They don’t call this wine country for nothing. With over 120 Woodinville wineries and tasting rooms, locals and visitors can go tasting here almost every weekend of the year and never run out of new labels to enjoy. But while all that sniffing and sipping has been going on, something else has happened here that’s making it a much richer country. Over the last decade or two, craft brewers, distillers and cideries have been setting up shop, brewing up batches, and creating a completely different world of flavors and vibes.
As anyone with a thirst to quench knows, a local beverage renaissance is sweeping the entire country. But it’s been going on here in Washington State since the ’70s and ’80s, and for good reason: The warm climate and abundant water on the east side of the Cascades produce some of the finest grapes, apples, hops and grain in the world. So it was only natural that a full menu of artisan beverages made from them would take root and blossom here. Visitors to Woodinville Wine Country are the lucky beneficiaries of that flavorful abundance.
But when you talk about “tasting” in Woodinville these days, you’d be remiss if you didn’t consider tipping back a local ale, spirit or cider. With at least five craft breweries, six distilleries and two cideries, this isn’t just wine country anymore. In any other community, this growing group of artisans would be a beverage country all its own, but sprinkled among a galaxy of wineries, it can sometimes get lost among all those reds and whites. “I don’t think we’re overlooked as much as we are outnumbered,” says Steve Acord, owner and head brewer of Dirty Bucket Brewing. “Woodinville has definitely made a name for itself with the wine industry, but it’s quickly gaining recognition from the alcohol industry as a whole.”
In the spirit world, that recognition rivals just about anything the winemakers have on the shelf. For Woodinville Whiskey Company, it’s come in the form of “Whiskey of the Year” honors at the American Distilling Institute Craft Spirits Judging Competition for their 2015-release Straight Bourbon Whiskey. A year later, their Straight Rye Whiskey was awarded the coveted Double Gold Medal, an honor bestowed on just ten of the 802 spirits judged. Perhaps an even greater and more humbling homage is the lineup of fans that camps out for days in front of the distillery in order to be the first to receive the latest limited-edition release.
Besides the alternative universe of award-winning flavors, Woodinville distilleries and breweries often offer more of a production floorshow than wineries can. “Coming to a distillery is a bit like experiencing the crush season every day,” observes Mark Nesheim, owner and distiller at J.P. Trodden Distillery. “Unlike the wineries, who have a real season of winemaking to observe, distilleries, breweries and cideries are producing product right in front of you almost every day of the year. It’s a different experience because often you can see the whole process. At our distillery, the still and all the fermenting equipment are right in the tasting room.”
Having a front-row seat for the production action is also a big part of a visit to most craft brewers, with mills, tuns, kettles and tanks making themselves right at home in the tasting room, or within view of it. But that’s where the similarities with a distillery—or any other beverage producer—end. Independent brewers are just a different beverage-making animal, with a more maverick, freewheeling attitude and atmosphere that make them and their creations a breed apart in wine country. “Craft beer is constantly changing and new recipes for different styles come out all the time, says Mark Ihrig of Sumerian Brewing. “It’s also a quicker process than wine or whiskey, so you can push the limits a little more with beer than with other beverages.”
Make no mistake, Woodinville craft brewers are dead serious about their suds; it’s just that they’re equally as serious about their fun. You’ll often find tap rooms filled with families, dogs, sports fans, big screens, and plenty of boisterous banter, because what would a great beer experience be without them? Food—from soft pretzels to tacos to pizza—is another delicious distinction from most wineries that brewers simply won’t live without, whether it comes from a rotating selection of food trucks (Triplehorn Brewing) or a wood-fired oven (20 Corners Brewing).
With so many outstanding Woodinville vintners, wine is likely to be the big draw here for a long time to come. But keep your eye and your attitude open, and you’ll find plenty of delicious planets revolving around that sun. And as our beverage community grows, look for craft brewers, distillers and cideries to carve out a larger place at the tasting table. The flavors, colors and character they bring to wine enthusiasts and those who prefer a hoppy ale, rye whiskey or hard cider make wine country a richer experience for everyone. No matter what you’re thirsty for, you’ll find not just one, but a posse of Woodinville artisans making some of the best stuff you’ve ever tasted.
[photo cred: Duval Images]