Bainbridge. The new king of wheat.
The whiskey community is quite small which means the people you encounter can have an enormous impact on your view of brands, production styles, processes etc. I am aware that as a blogger, I tend to show my biases, but that’s because the HER in Her Whisky Love is me! This is just a forewarning that my story of Bainbridge and founder Keith Barnes is going to be no different. Actually, everyone at Bainbridge was extremely welcoming leaving a lasting impression of the whole Bainbridge brand.
I have to make note that this distillery visit also left me with intense déjà vu and daydreams of this time last year. The memories flooded back during the ferry ride over to Bainbridge Island because a similar ferry is how I got to Islay one year ago. We boarded this ferry from downtown Seattle and as the city escaped our view, we had about 20 minutes to take in the wilderness of Northwest Washington. A beautiful and sleepy island, Bainbridge is a haven of nature coupled with contemporary homes all nudging their small peaks out of the tree line. It’s a modern island with a rural feel. We happened to snag the only Uber on the island and headed from the ferry to the distillery. That Uber driver would decide to take the rest of the day off on our way back to the ferry which would cause minor delays, but hey, we were on island time.
Bainbridge Distillery was founded in 2009 by Keith Barnes. A prominent designer for the alcohol industry with a thriving design business called Motive Marketing Group. If you look at his portfolio, you can see that he has been around the drinks industry for quite some time. This most likely explains why his branding is on point for the Bainbridge logo and bottle design. Keith has impressive staff as well including Conner, Erin and Kevin who welcomed us with open arms as we fired our many questions.
The location of the distillery is serene, but essentially located in a small business park plaza. As you open the doors into the distillery a wafting sourdough smell hits you. You know its whiskey time in here and it’s too bad this smell wasn’t being lofted throughout the parking lot! You can feel safe in knowing that what you are smelling is USDA Certified Organic. When starting his whiskey distillery, Keith was adamant to keep the highest quality standards and this is not an easy task. The core product line from Bainbridge is made out of Organic soft white wheat. Right now 100% of this wheat comes from the Walla Walla region of Washington State, East of Seattle. The grain arrives in large white sacks and is immediately shuffled to the back of the building where they have a hammer mill. Wheat is high in starch and low in protein so it is not malted, only milled and then added into the mash tun. The 500 gallon mash tun will receive the milled wheat along with hot water, steam and three unique enzymes to help the starch to sugar conversion. Right now about 70-80% of their time is dedicated to making whiskey. Adhering to the USDA Certified Organic Certificate, all of the enzymes and yeasts used during the process are organically produced.
They have four stainless steel fermentation vessels, all produced by our friends at Vendome. Each tank sits at 500 gallons. As the sugary wort is transferred to these vessels they are adding in two styles of yeast. First being an Irish yeast that tends to be more resilient and robust along with a Scottish yeast which Keith mentions is essentially refocused champagne yeast. Fermentation is quite active as you will see in a few of the photos and the fermentation lasts around 3-5 days. After fermentation the wash or beer is moved over to the singular Vendome copper pot still. One washback of beer equals one full wash distillation run. This is a hybrid pot still which we saw many times throughout our West Coast Artisan Distillery Tour. Bainbridge makes vodka and gin as well, so having a pot still with a column still on top gives them the flexibility to play with many different spirits. When producing the wheat whiskey called Battle Point, the plates are left down. They have also been experimenting with a few bourbon mash bills and that is the only time the plates are put to the side and left open. Keith started explaining to us that you need to not only smell and taste the new make spirit to help makes cuts off of the spirit run, but also consider texture. Taking that new make spirit off of the still and rubbing it on your hands. You can feel and find the true layers of the whiskey you just produced as alcohol evaporates.
Once they have their new make spirit, it is filled into a charred, American oak cask. Every cask is filled on site and you can actually see Kevin emptying one via forklift in the video below. A true one stop shop! You will see 10 and 15 gallon casks laying around the distillery, but about two years ago they made the full transition into only filling 53 gallon barrels for all new make spirit. Another first for me was Keith’s discussion on how casks are actually charred. I have visited Independent Stave Company and watched them for a few hours cut staves, assemble, char, quality checks etc. Immediately when he said “propane is used to start the fire that chars the modern cask”, a wave of concern covered my face. Aren’t these chemicals being transferred in some way to the wood? The wood that our beautiful whiskey is taking flavor from? To be fair, demand is outstripping capacity even at the cooperage level and this is the quickest way to create a flame. Most of the whiskey we drink has had their casks charred this way, and we are all still alive and continue to drink it . It is not a dire situation, but here on Bainbridge Island that would not fit into Keith’s vision. Everything is organic up to this point, why allow these chemicals to alter the whiskey? They use a cooperage named Hoffmeister Barrel to char and assemble their casks. It is here that they use a natural tinder fire. The virgin oak actually catches fire and is allowed to burn for a few minutes.
Keith is the only person who can really speak to this, but he finds aging on the island leaves you with about a 4% angel's share/evaporation loss. If you are Scotch fan, you may be thinking this question – can you let a few of these casks age by the water and see how flavor is affected? As mentioned in a few previous Washington State Distillery success stories, there are still many restrictions around these new distilleries and unfortunately this is not something Bainbridge can do at the moment. Once the casks are coming of age, volunteers will come to the distillery and help with bottling. This volunteer bottling is actually how Erin started working here.
I am a huge fan of Bainbridge Battle Point Wheat Whiskey, but most of the whiskey world knows them by their Mizunara aged Yama Whiskey. You can find out more details from their website, but this was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. Yama is the first ever non-Japanese whiskey to be aged exclusively in hand-crafted barrels made from Mizunara oak from Hokkaido, Japan. This is definitely a first for an American Whiskey brand but you may have also heard of Bowmore’s Mizunara release. Bowmore is actually owned by Suntory, a Japanese Company, which helps, but this Bowmore was actually only finished in Mizunara and not aged completely in the Japanese oak. This Mizunara oak that Keith was able to secure required a special cooperage to assemble and these special casks are clearly marked at the front of the distillery. I have never tried the Yama, but the next batch is expected to be released soon.
Bainbridge Battle Point Wheat Whiskey @ 43% ABV
Nose: Soft sweetness, butterscotch, creamy toffee and some banana walnut bread in the background.
Palate: Vanilla, you can taste some of the oak, but in a positive way, milk chocolate. Let’s just say chocolate covered bananas. Delicate, yet many flavors. Let it sit for a bit. It will open up even further.
Not only did Battle Point win World’s Best Wheat Whiskey from the World Whiskies Awards earlier this year, but it is a huge wake-up call to the wheat whiskey crazed market we live in. This has been one of my favorite American Whiskies to date this year. The Yama has won many awards as well and I bet it is sensational, although for now, I will sip my Battle Point neat. With many distilleries in the Seattle region, Bainbridge may get crossed off of the list during a visit, but I highly recommend making the time. Just plan to spend a few hours in their peaceful cafes while you wait for your Uber.