiller (photo credit: Toby Tyler)
Another thing I learned in my meeting with Toby and Joe Farrell is that the Afrohead line is well-funded and positioned for growth. Joe told me that many beverage executives visit The Landing and have wanted to take the Afrohead rum to the US market in the past. Eventually, a deal was struck with a group of investors with extensive beverage industry experience. A little internet searching turns up that two of the three Harbour Island Rum Company executives have worked as high-level executives for Bacardi and are now working with “beverage alcohol startups” like Afrohead. One of the investors in the Harbour Island had previously invested in the company behind Angel’s Envy whiskey, which was recently acquired by Bacardi. It was quite evident from the Afrohead booth events at Rum Renaissance that Harbour Island Rum Company has the backing to spend a significant amount of money to make a splash in the US market.
Afrohead seven-year and Afrohead XO
With the company preliminaries behind, let’s take a look at the Afrohead XO, with callouts to the differences between it and the seven-year.
The XO bottle’s glass is identical to the seven-year. However, while the seven-year bottle is clear, showcasing the contents, the X0 bottle is opaque from a matte black paint (or similar) covering. The stopper fits the bottle, creating somewhat of a challenge to remove – I noticed this with the seven-year as well. The striking Afrohead logo (a woman with a very large head of air intermeshed with visual symbols) is, at a distance, visually the same on both the seven-year and XO, but up close the XO’s label is a nicer, heavily embossed foil. Whereas the seven-year bottle’s front label has latitude/longitude coordinates for The Landing on Harbour Island, on the XO bottles is an “X” overlaid with a “’15.” The backs of both bottles show the identical “Universally inspired, authentically crafted” Afrohead origin story.
The X0 weighs in at 43 percent ABV (86 proof), a tad higher than the seven-year’s 40 percent ABV. Pouring a bit into a glass, I noted that the color is very similar to the seven-year: medium to dark copper. The nose is inviting – it smells of “serious rum” with woody tones. The taste immediately brings to mind many years in heavily charred barrels, caramel, and a slight hint of smoke. Tasting the seven-year and XO side by side, the seven-year starts out lighter, fruitier, and slightly ephemeral, while the X0 dives down to darker wood and caramel tones. After the X0 fades away, my tongue still feels fresh, ready to go again immediately. The viscosity of the XO doesn’t suggest to me that sugar was added, as some rums do.
The Afrohead seven-year and X0 are obviously cut from similar cloth, but there are clear differences. As a sipper, the X0 is much more interesting. At about $60 retail, this is a bit on the more expensive side (there are plenty of good sipping rums in the $40-$60 range). In fairness, the closest obvious comparison to the Afrohead XO is Angostura 1824, a 12-year from the same distillery that retails for around $80, so suddenly the 15-year Afrohead seems reasonably priced. If you’re a fan of Trinidad style of rum with a lot of aging, and that doesn’t break the bank, the Afrohead XO is a solid choice.

Checking out Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch, A Most Unusual Canadian Rye

As a cocktail wonk, I’m constantly expanding my spirits library, building an essential set of specimens representing the major spirits categories. My whisk(e)y collection has grown steadily, with dozens of bourbon, American rye, scotch, and Irish whiskey expressions. Inexplicably however, no bottles from Canada, our neighbor to the north and a whisky powerhouse on the world stage. I’ll confess that this was partially the result of my perception (widespread it seems) that Canadian whisky is composed of mostly spirits distilled to a very high alcohol percentage (thus stripping out most of the flavor), along with a bit of caramel and artificial flavoring

After seeing an announcement for the Seattle launch event of Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch, along with a host of well-respected Seattle bartenders participating, I decided that it was time to educate myself; the evening turned out to be highly educational, as I discovered a dark, complex rye with an unusual story (more on this below). I was also fortunate to meet Dan Tullio, Canadian Whisky Master Ambassador at Beam Suntory (who reminds me of a young Tony Bennett), and came home with a bottle of the Dark Batch to review here.

