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Spirits of the Season at Heritage Distilling

Posted on December 8th, 2022 By:

Editor’s note: Danielle Kartes’ appearance was canceled due to illness.

The Sugar Plum Fairy has arrived in the harbor, in cocktail form. She’s pink, sweet, and bright like the splendor of the season. To balance her sweet side is the grapefruit and pomelo-flavored Florescence vodka, topped off with fresh rosemary and cranberries, all set in a pretty sugar-rimmed glass.

Gig Harbor’s Heritage Distilling Company is celebrating the Spirits of the holidays with a new menu of creative cocktails. Co-founders Jennifer and Justin Stiefel are marking the company’s 10-year anniversary with the release of their first super premium single-barrel whiskey: “Stiefel’s Select.”

The Sugar Plum Fairy incorporates Heritage Distilling’s Florescence vodka, rosemary and cranberries. Heritage Distilling Company

And on Saturday, Dec. 10, Washington state’s largest independently owned craft distillery will release three more single barrel whiskeys.

Whisky mash inspired by ‘M.A.S.H.’

History and tradition are what Heritage, as the name says, is about. At HDC, they believe that every spirit has a story.

The story of these award-winning spirits began with a fireside dream talk between the Stiefels and their college friends, who after a night of cigar-smoking and scotch-drinking thought starting a distillery was a good idea.

This wasn’t the first time Justin Stiefel had his eye on distilling. As a kid growing up in Spokane, he became fascinated by old episodes of “M.A.S.H.” on TV. When his dad told him the mysterious contraption in B.J. Hunnicutt and Hawkeye Pierce’s tent was a still, inspiration was sparked.

Soon after, his parents would gift the budding scientist a full chemistry set which probably helped out with his homemade still that he created for his 7th-grade science project. (He got an A).

Justin and Jennifer Stiefel, cofounders of Heritage Distilling Company of Gig Harbor. Heritage Distilling Company

The micro distillery boom

Down the road, there would be a chemical engineering degree, followed by a law degree. Both Stiefels would earn their advanced degrees in Washington D.C. and work in the Senate.

One day, Jennifer Stiefel asked her husband, “Is this going to feed your soul?”

A legislative game changer in 2008 opened the doors to micro-distilling. The state of Washington legalized craft distilling, 75 years after the end of Prohibition. Before long, a new wave of micro distillers boomed.

By 2021, more than 13 million cases of spirits were sold, according to the American Crafts Spirits Association. Today, there are 2,687 craft distillers across the country, an increase of 17.4%.

Last year, Washington was one of the “craftiest” states in the country. The state’s 117 craft distilleries are fifth most in the U.S., behind only much larger states like California (225), New York (199), Texas (173), and Pennsylvania (156).

Inside Heritage Distilling Company’s Gig Harbor tasting room. Julie Warrick Ammann

Heritage Distilling an industry leader

The crazy idea dreamed up with friends around a fire manifested into Heritage Distilling Company in 2012, now one of the largest craft distilleries on the West Coast.

The majority women-owned, family-operated business occupies a 67,500-square-feet warehouse in Gig Harbor and employs approximately 130 people in Washington state, with 100 of those jobs offered locally. HDC Production facilities are also located in Eugene, Rosalyn, and Tumwater.

Heritage operates six tasting rooms in Washington and Oregon, including partnerships in Tumwater with South Puget Sound Community College and Tumwater Craft District and the Chehalis Tribal Enterprise in the south Thurston County community of Rochester.

Talking Cedar is the first legal tribally-owned distillery in the U.S. An 1834 federal law prohibiting distilleries on tribal lands almost derailed the venture. After lobbying Congress, the Chehalis Tribe and HDC helped to repeal the Andrew Jackson-era statute.

Locally sourced, world famous

While becoming one of the top premier US craft distilleries in just a decade, HDC has maintained its commitment to local farms.

Grains in the new HDC line of single barrel whiskeys were all sourced from Washington farms, including white wheat from Scrupp’s Family Farm in Odessa in Lincoln County. The fourth-generation family farm is owned by Stiefel’s close college friends, Jason and Daniele Scrupps. To qualify as a craft distiller in Washington you must source 51% of your raw ingredients from the Evergreen state.

