Chambers Bay Distillery: Finding Success in Local Ingredients

For distillers, patience is necessary for perfection. Quality spirits take time to age. From a business standpoint, this can be problematic, as the return on investment is measured in years rather than months. Finding ways to mitigate the time needed for this perfection has been a sort of Holy Grail for the spirit business, according to Alan Davis, co-founder of Chambers Bay Distillery. And Alan Davis, along with co-founder Jeff Robinette, looked no further than their own backyard.

hawks prairie casinoOriginally hailing from Lakewood, childhood friends Alan Davis and Jeff Robinette began Chambers Bay Distillery in 2012. Several years later, after obtaining all the necessary licensing required for making and distributing spirits, the duo opened their tasting room in June of 2015. At that time only one of their spirits was ready: Ghost Dog Whiskey.

Inspired by the popular cinnamon whiskies available such as Fireball, Davis and Robinette chose to make something with a little more punch. “We wanted quality whiskey that had real heat,” says Davis, “but actually tasted good.” This corn whiskey is infused with smoked ghost pepper, one of the hottest peppers in the world. This creates a peppery, smoldering finish that is ideal alone or even with a simple Bloody Mary mix. The result won them the Silver Medal in the Flavored Whiskey category at the 2016 American Distilling Institute Craft Spirit Awards.

Fast forward to December of 2015, Chambers Bay Distillery released their flagship Greenhorn Bourbon, an almost homage to the Pacific Northwest. “Our baby is our bourbon,” says Davis. “We set off to make the most local bourbon possible. We wanted to take it up a notch.”

Chambers Bay Distillery Owners
Owners Alan Davis and Jeff Robinette are happy to share their spirits and a few drink ideas in their tasting room. Photo credit: Daniel Beers.
To do this, Davis and Robinette begin with grains from farms in Grant County. They also isolated a strain of yeast found at the Curran Apple Orchard in University Place for use in the mashing process. “The goal was to incorporate as much local flavor as possible, that organism that makes the product is in our own backyard,” says Robinette, who has a background in biology.

And if that wasn’t enough, Davis and Robinette take it a step further during the aging process. The barrels are then sent to a floating boathouse in an undisclosed location on Puget Sound. “The unique boathouse aging process does a couple of things,” says Davis. “One of the focuses of people making bourbon is to age it as quickly as possible. We’re using the Sound to create a constant motion for our barrels, which both speeds the aging process and helps keep the bourbon local, which over time adds a hint of sea salt, or salt water taffy, to the flavor. Bourbon gets about two-thirds of the its flavor from the charred barrels, and constant motion increases the speed at which the spirits come in contact with the wood.”

Greenhorn Bourbon
The Greenhorn Bourbon was the only Washington bourbon to win gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Photo credit: Daniel Beers.
Using water as a means to mitigate time in the aging process is not a new concept for distillers. The pioneer bourbon makers of Kentucky used to put their barrels on ships and sail them down the Mississippi to get the same effect, cutting the time of getting quality bourbon from eight or nine years to only two.

“We thought we’d do something similar and do it local,” Davis says. “As far as we know, we’re the only ones doing it in a floating boathouse.”

The result has definitely paid off. The first batch of this “wheated bourbon” was only about 17 months old when it went to The San Francisco World Spirits Competition in March of 2016, where it won the Gold Medal in the Craft Whiskey category, the only Washington distillery to win a gold medal in any category in that competition. “We didn’t hear anything and we disappointingly assumed we didn’t win anything, even though we knew we had something special,” says Robbinette. “We checked the website and didn’t see anything. But when the award showed up in the mail, we were pleasantly surprised.”

Ghost Dog Whiskey
The Ghost Dog Whiskey packs a punch, so much so that it won silver in its class at the 2016 American Distilling Institute Craft Spirit Awards. Photo credit: Daniel Beers.
Chambers Bay Distillery plans to release more of its bourbon as it continues to age, and will label it as their Signature Chambers Bay Bourbon.

The story of Chambers Bay Distillery doesn’t end there. Davis and Robinette plan to release another spirit called Rán Vodka in late autumn of 2016. Named after the Norse goddess of the sea, this vodka has a touch of sea salt from the San Juan Islands. “We didn’t want to do a plain vodka,” says Davis, “enough of that is out there. There are too many flavored vodkas, and they’re limited to one or two mixed drinks. We wanted our vodka to be different, unique, local and could be added to any cocktail.” Judging by their past successes, it is sure to be another winner. “We’re making the quintessential Puget Sound spirits,” says Davis. “Our goal is to make the best spirits in the world.”