When I'm drinking whiskey, I don't think about farmers or tractors or where the booze comes from. But I should, according to Don Poffenroth, co-owner of Spokane's Dry Fly Distilling. Don and Dry Fly have an agricultural philosophy about booze. "We do farm-to-bottle," Don says. "We have great wheat in Washington, great barley, great triticale." More than 99 percent of Dry Fly's ingredients come from Washington, so when you're drinking Dry Fly, you're tasting where we live. And it tastes good, even to a bourbon drinker used to the taste of Kentucky.
Don doesn't buy the cocktail hype, doesn't drink drinks because they're of the moment. Don drinks method. Don drinks farm-to-table, which is of the moment, but also a kind of deep investigation of what we ingest. Don wants to tell a story, a true story, and he wants the booze he makes to transcend that story. "The big guys," he says, "are about efficiency, consistency. We're more involved with experimentation and new formulations. We want to be better than the big guys."
Dry Fly's story involves local grains and water, local farmers and process. Don's objective is to "find great grains and get out of their way."
Big distillers tell stories too. "This isn't a history lesson," according to the Jack Daniel's website. "This is a story about independence and craftsmanship... the story of the American dream."
Another American whiskey dream.
Maker's Mark pretends to be small-time, wants us to know their bourbon isn't the result of "some high tech manufacturing process." Their story involves a founder contemplating handcrafted liquor and a wife who thought dipping bottle tops in wax would be cool. Regular folk, not quite down on the farm, but close.
But here's where the story breaks down. Maker's is owned by Beam Suntory, a subsidiary of Suntory Holdings, which is made up of 228 companies, employing 34,000 people globally, all fiercely independent, no doubt, with 2013 profits of around a billion dollars. Beam Suntory produces 99 brands of booze. Like Maker's, they're probably not interested in "some high tech manufacturing process." All they really want, it seems, is responsible drinking.
Jim Beam tells us to "drink smart." Maker's wants us to enjoy their bourbon "carefully." Bulleit Frontier Whiskey, owned by British booze giant Diageo (Smirnoff, Tanqueray, Johnny Walker), "supports responsible decision-making." Woodford Reserve, part of the Brown and Foreman family, which also includes Jack Daniel's and a lot of other labels, asks us to "drink responsibly, please."
Dry Fly is owned by Don and his partner Kent Fleischmann. Don doesn't care if we drink responsibly, though he doesn't want us to get liquored up and fly jumbo jets into mountainsides, either. I asked him if he had a problem with me sitting at my dining room table and enjoying some of his bourbon irresponsibly. He had no problem with that.
But he also says today's booze culture is changing, that "in the past, we drank to get drunk. Now we drink for taste." That doesn't mean we can't get a little drunk, once in a while. Don wants us to enjoy his liquor on a lot of levels, and one of those levels can be a little irresponsible.
I like that Dry Fly isn't part of a gigantic conglomerate. I like that they donate all the booze for Spokane's annual Get Lit Pie & Whiskey Reading (something I organize). I like that Don let me watch him make whiskey one morning, that it was just him making it, while he taught me about the process. The first distillation of whiskey, before it's aged at all, before it's distilled again or barreled, results in a product called low wine, which isn't wine at all, just raw, clear, very strong whiskey. I tasted it. With my finger.
But first I watched Don mill 1,500 pounds of wheat, watched that ground wheat turn to mash in a cereal cooker, where it looked and smelled like papier-mâché. I watched Don add enzymes to the mash that would first liquefy the starch and then turn it into sugar, which yeast would turn into CO2 and alcohol. I watched Don work one of Dry Fly's big beautiful copper Carl stills. "Distillation," Don says, "is just precise boiling," because alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, the still capturing its vapor, its spirit, separating the alcohol from the grain mash and most of the water, then cooling it in the low wine tank.
"Taste it," Don said.
He'd been talking all morning about wheat and triticale, the farmers he works with, Spokane's water, the Hutterites from whom he buys corn to make bourbon. He'd been telling me that place matters, that half the taste of whiskey comes from the barrel, and the other half from the quality of the grain, the water, the distiller's skill.
"Taste it," Don said, referring to the cooled raw whiskey pouring into the low wine tank.
It tasted like grain, hot grass, like grass as alcohol.
Dry Fly Bourbon is wheated, meaning that in addition to its main ingredient, corn, it's also flavored with wheat. Most wheat from Washington goes to Asia and becomes clear noodles. Some goes to Dry Fly and becomes whiskey. That night, after watching Don distill, I sat at my dining room table, irresponsibly drinking three glasses of Dry Fly bourbon. I'd learned to taste the grain that day, learned a new way to think about booze and place. I sat at my table sipping those glasses of Eastern Washington, tasting the place I live. And it was good. ♦
Samuel Ligon is a fiction writer and the editor of Willow Springs. He teaches in EWU's creative writing program.