Heritage Distilling Co. releases Elk Rider Blended Whiskey Saturday with a party

By Ron Swarner on November 1, 2013

By the American Distilling Institute's count, it projects between 600 and 800 craft distilleries will be in operation nationwide by the end of 2015. Unlike "whiskey," "craft" is an inexact term: It's typically used to refer to the underfunded upstarts in unexpected places who give up jobs as IT consultants and graphic designers - or keep their job as an attorney and work round the clock - to make liquor. There are craft distillers who are devout in their methods, and craft distillers who buy secondhand spirits from established distilleries to put in bottles with fancy labels. Much to the chagrin of distillers who consider themselves members of the former group - and consumers who spy romance and populism in a pricey fifth of garage gin - there's a good amount of swill being sold under the craft banner, largely because self-regulation and education can't keep pace with the eye-popping growth of micro-distilling.

Life is too short to drink swill.

Heritage Distilling Company in Gig Harbor is as hot as the Seahawks right now. Yes, the Stiefel family, and I do stress "family," is working hard to promote its small batches of whiskey, gin, vodka and brandy. Yes, HDC has an innovative member club and beautiful distillery space for parties and such. But, most importantly, team Stiefel produces damn tasty spirits, and it has the awards to prove it.

And if you're looking to sample HDC's spirits, Saturday is an opportune time. The distillery releases its anticipated Elk Rider Blended Whiskey beginning at 10 a.m.

I recently toured HDC's beautiful digs - the former site of 7 Seas Brewery - and after chatting with husband and wife owners Jennifer and Justin Stiefel - I discovered their corporate tag line is true - "Every spirits has a story." And Justin Stiefel can tell a story.

WEEKLY VOLCANO: What's the story behind the new Elk Rider Blended Whiskey?

JUSTIN STIEFEL: Our family was one of the first to settle in the Lake Quinault and Upper Queets region, which is now in the heart of the Olympic National Park. The family homestead is still there, along with the original pioneer family burial plot. During their time there, they began raising and domesticating elk, eventually teaching them to be ridden.

The Elk Rider Blended Whiskey being released Saturday, Nov. 2, is the first big whiskey release we have had. It is a blended whiskey with light sweet hints of bourbon, hints of spiciness on the back end and a long, lingering finish. When we made this blended whiskey, we weren't trying to make a bourbon or a rye or a scotch, because those types of whiskeys each have very specific flavor profiles that connoisseurs expect. We have bourbon, rye and single malt whiskey in barrels aging, and they won't be released until we think they fit the bill. In the meantime, this blended whiskey is a good sipping whiskey, smooth and sweet with a hint of spice.

It is being released under the Elk Rider label because what is cooler and more unique than the idea of someone riding an elk? And we like to remind people that we have the original glass negatives of our family members on the elk to prove it.

VOLCANO: What's the story behind naming your still "Nonna"?

STIEFEL: Nonna, which means "grandmother" in Italian, is the name we gave to our custom Italian-made still. It's the first of its kind in North America. When we found this Italian equipment, saw how it operates, how smooth it makes the spirits and how efficiently it operates, we knew it was the system we wanted. "Nonna" is a 2,000-liter copper and stainless steel pot with a 14-foot reflux column. It is a sight to behold in person.

VOLCANO: I agree. It's beautiful. And you also give props to the family's heritage in the distilling room.

STIEFEL: That's right. We have six micro stills, each named after a family member. Two of the stills, Olson and O'Neil, are the maiden names of our grandmothers. They surround the remaining four micro stills, which are named Harold, Lester, Jake and George, after our grandfathers. Each still carries a name because we think it is important to share one's heritage.

We named our distillery Heritage Distilling Company because we all have a heritage, a family, an interesting story and a compelling individual story. The people who walk through our front door all have their own stories, and for those who spend time with us in the Cask Club or in our exclusive My Batch spirits-making sessions, or just enjoy our products at home or with friends, the spirits in the bottle all have a story about how they came to be.

VOLCANO: What can members expect when they join the Cask Club?

STIEFEL: The Cask Club is an exclusive member-driven program. When people join the Cask Club, they get a spot in our distillery with a 10-liter cask with their name and hometown on it. They tell us what they want aging in the cask and decide how long they want it to age. Because these are 10-liter casks, it will age in a matter of months instead of years. Cask Club members get to come in and sample out of their cask for free. Then they get to tell us when it is ready for bottling. They tell us at what proof they want it bottled (cask strength down to 80 proof). They can pull out one bottle at a time and let the rest age, or get the entire cask bottled at once. When the cask is empty, we fill it for free during the one-year membership term with whatever spirits the member wants. The member purchases each bottle that comes out of the cask at about half the price of our other produced spirits. Members can expect to get approximately 20 750 ml bottles or 40 375 ml bottles per year, depending on the type of spirit and desired proof.

Cask Club members also get 10 percent off other spirits and merchandise, exclusive offers, early advance opportunities for limited release spirits and more.

We also have the My Batch program, where customers can help run the stills and make their own products. We are the only distillery in the US where you can come make your own spirits. With the My Batch program, people can come in and be part of the process for just $99 using our microstills.

VOLCANO: My favorite Cask Club story centers around Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

STIEFEL: Jedidiah Nowak is a soldier stationed at JBLM. In January, he came into the distillery dressed in uniform and said he was shipping out at 18:00 hours to Afghanistan. He wanted a cask of bourbon to be ready for him when he got back. After a long talk, he decided to name his cask "Homecoming." While he was gone, we put an American flag pin on his cask. While he was gone, we proudly pointed to that cask and talked about how Jedidiah's bourbon was patiently waiting for him to return home. Last week he came to the distillery after returning safely from duty, sampled his cask and told us to be ready to bottle it for him in the next week or so.

We have other Cask Club members who have purchased casks in memory of friends or family members, as Christmas, birthday or anniversary gifts, as group casks for friends and family to share, and countless other unique circumstances. People really enjoy the idea of being involved in how their spirits age.

VOLCANO: ... including a few celebrities, too.

STIEFEL: Indeed. We met Austin Jenckes several years ago at a charity event in Seattle. We fell in love with his music and passion and stayed in touch with him. He is from Duvall, Wash., and has since moved to Nashville to pursue his dream of singing. When we were planning our opening party last year, we flew him in to perform and he blew the doors off the place. We have been big supporters of his and are thrilled that he made it onto NBC's The Voice. Austin has his own cask in our Cask Club and is aging bourbon. Whenever he makes it back this way, he picks up a few bottles. We are rooting for him to win The Voice.

VOLCANO: Maybe Jenckes will host a party at Heritage.

STIEFEL: We have such a unique space that people ask us to host all sorts of private events - from company team building exercises to retirement parties to birthday parties. We are finding people are changing their habits. They want new experiences more than they want "stuff."

VOLCANO: It seems Heritage isn't just about making great spirits and money, but also enlightening lives.

STIEFEL: As we say, "Every spirit has a story." We like sharing our passion with people, educating them and showing them how we do things using raw grains straight from Washington family farms. People are used to seeing lots of information about wineries and breweries, but the idea of a local distillery is new for people. Our processes and equipment fascinate them and they are surprised that a distillery in Washington can make such smooth, award winning spirits.

ELK RIDER BLENDED WHISKEY RELEASE, w/pastries, whiskey caramel macchiatos, tastings, 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 2, Heritage Distilling Company, 3207 57th St. Ct. NW, Gig Harbor, 253.509.0008