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San Juan Island Distillery Makes Island Pride Taste Pretty Freaking Delicious

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Welcome to Eater Seattle's new column Meet the Distillers, where spirit-loving contributor Julia Wayne sits down with the folks behind the booze in your glass. In the second installation, San Juan Island Distillery co-owner Suzy Pingree runs the most intensive tasting of locally flavored gins ever.

Kayla Dawson

Turn down a few long roads from Roche Harbor Resort on San Juan Island and you'll come to a large open field, with a converted barn outlined by visiting cars. Inside, Suzy and Hawk Pingree use a large copper still to turn apples into brandy and, more often, gin.

Suzy leads tastings under a covered roof, showing off San Juan Island Distillery's dozen or so made-on-site bottles. While pouring generous sips of gin made with botanicals she foraged only feet away, Suzy explains how a German still and island pride inspired her hyper-local products.

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Your shelves are lined with products you make. What's your signature bottle?
San Juan Island Distillery's trademark brand is the Spy Hop. We named it after the term for when whales pop their heads up above the water to look around. We wanted to pick something that really represented the island, since this is such an island product. And people come from all over to see whales here.

How did you get started making spirits?
I always really loved apple brandy, and we're in Washington, and found out no one was doing much around here to make it. Someone should be making it, and we decided it would be us. We used to take walks past our now-partner's apple orchard and wondered how come he didn't do it. He told us he had always been interested, but he kind of wanted to retire. So we bought half the ciderworks from him, and he was able to stay in it.

How do the ciderworks and distillery interact?
It's one of the oldest ciderworks in the state. Our partner actually taught a lot of people who are now in that business how to do it. Apples really drive a lot of our business on both ends.

For the Westcott Bay Cider, we bring the apples in two bins at a time -- one of bitter sweets and one of bitter sharps. They get washed, go up the trolley, get ground... there's a press with bags in it to collect pomace. It takes two days to fill a 480-gallon tank.

We also have a bunch of barrels with pommeau in them. It's fresh apple juice from our orchard, plus our apple eau de vie to keep it from fermenting, and it's barrel-aged. And what it does is reconditions barrels, so we get 10-year-old wine barrels from wineries --the kind that cost a fortune new -- and we put pommeau in the barrels, and it puts the tannin back in to make them like new for us. It's incredible for aging the apple brandy in after that.

Are all the spirits made with island products?
For the brandy and other products, we buy Gravenstein juice from Skagit Valley and other kinds of juice from Orondo. Our Westcott Bay Cider is made with apples from here, though.

It wouldn't make sense to use the small amount of apples from the orchards on island, just because of yield. To make the base spirit for the brandy, eau de vie, and some of the gins, we put 50 gallons of cider into the still, and we get about two gallons of 78 to 79 proof alcohol out of there.

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That's crazy low yield. How do you decide what percentage of the alcohol becomes brandy vs. gin or other products?
Well, we do four runs with the apple alcohol. The first two runs, we put into barrels to age as apple brandy. The second two runs, we use to make gin. It's not as clean or appley, but it's still really good apple alcohol. We add juniper berries (or it's not gin), star anise, lemon peel, cardamom, classic gin botanicals.

Which local botanicals are instrumental in achieving your flavor goals?
We forage most of the botanicals from San Juan Island, because we want it to taste like the island. We put in lavender from the lavender farm (Pelindaba), wild roses, blackberries, douglas fir, and madrone bark... It's very new American.

One is made with locally foraged juniper, which is pungent and very interesting. We put a little local lore in another -- the Navy Strength gin, in honor of the British Navy, which occupied the San Juan Islands in the 1800s.

The legend is, when they bought gin for the sailors, the pursers were always worried about the proof because it's so easy to cut clear liquors. So, they required it be 57% which is the point at which, if you sprinkle it on gunpowder, the canons will still fire. Below that, they won't. So, this gin, our Navy Strength, will light. It's still smooth, with all the flavor of harvest gin, but it explodes in your mouth, which is kind of fun.

Our dream is to create a product so special, that people will come to the island just to try it.

That's an excellent story. Is everything you do made with apples?
No, we make a gin with grain spirit, the Spy Hop, which won a silver medal last year. It's made with a spirit that doesn't have any taste, so the botanicals come through a little bit more than the one made with apple base.

Then, within that, one is made with pungent local Salish juniper, and another is made with nettles which gives the flavor a real greenness. We have one with salal berries, which kind of lengthens the flavor. We're always looking for something interesting or fun when we're foraging.

Do you make everything in the big gorgeous copper still? How did you pick that one?
A lot of it starts there. I always knew I wanted a German still because they make the best pot stills, and that's what you need to make eau de vie. There are only 4 to 5 manufacturers that make German pot stills, but I could get this one fastest, and needed it before summer. It was hand hammered in Germany. It took the guy six weeks to make just the top.

How did you learn how to distill spirits?
We took classes, brought in a couple of consultants, and did a ton of reading. But mostly, it's just messing around with the still, which is the best way to figure things out.

Where do you see this going? Do you want to stick to mainly making brandy and gin, or branch out more into other types of spirits?
Right now, we're working on a vermouth in collaboration with a winery. We're just going to do 25 to 30 gallons this year, try different recipes, barrel age it... We're calling it Pig's War, after the 1859 British-American war that took place nearby without any casualties, except a pig. It's a very Island story. The island is kind of in everything we do. Our dream is to create a product so special, that people will come to the island just to try it.

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