Jennifer Stiefel said that she’s “proud of the cask club” because members are entered into competitions through the American Distilling Institute, and several have placed. On a recent visit to the Gig Harbor tasting room, she was intrigued by a member who added pear juice and jalapeño to their cask. “People take pride” in their work, she said. Julie Warrick Ammann

The Stiefels have grown their brand for over a decade, featuring unique products like Bacon Vodka, Cocoa Bomb Whiskey, Elk Rider Gin and Bestemors Aquavit. They even sold majority share in one of their popular spirits, BSB, to actor/singer Jaime Foxx.

Behind the scenes they were quietly mashing, fermenting, distilling and then aging something special in custom-made barrels from Spain, using American white oak.

Art and science

Is it science or art?  Process and patience combined with centuries of experience channeled from a European-made still (the “first ever Italian made distillation equipment in North America”) produced HDC’s first single barrel and small batch whiskey.

More than 1,000 barrels are stacked high — referred to as racking the barrels, or “ricking” — in the HDC rickhouse. Whiskeys ages anywhere from 4-9 years.  “Stiefels Select” matured over four years and is made from 4-grain, 4-year bourbon, all Washington state grains.

The barrels lay on their sides, rather than upright. The supports and space between the barrels allow for increased air circulation.

Barrels inside the Heritgage Distilling Company production facility on Bujacich Road. Julie Warrick Ammann

It is cool, coat-wearing weather, as we walk through the warehouse. The Stiefels say their whisky is stored under the natural Pacific Northwest “ambient conditions without temperature control.”

Climate is a significant factor when distilling whiskey.  Temperature impacts fermentation. The hotter temperature, the faster the maturation and the higher the proof.

‘The barrel is never wrong’

An interaction between the oak barrels can become more aggressive as the heat increases. A cask in Scotland might take a decade to mature, while a cask in the southern United States could be six years. The future HDC whiskey will mature for up to 9 years, with ambient climate influenced by the temperamental mood swings of a PNW’s mother nature.

“The barrel tells you when it is ready, and the barrel is never wrong,” Justin Stiefel says.

While the barrels age, the Stiefels continue to make new products and partnerships.

HDC Canned Cocktails, with flavors like Blood Orange Vodkarita and Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy and just under 7% ABV, enjoy increasing popularity.  “Canned cocktails are the biggest growing segment of our industry,” says Justin Stiefel.

Heritage Distilling Company’s canned cocktails are becoming a major part of its business. Julie Warrick Ammann

Heritage partners with Danielle Kartes

HDC has teamed up with social media influencer and cookbook author Danielle Kartes to create a new naturally flavored and naturally sweetened grapefruit and pomelo flavored vodka called Florescence.

After two years and 25 variations of the recipe, Heritage and Kartes released the 100% corn vodka in September. While the time it takes to produce vodka is not long, mastering the grapefruit flavor proved to be a challenge.

The Stiefels believe that one of their strengths as a distiller is the fact that they are a “small hands-on team” and that when it comes to crafting new spirits, they go beyond just simply adding a flavor. “We really have that flexibility to innovate. We can be nimble and pivot.”

Kartes, a Puyallup local with Rustic Joyful Foods, first began working with HDC writing recipes, designing cocktails, and creating images for the company. Along with launching her first spirit with HDC, Kartes has captured the attention of a national audience with 47.5K followers on Instagram and contributing appearances on the Kelly Clarkson Show.

Kartes will be signing bottles of Fluorescence starting at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, at the Gig Harbor HDC Taste Room.

“Grapefruits and pomelos are sweet and bitter at the same time, just like life. That combination and contrast give life a singular beauty,” Kartes said. “Living is worth celebrating, right now. We embrace that and enjoy life to its fullest, one drink at a time.”

Danielle Kartes, an author and social media influencer, partnered with Heritage Distilling Company on Fluorescence Vodka. Heritage Distilling Company

Cookie Stroll

HDC will participate in the Gig Harbor Downtown Waterfront Alliance Cookie Stroll from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the same day. The distillery is also debuting its next three single barrels of Stiefel’s Select, available in tasting rooms and for online purchase, on Dec. 10.

They include a 100% Rye Whisky (Washington Rye) aged 4 years and 9 months and a Pleated Bourbon (Washington Peat Bog) matured 4 years and 6 months,  both 94 proof; along with a 100 proof High Rye Bourbon (Bottle in Bond) matured 5 years.

Heritage Distilling details

Gig Harbor tasting room

Where: 3118 Harborview Dr., Gig Harbor

Phone: 253-300-5179 or 253-514-8120

Email: [email protected]

Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday

Other locations

Gift ideas: Heritage’s Cask Club and HDC’s Holiday Guide