Interview: Mike Steine / Senior Distiller at Woodinville Whiskey Co.

I first brought home a bottle each of Woodinville rye and bourbon in early Summer 2018. I liked them both right away. The bourbon struck me then as like Buffalo Trace only way out in a remote rustic cabin in the woods. It had the sweetness I associate with Kentucky bourbons, but an added emphasis on soft weathered wood notes that were distinctive. The rye too offered these weathered wood notes amidst its familiar rye whiskey spices.

For my partner Beth’s birthday party that year, we used the rye in a cocktail—2 ounces of rye, 4 ounces of ginger-lemon kombucha, a squeeze of fresh pressed ginger juice, wedge of lemon, on ice. The rye paired perfectly with the spicy ginger. On ice and with the lemon’s zing outlining the cocktail, it was a refreshing and unusual drink. And a big hit at the party! I spent most of the night assembling “Bethy-Booch” cocktails, as we dubbed them.

In the last handful of years, Woodinville has really taken off nationally. Popular bourbon YouTubers like It’s Bourbon Night and The Mash and Drum have featured them, and their bottles increasingly show up in bourbon-related social media accounts as more and more people discover what has arguably become one of Washington state’s premiere craft distilleries.

Needless to say, I’m a fan. In addition to their standard bourbon and rye releases, I’ve enjoyed their Port Cask Finished Bourbon—among the better port finished bourbons I’ve experienced, striking a lovely balance between the port influence and bourbon notes—and a handful of excellent single barrel cask strength bourbons. Additional Woodinville bottlings are available only at the distillery, like their cask strength rye, a bottled in bond bourbon release, and various other cask and stave finished releases.

Woodinville itself sums up the basic impact of their reliance on the Washington terroir succinctly and best:

All of our staple grains are cultivated exclusively for us on the Omlin Family farm in Quincy, Washington. The grains are mashed, distilled, and barreled in our Woodinville distillery, then trucked back over the Cascade Mountains to our private barrel houses, where Central Washington’s extreme temperature cycles promote the extraction of natural flavors from the oak. Prior to being coopered, the barrel wood is seasoned in open air, rain, wind, sun, and snow for eighteen months, softening the wood’s harsh tannins. The barrels are then slowly toasted and heavily charred to further enrich the wood’s desirable flavors.

The result is a unique twist on classic American whiskey flavors. The caramel and fruit notes one expects from bourbon are there. The spiciness one expects from American rye whiskey is there. Then the combination of locally grown grains and the Washington weather’s impact on the barrels and aging provide the rustic twist that gives Woodinville whiskeys their unique character. This is key to Woodinville’s widespread success—their whiskeys are at once familiar and yet distinct.

That’s how I explain it, at least. Recently I had the opportunity to visit the distillery and meet with Woodinville’s senior distiller, Mike Steine, to find out how he explains it. We began with a thorough tour around the facility.

Mike Steine taking me through the fermenter loft

We started upstairs, where the fermenters are kept. As we moved from one fermenter to another, the aromas would envelope us like passing fog, from sweet to bready to sulfuric, depending on at what stage each vat was in its process. Then we descended to the main floor, where the custom made stills are lined up like a series of modern art sculptures, and the sweet smells of fresh new-make distillate fill the air.

Throughout the facility, open bottles of Woodinville whiskey sat on various machines and staircases, ready to pour for guests, or for the crew to touch base with the end goal of the distillates in process.

Finally we sat down to chat at a small table squeezed into the corner of a staircase landing between the distillery floor and the raised fermenting loft. Amidst the constant drone of steam and boiling mash, and complex smells of whiskey in the making, I asked Mike some questions…

MARK J – How do you explain the unique flavor profile of Woodinville whiskeys?

MIKE – There’s a whole lot of nuance in this whiskey due to the barrel treatments that reduce tannin, and the broken down lignin, which allows a whole lot more of those lactones and vanillins to come in. This really gives you a greater sense of the wood in the whiskey without being over-oaked.

So the barrels have the greatest impact on the flavor?

The industry has always stated that at least 80% of a flavor profile is from the barrel, so, definitely. Our non-GMO grains from the Omlin family farm definitely impact our flavor profile, the yeast that we use, our fermentation conditions, these absolutely generate a lot of flavor. But without that barrel being what it is, without the oxidation reactions that take place while its aging, the high-rye content we’re using wouldn’t come through as it does.

