Cashmere distillery owners hone craft

CASHMERE -- Ever grumble about the lack of a distillery in wine country?

Well, put a cork in it.

Owners of It's Five O'Clock Somewhere, North Central Washington's first commercial distillery since (maybe) Prohibition's backroom bottlers, have fired up the ol' still in downtown Cashmere to produce a handmade Chilean-style brandy as their new company's first spirited offering.

Distilled from local wines, the briefly aged, honey-hued potable kicks off a future line of liquors that will include pear brandy and pure corn moonshine, both due in six weeks. A variety of additional brandies, whiskeys and other liquors are already in the pipeline and will be available to customers over the next two years.

"That's the beauty of being an artisan craft distillery," said owner Colin Levi. "We're not bound to producing the same product day in and day out. Instead, we're committed to unique, interesting liquors that are handmade from local ingredients. The big companies don't do it that way."

From their 8,000-square-foot facility in a former fruit warehouse, Levi and co-distiller Eric Lunstrum have distilled, blended, filtered, bottled, labeled, packaged and sold scores of cases of their initial batch of brandy. Most of the bottles were sold in their on-site tasting room, but Lunstrum said a growing list of bars and restaurants have committed to including the brandy on their liquor lists.

Friends for years, the distilling duo fired up Five O'Clock's pot still in December 2009, more than eight months after applying for an artisan craft distillery license. Their interest in small-scale distilling heated up, they said, when the state revised liquor laws in 2008 to encourage craft distilleries by allowing on-site tastings and sales while substantially lowering annual licensing fees.

About the same time, a slumping economy forced both men to reconsider their longtime career paths -- Levi was a chef, Lunstrum worked in construction -- and search for new opportunities. "We think craft distilling could grow in ways similar to wineries and microbrewing," Levi said. "We're getting in on distilling's ground floor and recognize this growth could take awhile, but -- heck -- this is fun."

So far, that ground floor remains virtually uncluttered by competitors. Since state revisions were adopted, only a few dozen craft distillery licenses have been issued, said Levi and Lunstrum. Only a handful of those licensed facilities are in operation -- including distilleries in Moses Lake and Ellensburg -- and even fewer have products on state liquor store shelves.

"And that's sort of the paradox of craft distilleries," Levi said. "The state revises the laws to encourage this new industry, but it's still very difficult to get our products into the liquor stores." In Washington, spirits can only be sold in state-licensed or contracted stores, where shelf space is generally limited to top-selling national brands.

In less than two months, the company will roll out Block & Tackle pure corn moonshine, distilled from corn grown in Quincy. Also in the planning stages are limited editions of a huckleberry-infused brandy, a yellow plum brandy and an apple cider brandy. There's even talk of one limited edition pear brandy with pears grown inside the bottles.