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Law changes open way for boom in local distilleries

Changes in state laws have opened the way for a sudden boom in craft distilleries across Washington state.

Forty craft distillery licenses have been approved by the state since 2008, when the existing license was established, while another 18 licenses are pending, the Bellingham Herald reported.

Three different distilleries are nearly ready to start producing a Whatcom County brand of spirits, including vodka, whiskey, gin and even moonshine. Mount Baker Distillery is scheduled to open next month in Bellingham, Chuckanut Bay Distillery to open near Boundary Bay this spring and BelleWood Distilling to open in June, near Lynden.

The sudden increase in the craft spirits industry is happening across the state, with distilleries popping up in recent years in Aberdeen, Centralia, Seattle and Walla Walla.

Dry Fly Distilling of Spokane led the way, working with the state to create an industry that could be regulated in terms of small onsite samples and how much can be sold to a single customer, Brian Smith, a spokesman with the Washington State Liquor Control Board, told the Bellingham Herald.

Once the rules were established with Dry Fly, it allowed others to consider the possibilities of producing craft liquor.

"I think many of the distillers are viewing these current changes with some excitement and some trepidation," Smith said.

More change is taking place following the passage of Initiative 1183 that privatized liquor sales. Starting March 1, approved Washington craft distillers will be able to sell directly to restaurants. By June 1, distillers can have their products on the shelves at approved private stores.

The privatization of liquor sales has meant the industry is being reshaped just as these new distillers are getting ready to make craft spirits, the newspaper reported. How private stores will respond to local products is uncertain, since stores are still figuring out how much shelf space will be devoted to hard liquor.

The three Whatcom County distilleries potentially will offer plenty of choices for local residents.

BelleWood will start out making vodka, and also will produce brandy, hard cider and whiskey, including a Bailey's Irish Cream type of product, said John Belisle. Apples will play a role in many of the products.

"We really want to bring some of the nice flavors that come from the farm into these products," he said.

Chuckanut Bay Distillery also will start off with vodka because of the quick turnaround, as well as gin. Co-owner Matt Howell, who will be operating the distillery, said he's looking forward to bringing in local products and trying out recipes.

"There's a lot of room for creativity," Howell told the newspaper. "By being small, it's a process you can control, which means a higher-quality product."

Along with vodka, Mount Baker Distillery is concocting moonshine. Troy Smith said his great-great grandfather, Abe Smith, was involved in producing moonshine some time after the Civil War. The moonshine will be named Abe Smith's Mt. Baker Moonshine.

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