Imperfect fruit is the key to creating the perfect spirits at Cash Butte Distillery

After late-autumn sun has ripened the organic apples at Royal Bluff Orchards — east of Vantage in Royal City, Washington — most of the fruit is bound for markets or cold storage. But slightly blemished “culled” apples travel just up the road to Cash Butte Distillery, where Ryan Armstrong transforms the imperfect fruits into smooth-sipping craft spirits.

Armstrong, an Air Force veteran who studied distillation through University of Kentucky, annually crushes about 200 thousand-pound-bins-worth of apples, adding yeast to create a hard apple cider that either becomes brandy or vodka. (Yes, vodka! From apples!)

Of course the process isn’t instant. “Our brandy goes into French and American oak barrels for a minimum of two years,” Armstrong explains. “Our vodka can be on the market in a couple months depending on how quickly everything has fermented. Everything is hand-bottled, labeled, packaged. We do it all here on site.”

Co-owner Julia Bringolf says that while some folks are initially skeptical about brandy and vodka made from apples, public response to the family-owned distillery’s spirits has been positive. “We’re getting feedback from whiskey drinkers that they’re very surprised by how much they like [the brandy],” she says.

Armstrong says his brandy “drinks like a whiskey and makes an incredible old fashioned” that tastes “like apple pie in a glass.” Each brandy bottle includes a recipe card, and apple vodka cocktail recipes are coming soon.

Positive public feedback isn’t the only approval that the spirits have earned: In February, Cash Butte Distillery’s brandy and vodka each won bronze in the 2024 American Craft Spirits Association competition in Denver.

Though Bringolf says apple-based vodka is trending on the East Coast, she knows of no other distillery on this side of the country that’s producing it. “The [apple] vodka does make a good martini, but only with a twist, not with olives,” Bringolf warns.

Cash Butte is also releasing a vodka made with merlot grapes from Royal Bluff Orchard’s small vineyard. Armstrong assures drinkers that the grape vodka “comes across as an incredibly smooth-sipping, subtle vodka — one you can sip on ice without any additional additives.”

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