Washington craft distilleries get in the spirit

LONGVIEW -- With glasses, a plaid shirt and blue jeans, John Koehler doesn't fit the image of a modern-day bootlegger.

The 56-year-old former engineer is gearing up to join the liquor-production business made famous by Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. He's building a vodka distillery in his garage near Mill Creek, but his operation is much smaller and, more importantly, legal.

"There really is a market for a small distillery to make a premium product," Koehler said. "I think I can make a very smooth, very high-end vodka."

Koehler applied for a $100 state license to operate Eagle Cliffs Distillery west of Stella in July. He's also awaiting a federal permit. Koehler hopes to start selling vodka in time for the holiday season, but he might have to wait until next year.

The 2008 Legislature approved a law allowing small craft distilleries to operate in Washington. The operator can produce up to 20,000 gallons of spirits per year, which would fill 125,000 bottles of 80-proof vodka.

Eight small craft distilleries now are operating statewide, and 16 more -- including Eagle Cliffs and Mount St. Helen's Spirits in Amboy -- are awaiting a permit, according to the state's liquor control board.

The state requires craft distilleries to produce enough liquor to stock all of its 160 stores. Koehler doesn't think Eagle Cliffs will produce enough vodka to meet that standard, but he can sell two bottles per person out of the distillery just outside of Longview.

Small craft distilleries can also list their brand at state-run stores so local restaurants and customers can order the liquor, said Anne Radford, spokeswoman for the liquor control board.

Vodka is mass produced in the big stills, and the strong taste is often hidden by mixing it with orange or cranberry juice. Eagle Cliffs will be different, Koehler said, because he can afford to throw out any finished product that doesn't taste good.

"I'm a small craft distiller. I'm going to be making one batch at a time."

Koehler plans to distill each batch until it's as pure as possible. In the end, Eagle Cliffs will be a sipping vodka that will go down smooth. At $30 a bottle, he's targeting drinkers who enjoy the flavor, not people whose only aim is to get drunk, he said.

Koehler isn't a big drinker himself, but he's a fan of Irish cream and Kahlua. Both are made with vodka, and it took years for Koehler to acquire the taste.

"What I had to do was taste good vodka to be able to appreciate it."

Vodka comes from fermented potatoes, grain or sugar beets. It's then distilled, often multiple times, to filter out the impurities and soothe the flavor.

Eagle Cliffs vodka will be made from potatoes, which will all be grown in Washington, Koehler said. State law requires at least 51 percent of raw product come from local growers. Koehler expects to fill about 130 bottles a week to start.

Koehler was a mechanical engineer for 25 years in Oregon, and he's using those skills to design and patent his own still in his 400-square-foot garage. He has invested about $20,000 to start up the business.

After earning a master's degree in business consulting at Washington State University-Vancouver, Koehler started and ran a self-service pet washing business for five years. He was laid off recently after working at the Island Casino for three years, and his wife, Lauri, works at Kalama Chemical.

Koehler said he sees the small craft distiller as a return to a bygone era. Kelso, where Koehler was raised, earned a colorful reputation in the 1920s as a hotbed of underground stills catering to raucous loggers, and small stills sprang up in back rooms and remote sheds nationwide.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, the large-scale manufacturers took over the liquor market, putting most small distilleries out of business. By 2007, Washington state had only two licensed distilleries, but they weren't in operation.

"Now, finally, we're returning to a smaller facility in the county that's legal," Koehler said.

"We're full circle from before Prohibition."