So that debate that goes on about terroir, and the argument that it doesn’t matter what grains you use because it all gets distilled into “neutral” spirit, obviously you don’t fall on that side of the debate.

The more consistent you are, the more consistent your whiskey is going to be. If we switched our corn supplier tomorrow, I could probably taste the difference and people with highly attuned palates probably could. But the majority of casual bourbon drinkers probably wouldn’t pick up on it. Moving facilities, however—say, if we moved this distillery fifty miles away from here—that would absolutely effect the flavor.

And why is that?

There are native micro-organisms floating in the air. Especially here in Woodinville with all the wineries, there are lots of wild yeasts and bacteria floating around. All of those falling into our open fermenters, they get in there and eat the sugars, they produce esters, short-chain fatty acids, things very unique to them. We wouldn’t be able to replicate that impact anywhere else.

So the fermenter doors being open constantly is not just a convenience for you to keep an eye on their progress, it’s to allow the local air to get in there and work its magic.

Correct. Given our druthers we’d have the entire top open. But to clean them is very difficult. So we use a pretty decent sized hatch, leave them open, and then we can close them for cleaning.

Beyond the grains, barrels, and local terroir, I’m very curious about process, and what stage or stages of the process you have found to be key to the whiskey’s journey. In theater we sometimes call these “hinge moments,” when the plot of the drama takes a decisive turn. It could have gone that way, but it went this way. What are those key, decisive moments in the making process here?

When it comes off the still. Everything else is very rote in terms of process, and shouldn’t change. But how that ferment finishes out, how it comes off the still, if you’re a little high on proof, too cold, too warm, those things effect what flavors come through. If you’re driving the still harder than normal, you’ll push more flavor through. If you’re driving it a little less hard and don’t have as big a boil, you’re not pushing enough flavor through. So that distillation process is what makes or breaks a whiskey as far as the flavor profile once it gets into that barrel and the chemistry takes place. Then without those longer alcohols, without those esters and short-chain fatty acids, none of that chemistry can take place during the aging process.

What’s the sign the still starts giving you that makes you think, okay, I need to hover around this machine now?

Watch that proof. Watch the temperature. Watch the flow rate. At the beginning of the distillation you have a lot of whiskey coming off. As it goes on, the stream starts to diminish. The less alcohol you have in that pot, the harder it is to get it out, so you get out less and less by volume as you go down the run. In the first hour and a half, 80% of the alcohol comes off. And in the other three or four hours of distillation you’re trying to get that last 20%, and that’s when your big flavors come. While we get the bulk of the ethanol early on, we need that last little bit for the flavor. So if you’re tasting it and it’s tasting weird, you adjust it and massage it. Don’t walk away from that still longer than ten minutes. Every ten minutes make sure you check on it, taste it and make sure it’s doing what you think it should be doing.

So it gets that delicate, down to minutes?

It takes about ten minutes for any change you make—adjusting the steam or the water—to effect what’s happening. So if you’re standing there constantly touching it, you’re going to be chasing your tail. So, make an adjustment, take a lap around the distillery, come back and check to see what’s happened. Because if you’re just standing there you’re going to make yourself nuts.

What aspects of the process would you say are the craft, and what aspects are the art?

The mashing is the craft. The distillation is certainly the art. Also the maturation is the art. Every barrel is different. We do an event called “Taste Choose Bottle,” where we’ll bring three different barrels in. We bring three bourbon barrels or three rye barrels, almost identical batches whether because they were filled the same day or very close to each other. We put spigots in them and have people taste them, and notice how these are each the exact same juice, yet here’s how these individual barrels have effected flavor. And they taste so remarkably different.

What distinguishes these terms, “craft” and “art,” for you?

Craft is a process, a repetition. It’s being skilled at doing something and doing it correctly each time. Art is making on-the-fly adjustments. You have to be more flexible, and have an understanding of what you want it to be in the end, and have that in mind as you’re trying to work through the process.

Woodinville continues to acknowledge and to honor the role that David Pickerell played in mentoring everyone here at the beginning in 2010. How has the process evolved since then, and what’s the same?

