A little bit of history was recently made in Grand Mound, Washington. In late June, Talking Cedar — a massive new gastropub with its own brewery and distillery — became the first facility in the country to legally produce alcohol on tribal land. As it prepares to fully ramp up spirits production in November, including gin, vodka, and rum, the distillery stands to open many new business opportunities for its Indigenous owners. But first it had to overcome a 184-year-old law that was originally enacted in a campaign to oppress Native Americans.
Back in 2015, the Confederated Tribes of Chehalis Reservation south of Olympia brainstormed ways to expand its economy so it could fund essential government services. Though the tribe had success with a casino and hotel, Lucky Eagle, in Rochester, it wanted to generate different streams of revenue beyond gaming. Lucky Eagle was already selling alcohol on the premises, but creating a distillery nearby would have the potential for exponential growth through retail sales and partnerships outside the reservation.
“We felt the need to diversify and expand, so we did some research and talked to some consultants,” Chehalis Tribal Enterprises managing director Chris Richardson tells Eater Seattle. “So we said, ‘Well, how about a brew pub?’ And then we took a little bit further and said, ‘Well, what about a distillery, but just make everything craft food, craft beer, and craft spirits?’”
There was only one problem: Making booze on tribal land had been banned for almost two centuries due to a little-known mandate that, while almost never actually enforced, still has dark origins in American history. During the Andrew Jackson administration, a federal law was enacted in 1834 to prevent alcohol from being produced in so-called “Indian country.” It was part of a racist series of government action that followed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, in which white settlers stole land from Native Americans through force, displacing more than 60,000 Indigenous people.
Though the 1834 law outlawing distilleries on tribal land was justified to “preserve the peace on the frontiers” between the Indigenous people and white settlers, it was rooted in stereotypes that Native Americans could not handle liquor and needed to be policed by the U.S. military. As a New York Times article in 2016 explained, “To add further insult, soldiers stationed on reservations were exempted from the booze ban and enjoyed government-supplied daily whiskey rations.”
Remarkably, the law remained largely intact until 1953, when it was amended to allow the sale of alcohol on tribal land. But spirits production was still a no-go. The Chehalis tribe only learned about the ban after it sent its proposal for the new distillery to the Department of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., following the process to secure building permits. Determined to see the project through, the tribe worked with Washington state’s Congressional representatives Denny Heck and Jaime Herrera Beutler to help lead an effort to repeal the 1834 law. And in late 2018, Congress passed a bill that eliminated the prohibition and cleared a path for Talking Cedar.
Of course, striking down a racist rule was just one obstacle. By the time the brewpub was ready to open in 2020, there was a global pandemic to contend with. So the tribe shifted gears when it first opened, producing hand sanitizer (30,000 gallons per day) out of the giant stills it constructed in the $24 million facility. It also opened a 60-barrel brewery that produces a variety of craft beers, including imperial stouts, IPAs, and saisons.
But the intention was always to generate a selection of different spirits — and, this fall, Talking Cedar will start to realize its full potential in that area as one of the largest facilities in the state of Washington. When the hard alcohol production ramps up in November, the 35,000-square-foot distillery will have the capacity to generate almost 10,000 barrels a year of whiskies and rums, plus another million and a half gallons of other kinds of spirits.
In an effort to help with distribution and retail sales, Talking Cedar established a partnership with Gig Harbor-based Heritage Distilling Co. (HDC), known for its Brown Sugar Bourbon, and will sell its products under that label. “It’s kind of a multi-year process,” says HDC CEO Justin Stiefel, adding that he’s working with the tribe on generating a line of specialty spirits, but it may take some time before the partners settle on specifics.
Meanwhile, the Talking Cedar brewpub has been up and running since late June. Restaurant manager Steven Pavletich says that the menu is meant to complement the brewery and distillery side of the business, with cocktails from HDC currently available and food that includes pub fare like fried chicken made to order. The owners wanted it to be “a place that people can visit on a regular basis, appealing to both locals and tourists,” he says.
Despite the fact that tribal lands are not subject to the same COVID-19 mandates as the rest of Washington, the restaurant is still taking precautions similar to what Gov. Jay Inslee has instituted during the state’s phased reopening plan, including spacing tables six feet apart, keeping capacity to 50 percent, and limiting parties to no larger than five. There’s also an outdoor seating area, and masks are mandatory. “We are playing things by ear, but also secretly planning our future for a tours package, more expansive seating, and a larger staff,” says Pavletich. “Fingers crossed.”
Being first isn’t always easy, but Talking Cedar’s efforts to create the distillery, alongside the restaurant and brewery, has certainly attracted attention. In addition to the New York Times article about the Chehalis effort to repeal the 1834 law, Forbes recently profiled Talking Cedar, as well as outlets such as KUOW and OPB. And tribes from across the country — including those in Minnesota, California, and parts of the Midwest — have reached out to leaders in Grand Mound to share knowledge.
Jokes Richardson, “It’s been a very short five years.”