Trio looking to open vodka distillery in Richland

After spending about five years working in Eastern Europe, Kris Lapp developed an appreciation for fine vodka.

Lapp, 33, and his business partners, Brett Spooner and Khurshed Sharifov, now hope to spread that sentiment throughout the Mid-Columbia.

They are working toward opening Solar Spirits Distillery, a craft vodka distillery that should start operations in Richland’s Horn Rapids Industrial Park early next year.

Lapp expects the initial product — a boutique vodka made from locally grown soft white wheat — to begin appearing on shelves within the next six months. He’s hoping Solar Spirits can eventually expand into the gin and whiskey markets.

Solar Spirits has received state and federal licenses and is in the permit review stage with Richland staff. If the city permits are approved, the Solar Spirits team can finish construction and remodeling work at the Horn Rapids Industrial Park site, said Brian Moore, Richland’s redevelopment project supervisor. Distilling can begin once the building’s occupancy is determined, which follows construction and remodeling.

“We’re essentially ready to go,” said Lapp, who’s also president of I-3 Global, a government contracting firm in the Tri-Cities.

The Solar Spirits team is also working toward gaining approval from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which would allow the company to sell and distribute its product. That process takes about 60 days after a label design has been submitted to the agency, and Solar Spirits has yet to submit a label, Lapp said.

The Horn Rapids Industrial Park location was not built to be a distillery, but has been retrofitted with the necessary equipment, including two stills. It should also feature a tasting room. The site is meant to be a stepping stone of sorts for Solar Spirits, which plans to rent the facility until the business can move into permanent, 6,000-square-foot digs in Richland’s Parkway complex in a year or two.

“One of our biggest goals is to develop the Parkway area,” Lapp said.

Lapp envisions a full-service distillery/lounge in the Parkway — somewhere a person could stop by for a drink or a bite and maybe leave with a bottle. The bar would be run separately from the distillery.

But until then, he’s curious how the initial product will turn out when production begins at the Horn Rapids location. Solar Spirits is unable to make a single drop before the permitting process is complete, due to federal and state laws.

“It’s kind of a roll of the dice,” Lapp said of the quality of the initial batches.

One hurdle Solar Spirits needs to overcome is finding an experienced distiller to run its operation.

Moore said Solar Spirits’ application to operate a distillery spurred city officials to review how and where distilleries can operate in Richland.

“It was mostly a matter of understanding the safety requirements,” Moore said, explaining that distilling involves hazardous materials, like ethanol. He added, “It can actually get very complicated very quickly.”

The city is proposing to limit future distilleries to four zones — the central business district, waterfront, general business district and industrial. The zoning changes will have to be approved by the City Council, Moore said, and he did not know when that could happen. Until then, the city is permitting the distillery as if it were a brewery or winery.

Solar Spirits is entering a burgeoning marketplace. In 2000, about 60 craft distillers operated throughout the country, according to the American Craft Spirits Association. That figure has now crested 500, and the craft spirit market is expected to surpass $14 billion this year. By 2020, the market is expected to reach $50 billion.

Craft distillers should expect four to five years to pass before their businesses become profitable, according to the association. A local distillery, coupled with the region’s existing wineries and breweries, could boost tourism, Lapp said.

“The tourism part is really big,” he said. “And we see how the tourism hits other industries, like the wine industry.”

Washington state has taken took a number of steps to make opening and operating a distillery in the state easier. The state Liquor Control Board in June began issuing craft distillery licenses that allowed distillers to produce up to 150,000 gallons of spirits as long as half of the raw materials used in production are grown in Washington — a requirement Solar Spirits primarily satisfied by securing its wheat from Mid-Columbia farmers.

In 2010, the Liquor Control Board increased the production limit from 20,000 gallons to 60,000 gallons. It also began allowing tastings to be offered on the premises of spirit production, although serving size restrictions are in place.

Solar Spirits grew out of Richland’s first Startup Weekend in September 2013, when business professionals and plucky entrepreneurs came together to float and vet ideas. The distillery plan finished second to a separate idea floated by Lapp’s team — a fire extinguisher locator device that worked hand in hand with an activated smoke detector.

Moore said the addition of Solar Spirits to Richland’s business community could be a boon to both sides.

“I think it’s very important,” Moore said. “I think diversifying the economy is a key aspect in creating healthy economic growth.”

The distillery could possibly lead to spring or summertime events based around distilled spirits or with distilled spirits folded into winery or brewery events.

“Year-round events are at the forefront of the city’s mind,” Moore said.