Casting for Spirits

by ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he first grain-based distillery in the state of Washington since the days of Prohibition opened up earlier this year here in Spokane -- well, the first legal one, anyway. Partners Don Poffenroth and Kent Fleischmann, both avid fly fishermen, decided to chuck their corporate careers for the clarion call of small-batch craft distilling, and thus was Dry Fly born.

Given Spokane's somewhat outlaw history during the days of illegal hooch, it's perhaps fitting that the state's first production facility for distilled grain spirits should be located here. And given the bounty of wheat that surrounds our fair city, the decision makes even more sense.

Poffenroth says, "The closer you are to your raw ingredient source, the better a distiller you can be."

Poffenroth and Fleischmann initially hatched the idea during a fly-fishing trip. "We both were in fairly significant corporate jobs and both reached the stage of corporate burnout at the same time," Poffenroth says. "I had some friends in the brewing business, and initially I looked at that, but it's very difficult in the Northwest to get into the beer business anymore -- it's very well developed. But when I started talking to my brewery friends, they said [craft distilling] is what you've got to do."

Craft distilleries have popped up across the country in recent years, many associated with breweries. Of course, you can make vodka out of just about anything organic -- "anything that will ferment," Poffenroth says -- and craft distillers are tapping into the rising demand for locally sourced artisan foods as well. Two brothers in Maine make vodka from potatoes grown on their own farm; near Boise, another distiller uses Idaho spuds. A Kansas farmer is using local grains, and in Oregon, McMenamins' Edgefield Distillery makes both grain- and fruit-based spirits.

It's not unusual to see microbreweries turning their attention to distilled spirits, says Poffenroth, because they already have much of the equipment and know-how to get started. In fact, Dry Fly has been working with Northern Lights brewery for its fermentation process up until now, but with the arrival of two new fermenting tanks from Germany the day after Thanksgiving, Dry Fly will assume that part of the process as well.

"What's happening in craft distilling is there are different factions," Poffenroth explains. "There's the brewing group, guys who are grain-oriented. They understand the fermentation of grain. You have the guys who come from a winery background, and they tend to be more into fruit-based distillates, like brandies and eau de vie. Then you have some people who are trying to make some money -- they're buying neutral grain spirits from a big distillery, passing through their still one time, then bottling it and calling themselves a craft distillery. So we're fairly rare in that we make vodka from scratch. It was important to us to use a local raw ingredient and take it all the way."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & ry Fly's products begin with Eastern Washington soft white winter wheat, the kind most often shipped to Asia to be made into noodles.

"Our wheat comes from the Fairfield area," says Poffenroth. "The reason we use soft winter wheat is it has a lower protein level [than hard wheat], and so conversely a higher starch level. And starch we can convert to sugar, and sugar we can ferment."

The wheat gets ground up and mixed with water. Added enzymes convert the starch to sugar. Next, yeast goes into the mix. The resulting mash is placed in stainless steel tanks to ferment: The yeast breaks down the sugars, resulting in carbon dioxide and alcohol.

"We use a very quick-acting yeast, so it only takes about three days to ferment," Poffenroth says. "Out of that we get a beer, or a wash, depending on which terminology you want to use. It's about 7 percent alcohol."

Once fermentation is complete, the liquid goes into the still -- a beautiful hammered copper pot still from Christian Carl of Germany, a 150-year-old company that specializes in the manufacture of small stills. Inside the still, the liquid is heated to about 175 degrees Fahrenheit -- hotter than the boiling point of alcohol (173 degrees) but not hot enough to boil the water that's part of the mixture. The alcohol vapor is captured and cooled, returning it to a liquid state. The resulting distillate -- called "low wines" -- is about 40 percent to 50 percent alcohol by volume.

To make gin, the "low wines" distillate is run once through Dry Fly's 21-plate rectification column, an astounding tower of copper that floats upward from the distillery's concrete floor through a hole in the high ceiling, clear to the top of the second floor. The heart of that run, a liquid that's about 95 percent alcohol, then gets distilled again through a "botanicals deck." Dry Fly uses juniper and coriander in its botanicals, common in gin making, but adds a distinctly Northwest flavor with lavender, mint, dried apples and hops.

For vodka, the 95 percent distillate gets run through the big column a second time, far more slowly. "And all that does is further purify the alcohol, cleans it up," says Poffenroth. "The second time we do it, it's 12 hours. And that's good for us, because it allows us to take some sensory cuts, [testing] when we think the product is good enough to accept."

That testing is done by smelling and tasting the alcohol coming out of the column. The earliest stuff to come out is not anything you'd want to consume -- while it's alcohol, Poffenroth says it smells a lot like airplane glue. But the middle of the run -- the heart -- gives the best product.

"We're here tasting the distillate as it comes off the still," he says. They use a hydrometer to determine alcohol percentage, but taste is a big part of the process.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & ry Fly has touched a chord in the community -- during an hour-long visit, about a half-dozen people dropped in to see the facility, to inquire about buying products, or just to talk craft distilling with Poffenroth. Unlike local wineries, Dry Fly can't set up a tasting room or a small retail shop where customers can sample and buy their product direct -- at least not yet. The company's working with local legislators on crafting a bill to allow small distilleries to do just that, and Poffenroth says he's not expecting a lot of opposition.

"Since we're the first, we have to be the ones to bear the process, to get it through and get it done," he says. "It's merely a situation where no one's asked the question before."

For now, you can find Dry Fly's vodka and gin at Washington state liquor stores and at local bars and restaurants, including Steelhead and Latah Bistro. Their first batch of whiskey -- a single malt Scotch style -- is in the barrels and will age for two years. And as any fly fishermen will tell you, the process of seeking the perfect stream is sometimes as spiritually rewarding as finding it.