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Cocktail Obsession: Hemingway in the Hebrides

 

I have a (bad) habit of conjuring up spirit flavor combinations that sound great in my head, then inflicting those ideas as off-menu request to my favorite Seattle bartenders. An entirely drinkable concoction always arrives, but every so often I hit the jackpot – a killer drink that I need to experiment more with at home. Recently I hit up Erik Hakkinen, bar maestro at Seattle’s legendary Zig Zag Café, with “Something lush… sherry… maybe some spice… and smoke!” Erik smiled, as he’s prone to do, and said, “I got this.”

What Erik created with my loosely defined request knocked my socks off, and he graciously provided the recipe, handwritten on a coaster, sans name. While incorporating all my ideas (sherry, Ancho Reyes for the spice, Islay scotch for the smoke), Erik saw what I was missing – a base flavor to bring together the flavors I’d requested. I had an “Of course!” moment when he mentioned that an apple brandy (Laird’s Bottled in Bond) was his starting point. In Erik’s creation, no one flavor dominates, and the apple, sherry, pepper spice, and smoke flavors harmonize well together.

Naming drinks is always the hard part, and Erik left that to me. Thinking about the ingredients–Spanish sherry, smoky scotch, Mexican pepper (from the Ancho Reyes) and robust apple–it seemed to me like something Ernest Hemingway would drink – robust and manly! (If I do say so myself…) All are bold flavors, strongly associated with their respective countries. Hemingway was born in the US, and traveled in Spain and Mexico, but I couldn’t find a solid reference to him traveling to Scotland. I like to think that if he’d visited, he’d have gone to Islay, home of smoky scotch, which is part of the Hebrides isles, and when he arrived at the bar, he’d have had something like this:

Hemingway in the Hebrides

  • 1.5 oz Laird’s Apple Brandy (100 proof, bottled in bond)
  • 0.75 oz Ancho Reyes
  • 0.75 oz Lustau East India Sherry (sub sweet Oloroso or PX sherry in a pinch)
  • 0.5 Laphroaig (sub other smoky Islay scotch)
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters
 Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Express lemon peel over drink, drop in.
Bar coaster with recipe from Erik Hakkinen, Zig Zag Cafe, Seattle
Depending on your preference for spice versus smoke, adjust the Ancho Reyes and Laphroaig ratios. A variation on the above that I found enjoyable (and a bit punchier) drops the apple brandy component down, brings up the smoke, and reduces the spice a tad.  I like to think Papa would approve.

  • 1 oz Laird’s Apple Brandy
  • 0.5 oz Ancho Reyes
  • 0.75 oz Lustau East India Sherry (sub sweet Oloroso, or PX sherry in a pinch)
  • 0.75 Laphroaig (sub other smoky Islay scotch)
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Express lemon peel over drink, drop in.

 

Checking out Amaro Lucano

 Several years ago, when I was a less-experienced cocktail wonk just starting with my spirits collection, I quickly ran head-first into the confusing category of amaros (aka amari), Italian for “bitter.” Amari are liqueurs created by infusing dozens of herbs and spices in alcohol, then sweetened and diluted to make them consumable neat–assuming you have a moderately adventurous palate. So many strange names– Campari, Ramazzotti, Gran Classico! So many unusual ingredients – gentian, cinchona bark, citrus peels, rhubarb, saffron! Where to begin? I quickly learned that collecting amaris, especially with so many hard-to-find bottles, can be an addicting and expensive habit. It’s a  bit like baseball cards were when I was a kid – once I had a few, I wanted the whole set which makes for a lot of bottles to track down. In this post we’ll take a close look at Amaro Lucano, a mainstream Italian amaro with a long history.

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Check out Pacific Northwest distilleries and watch me judge a cocktail competion

This Friday, 5/15, is the Seattle Uncorked “Meet Your Makers” event. A number of local and nearby distilleries (including 3 Howls, Captive Spirits, Oregon Spirits Distillers, Westland, and Oola) will be there.

Part of the event is a cocktail competition featuring local bartenders creating original drinks while utilizing “The Barbarian” from Barbarian Bar Tools, a multi-function bar tool which I’ve written about recently. I’ll be a judge along with Natalie Migliarini from Beautiful Booze. It should be a ton of fun and I wouldn’t miss it even if I weren’t judging!