Distillery Focus

Island Organics

The isle of Bainbridge is home to one of the Pacific Northwest’s most idiosyncratic distilleries
By Liza Weisstuch
Bainbridge Battle Point Two Islands Hokkaido Mizunara Cask straight organic wheat whisky.
Bainbridge Battle Point Two Islands Hokkaido Mizunara Cask straight organic wheat whisky.
The island-city of Bainbridge is eight miles due west of Seattle, in the Puget Sound. It takes about 35 minutes to get there by ferry – there’s a morning run and an evening run. The island, which is 28 square miles in size, has 53 miles of coastline and a population of just over 25,000 people.

Bainbridge has six public schools, a Christmas-tree farm, an art museum, seven wineries and an organic distillery. The latter was founded in 2009 and is run by Keith Barnes, who’s lived on the island for 22 years.

Located on Bainbridge's eastern side, the distillery’s metal-clad building is in one of the island's only industrially zoned areas, so it has access to high-voltage power and city water, necessities for a distillery. It’s home to Barnes’s still, four fermenters and some of his 1,200 barrels. More are ageing in 557m2 [6,000ft2] of warehouse space about 46 metres [150 feet] away.

Like the distilleries of the Caribbean and the Hebrides, Bainbridge holds the distinction of being one of the world’s few ‘small isle’ distilleries, and it is made further unique by the fact that the weather in the Pacific Northwest isn’t nearly as stormy as that of the Atlantic. Barnes attributes a large part of his whiskey’s character to the clean maritime air that pervades the spirit as it matures in his warehouses.

Barnes has a jaw-dropping number of vintage whiskey bottles in his office. There’s 1890 Orient rye, early 1960s Bowmore Sherriff and Old Crow from the 1880s. But it isn’t any of the Old Sunny Brook bourbons that first inspired his approach to distilling. It’s the bottle of 1966 Latvian vodka, tossed in as a bonus when he bought a crate of vintage whiskeys dating from the late 1930s through early 1940s.

“I love old whiskeys for the richness and character and lot of things. I figured I’d give an old vodka a try to see if it was different. It didn’t look like anything to get excited about,” Barnes said, noting that this was about 2008 and, unlike today, there weren’t a huge number of craft vodkas available.

“It had this smell of wheat and of pears – it was so aromatic. There were some herbal notes to it, too. I’d never smelled anything like that out of a vodka. It was viscous, really soft in the mouth. The proof was a couple points above 80. It was delicious. It was probably distilled with yeast that was common, maybe for eaux de vie, something that would concentrate the fruitier ends of the spectrum.”

That got him thinking about how it’s not just whiskey from a century-plus ago that’s different. It was nothing short of an epiphany and it’s informed everything he did from that point on, he says. It gave him an immediate and profound respect for the makers of the past, none of whom were working with automation, gas chromatography or any scientific instruments. It should be noted that Barnes originally intended to be a doctor and studied microbiology and organic chemistry at university.

“My philosophy is to try to understand as much science as possible without getting distracted by it. My academic journey is to unravel things and understand the stuff on the science side. But none of these old bottles benefited from anything scientific. Distillers just figured it out,” he said.

“I want to see inside what we’re doing. I want to understand what’s going on so I can better see the process. They were looking inside at a more elemental level than I, because I am concerned with other things. I know how to compensate for occlusion in the math and how to figure out the total dissolved solids. I have to adjust ABV when I report to the Treasury Department. Back then, they just made liquor, and it would make distillers today cry like an eight-year-old. Our vision is clouded by progress.”

The Bainbridge ferry

Indeed, Barnes aims to hew to old-world practices and standards as much as he can. He sources certified organic, selectively bred estate grains – wheat, rye, corn and triticale – from a family farm in Walla Walla, Washington, and he does all processing in house. He mills in 544kg [1,200lb] batches and mashes within hours. He also does open-tank fermentation.

“Like Bordeaux versus American wines, you can make whiskey so that it’s huge and gritty and robust, with super-concentrated fruit, or you can let the yeast do what it’s gonna do and be satisfied with the beauty of that natural process,” he said. “I like to go for balance and nuance. I go for things other than flavour bombs. Lighter whiskeys don’t have tons of flavour, but they have balance. There’s clarity in the distillate and you can taste all different things that aren’t overpowered by wood or strong yeast strains. You have to let nature in the door and find a way to focus what’s naturally going on.”

Bainbridge’s first bourbon was named for the Whiskey Forty Saloon, a watering hole that produced whiskey on the island in the 1860s, several decades before Prohibition, when Barnes’s grandfather took to the seas as a rum-runner, bringing spirits into the region from Canada. It’s a fitting heritage for this island distiller.

But he’s certainly not afraid to do things out of the ordinary, too. “If you can’t have a point of differentiation, why do it?” he asked, vocalising a sentiment he returned to in different ways more than once. It’s his mantra and guiding principle. His emphasis on wheat is more intense than other distilleries, where production often focuses on corn and barley. Wheat is more sensitive to various strains of yeast and drives more flavour than the other, tougher grains, Barnes explained.

The flagship whiskey, Battle Point, is made with 100 per cent soft white wheat. Barnes experimented with 15 different yeasts before deciding on a strain that’s used in Scotch distilleries and a strain used in Ireland. He mashes, ferments and distils them separately, then combines the new makes before filling the liquid into barrel. Battle Point evolved into the Two Islands Series, for which he uses barrels from Barbados, Islay and Japan for a second maturation.

But perhaps what’s most head-turning about the distillery is the sheer number of Japanese mizunara (Quercus crispula) casks he’s been able to procure. In 2012, Bainbridge made what’s understood to be the first American whiskey to be completely aged in virgin mizunara wood, named Yama. Unusually, it’s made with 100 per cent unmalted barley, and it was not the result of an arbitrary decision.

Visiting fields of organic wheat

“We did tests with malted and unmalted barley aged in mizunara oak barrels for six months to get an idea of what we deal with from a flavour standpoint. Malted barley had great mouthfeel, but it was muted. It didn’t have the clarity of flavour that unmalted barley has,” he said. “In the same interesting way, Irish pot still whiskey with both malted and unmalted has a level of clarity that malt whisky sometimes doesn’t achieve. We think we know what happens and what thing makes it happen, but peel the onion too far and you just have big question mark. You really just don’t know.”

Yama was released in 2016 and, for three years, US$399 of the $499 selling price supported the Yama Project, an archeological study dedicated to exhuming a lost part of Bainbridge island’s past, which has a rich history tied to Japan. In 1883, Japanese immigrants came to the Pacific island and founded Yama, a sawmill village settlement on the southern end of the landmass. According to the Yama Project, the first migrants were single men, but in time women, couples and whole families with children came, raising the village’s population to around 300 people. But when the nearby mill where many worked was shuttered, the residents dispersed. The site was abandoned but not destroyed and, today, archaeologists hope to recover traces of the island’s lost history and almost-forgotten Japanese-American heritage.

“An opportunity to have an impact on an effort like that doesn’t come along every day. If the land is developed, it’s just gone forever,” Barnes said, alluding to the persistent whispers of plans to put motor trails across the land where the village once thrived. “This was a way not only to raise funds, but to generate exposure for project. It’s so important to try to preserve that part of the island’s identity.”

He is very explicit, though, that he’s not trying to make a Japanese whisky. Yama is intended to be a cultural hybrid. “I want to trace the steps of the people from Japan. Some of their relations are still here and I want to draw a parallel to that experience,” he said. “We want to make American whiskey. We’re not trying to be a copycat.”