Prosser, Ellensburg proof of growing spirits industry

PROSSER -- The brass contraption stands two stories tall with a bubble-shaped base, boatlike port holes and an elaborate system of tubes, all to emit a trickle of clear fluid.

Even the owner, the man staking his fortune on this ... thing, admits it looks like something from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

But that novelty is what 31-year-old entrepreneur Brian Morton hopes to capture at the Blue Flame distillery, where he has just begun to produce vodka, gin, whiskey and brandy.

"This market is so niche," said Morton between finger-taste samples of his 180-proof vodka.

Distilling -- the age-old process of boiling fermented fluid to extract high concentrations of alcohol -- represents the latest rush in the state's well-known craft beverage history.

Blue Flame and the Ellensburg Distillery, are among the 17 licensed craft distilleries in Washington. Another 24 license applications are pending.

Virtually all that growth has occurred in the past two years, since the state Legislature passed laws allowing small distilleries to open tasting rooms and sell limited amounts of liquor, putting them on par with microbreweries and wineries.

This year, lawmakers modified the laws to allow three times the production, up to 60,000 gallons per year for each distillery.

The changes were pushed by Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, which had a commercial distillery license to sell its bottles of vodka, gin and whiskey out of state or state-run liquor stores.

Before the laws changed, only Dry Fly and a few wineries in Washington blended brandy with wine for specialty drinks. Last year, Dry Fly sold 55,000 cases of liquor, said Pat Donovan, the distillery's only employee other than its two owners.

Now, new businesses are trying to get in early on the same excitement that has made Washington a household name in wine and upscale beer, said Brian Smith, a spokesman for the state Liquor Control Board.

New state laws give distilleries permission to sell liquor from their own facilities and hold tastings, but regulations are still pretty strict.

For example, the law requires that at least half of the ingredients used in the distillery process come from Washington-grown crops.

Morton, the married father of three, purchased his first restaurant at age 23 and spent about 10 years running his own restaurant-consulting business in Washington and Texas.

The shrinking economy drove him under, and he returned to Washington to help Whitstran Brewery in Prosser open its Wine Country Road brew pub in November 2008.

Curious about distilling, he took distilling classes at Dry Fly and watched them lobby for changes in Olympia. He met his partner, electrical contractor Charles Isley, last year through the brewery.

Together, they purchased a handmade German still from Margot Arellano, of Seattle, who intended to open a distillery in Tieton. Her name is scrawled in permanent marker on the still, which they have affectionately nicknamed "Margot."

The friends incorporated under the name Second Chance Distilleries, a nod to Morton's attempt at an entrepreneurial comeback.

Morton and Isley plan to name their vodka, gin, whisky and brandy Blue Flame, a reference to the old moonshiner method of testing alcohol by burning a sample in a spoon. A clean, blue flame meant a high proof.

"That's how the shiners did it," Morton said.

Blue Flame opened in April during Spring Barrel Tasting, where the partners sold $5 samples of their brandy in logo-emblazoned glasses to visitors wanting a break from wine. They plan to do the same June 23 for Prosser's Scottish Fest.