New distillery is banking on spirits

WEST RICHLAND -- Joel Tefft hopes his new distillery now under construction in West Richland becomes popular for those seeking something other than wine.

The former winemaker, who until last year owned Tefft Cellars Winery in the Yakima Valley, plans to make a variety of handcrafted white and aged brown spirits.

He said production will start in August. "We'll start with vodka and gin," said Tefft, who together with Becky Runyan, owns Black Heron Spirits Distillery and Portworks, which is being built on an acre in the Port of Kennewick's Wine Estates Park at Van Giesen Street and Keene Road.

A new state law allows craft distillers to produce 20,000 gallons or less a year, to serve up to 2 ounces and sell up to 2 liters of liquor per person in tasting rooms.

The distillery will spur economic development and bring more tourists to the proposed Red Mountain Center near Van Giesen and Ruppert Road, said Donna Noski, the mayor of West Richland, at the symbolic ground breaking ceremony Wednesday at the site. More than a dozen elected leaders, officials and business owners attended.

The project is a result of a partnership with various public agencies and the private sector, Noski said.

The city brought water, sewer and road to the site and the Port of Kennewick will provide landscaped sidewalks, said Ruth Swain, economic development specialist for the city of West Richland.

The project helped the port get two additional one-acre parcels on the site ready for sale, said Larry Peterson, the Port of Kennewick's director of planning and development. "We're well positioned to provide opportunities to small businesses in West Richland."

Tefft, 55, said his new venture is about practicing his craft with a slower-paced lifestyle. The business of winemaking and distribution become too big for his taste, said the winemaker, who's been taking classes to learn more about making spirits. "It's similar to the process of making wine: You take a raw produce and get it into a form you need."

He plans to use locally grown grapes and grains for his operations, adding he chose West Richland because it's a growing community.

He's invested about $500,000 in the project. "I'm spending everything I made in the wine business to start a distillery." He plans to hire three employees.

The little more than 4,000-square-foot facility will include a tasting room, he said. The inside of the building will have a prohibition-era look to "get back to what America was."

He also plans to have special theme events to draw crowds, both from the Tri-Cities and outside. Studies show people, particularly in the 25-40 age group, are drinking more hard liquor, plus a speak-easy craze is hitting the bars nationwide, Tefft said. A lot of people will come to the distillery for the novelty of it, he said. "We'll be small, but we'll be bringing a lot of traffic."

-- Pratik Joshi: 582-1541;