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.
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.