Production is bigger now. But what he taught us has stuck with us, and I’d like to think we are true to his tutelage. Some of the equipment has changed. But it’s the same mash bill, same process, the way we distill is the same way he taught us. When we got two new stills, we had some back and forth with the German company who made them because we’d made some customizations on the first stills and wanted the new stills to be the same.

What do you think accounts for Woodinville’s popularity?

It’s good whiskey, and we’re honest to a fault. Anything about this process I will tell you. The only thing I will never tell you is what yeast strain we use. But I’ll tell you anything else. We don’t have some goofy story about this being somebody’s prohibition era recipe or any of that kind of stuff. This is just honest, good whiskey, and we have a passion for it. I think people can sense our passion for it when they come by the distillery for a tour or meet us at events, and I think that gets them excited.

For me, on a simple level, the bottle reflects what you just said. It’s a solid piece of glass that looks dependable.

Yes!

And then, in terms of popularity, what I mentioned earlier during the tour, that for me Woodinville whiskeys have one foot in familiarity and one foot in something totally different. That difference for me is the weathered wood notes.

Our flagship products are five years in the barrel, whereas most people do four. That extra year certainly does give it a whole lot more character than it would have otherwise. And that oak being seasoned in the open air definitely adds that older oak character to it.

My usual business is theater. If theater is the art of story telling, what would you say whiskey is the art of?

With whiskey you are telling a story. You’re telling a story about the grain, the farm it came from, the forest where the barrels came from, and how all of those came together to make that very unique character. That’s why some big distilleries have so many line extensions, because each barrel is so unique that you can do that. Especially when you’re putting up 1200 barrels a day, you can taste through the barrels and realize, Oh, this tastes different enough from our flagship product that we can bottle it separately. All those ingredients, all that time, the art of it comes together, and you get something unique. Each barrel has its own story to tell.

Do you ever have a barrel that comes along and becomes your pet barrel, so to speak?

We did have one, we called it “Brett’s Pick,” and sold it off as a single barrel. We definitely come across quite a few where we think, Oh we love this one. But we do so many private select picks now, we have so few barrels we can dedicate to that program, that I can’t just take one home with me. [laughs] But we do come across some that we think, This is just amazing. They’re all good. But, certainly, if you have a large family of kids, some kids out perform other kids.

So there’s the single barrel program. But then also special releases.

Occasionally, yes. There will be more “Brett’s Picks,” barrels we come across that are too good to not use as a showcase for that particular line extension. We’re going to do premium aged products. We’re not sure what age, probably eight to ten years. And we’ve just bottled a bourbon and rye aged with Washington apple wood staves in the barrel. But that’s a very popular product and very limited, literally one barrel a year if we’re lucky, and sold only in the distillery. The last batch yielded nineteen cases only, and sold out in less than twelve hours.

Currently we have an Oloroso Sherry aged bourbon and Pedro Ximénez aged bourbon in the tasting room out there. We have what we call the “Harvest Release,” which we try to do every year in September or October, always sold at the distillery only. This year it’s a muscatel finished bourbon. As far as we know, no American whiskey has ever been finished in muscatel barrels. We were very lucky to get these barrels. They don’t make a lot of this wine, so being able to get the barrels was very fortunate for us.

When are those due out?

September.

Dang, I’m a couple weeks too early!

Last question. A favorite whiskey moment?

Ah jeez… So, David Pickerell used to help early on, for marketing and to get people interested in the brand, and we would do these events called “Whiskey After Dark.” They would be catered and Dave would give an hour and a half talk on whiskey. He was a great storyteller. I loved doing those events. I was still working seven days a week then, working my day job at Biotech, and these events would be at night. I’d go into work the next morning very tired, but I had a really great time. So, Dave was such a phenomenal story teller, and at one of these events, one of the stories he told was how he and Jimmy Russell were at a whiskey tasting event, sitting on stage. And a whiskey sommelier was tasting through some whiskey and talking about how to taste strawberry and all these crazy flavors. And Jimmy leans over to Dave and says, “I don’t know about you, but I didn’t put any of that sh*t in my whiskey.” That’s just one of the many stories Dave has told. Just being around Dave so much, having that opportunity, that would be my favorite in terms of whiskey moments.

By all reports he seems like he was a special person.

Oh yes, definitely.

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