Oola. Seattle's alternative Bourbon distillery in Capitol Hill.
On a map Oola Distillery looks easy enough to get to but this is not the case if you are trying to get there after visiting Bainbridge Island. After missing the ferry back to Seattle there was little I could do to make my 3:00 PM appointment with Oola’s Managing Director Alan Jackson. Luckily I had met Alan a few weeks earlier in Boston and he knew how excited I was to visit Oola and see where the magic happened.
Oola Distillery is located in Capitol Hill, one of those alternative and hip social areas in Seattle. The cocktail scene is thriving and the indie coffee shops are well and alive. Founder Kirby Kallas-Lewis lives only a few blocks away from the distillery and was actually one of the first distilleries in the city to receive their distilling license. They opened in January of 2010 after Kirby left his successful career in the extremely specific industry of antique south Pacific tribal art. He became intrigued by distilling and after three years of studying finally opened “Oola”. Oola is the name of his beloved German Shepherd who apparently won the hearts of all that met her.
Bourbon was actually the first product they made on site. The grains they use come from the Walla Walla and Waitsburg regions in Southeast Washington. They used to have a third party do all of their milling since they didn’t have room at their city location but after building relationships with the grain farmers they have taken on that step of the process. By having the farmers mill the grain it helps with consistency of grist and has made production easier to replicate. Their classic bourbon mash bill consists of about 70% corn, 23% rye and the remaining 7% is a combination of white winter wheat and malted barley. Their stainless steel mash tun can hold 500 gallons and their 3 fermenters can all hold 600 gallons each. A typical fermentation lasts just about 7 days and is a closed fermentation. I can imagine “city germs” and exhaust are not needed for flavor during fermentation. Oola also produces clear spirits including vodka and gin. When producing these clear spirits they will use a champagne yeast and when producing their whiskey they use a distillers yeast. After fermentation, one full fermenter of beer or wash is moved over to the single pot still. The manufacturer of the pot still, Global Stainless, was a suprise for me since I have never heard of this company. Part of the still is stainless steel and this will of course affect the flavor profile of all spirits that run through it. This reminds me of the pot stills you see in Tasmania at Hellyers Road. It is a hybrid still so all clear spirits and whiskey are run through this batch style distillation. The bourbon will run through the still two times.
Cask filling and bottling are both done on site. When at the distillery you can feel the hustle and bustle of the employees trying to bottle and run production at the same time. Mashing, fermentation and distillation happens 7 days a week but this includes runs for all spirits, not just whiskey. For the whiskey they use a combination of 53 and 15 gallon casks for aging. These casks come from either Kelvin Cooperage or Independent Stave Company. They specifically request the casks to arrive at a 4 or 5 char. Due to the location, warehousing is done off site but we were extremely fortunate that Alan pulled a few cask strength samples to try.
Oola Flagship Bourbon: ~ 5 Years Old @ 47% ABV
A nutty caramel on the nose with sweet kettle corn. On the palate more of a sharp, crisp peanut brittle or toffee. Buttery as well.
*I must say throughout all of the cask samples and this flagship bourbon, I get a consistent theme of kettle corn in the Oola whiskey. Almost like a sweet, crisp grain – I love finding a “thread”!
Oola Flagship Bourbon @ Cask Strength: ~ 5 years old @ 58% ABV
Sweet, sweet tablet but coupled with bright fruit. The palate has a citrus zest with tangerines and chalky, rich tablet.
Cask # 0216 - Cask Strength Sample of Oola Bourbon: ~ 5 Years Old @ an undisclosed ABV
That kettle corn theme is there again with a candied confectionery note almost like a cows tale chew. On the palate it switches quickly to a lavender and an oily mouth fee. There is some dry vanilla and a biscuit quality.
They also have their special “Discourse Series”. These bottles are rare and hard to find but my favorites from this line were the following..
- Three Shores – A marriage of American Whiskey, Canadian and Scottish whisky
- Three Shores Black Label – The same marriage as above but finished for 1 year in Cabernet casks
- Smoked Whiskey – A marriage of Highland Scotch and their smoked American whiskey
One thing to note about Oola is that they are producing their own whiskey but they are also sourcing. The single casks we tried were produced at Oola but their flagship is most likely a blend of sourced and Oola produced.
Oola does allow visitors and I think it would be highly worthwhile to spend the day in Capitol Hill and visit this up and coming distillery. There are many experimental releases to try and you are within walking distance of a few of the top whisky bars in Seattle, including Canon. Thanks again for your time Alan and I'll see you soon!