Marysville distillers follow forebears’ footsteps

  • Mon Sep 10th, 2012 3:40pm

By Kurt Batdorf HBJ Editor

MARYSVILLE — Howard Johnston got the notion to start distilling alcohol after realizing that he’d been brewing his own “decent beer” for 15 years.

It might be in his family’s background, too. His grandfather was a bootlegger during Prohibition, Johnston said. His wife, Jennifer, said her great aunt was a moonshiner.

All it took for the Johnstons to get serious about leaping from beer and wine into the liquor pool was a weeklong class at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake and the Washington State Liquor Control Board slicing the price of a distiller’s license from $1,000 to $100.

The Johnstons wanted to get a state distilling license to stay within the law, although they chuckled at the irony of running counter to their elders.

After the class, the Johnstons found space in April 2011 to set up their distillery in a building at Sixth Street and Delta Avenue along the railroad tracks. They received their state license in November 2011 and opened a small tasting room and retail space in June.

Now they distill “what we love,” Howard Johnston said. Dry County Distillery has white brandy, nontraditional gin and a light whiskey, similar to Irish whiskey — and a brandy distilled from Marysville vintner Willis Hall Winery’s pinot grigio grapes.

Johnston has a bourbon that’s maturing, he’s tweaking a vodka recipe and he’s finished his recipe for anisette, an anise-based liqueur that’s popular in southwestern Europe.

“We’re just having fun with it,” he said. “Our goal is to make absolutely the best liquor. We don’t sell what we don’t love. There’s a lot of care and love in formulating our recipes.”

Johnston uses three stills. A five-liter glass still creates batches as small as one liter so he can gauge if a recipe works, he said. There’s a 13-gallon copper still he designed himself and uses on small batches. The 325-gallon copper beer still gets used at about half its capacity, so 160 gallons of “beer without the hops” generates 10 to 15 gallons of raw liquor, which nets six to eight gallons of finished liquor.

Jennifer Johnston works full-time at the distillery on research and development while Howard Johnston arrives at the enterprise after his day job as a Boeing manufacturing engineer. Their eldest daughter, Krystal, 19, raises awareness about Dry County Distillery with a Facebook page.

Initiative 1183, the voter-approved measure to privatize the state’s liquor sales, has been rough for Dry County Distillery, Howard Johnston said. The initiative caused their distributor to close, which limited their customer exposure. Now Johnston takes orders to the Tulalip Tribes’ liquor store on 88th Street NE, the only place Dry County liquors are available locally. World Wine and Spirits in Seattle carries Dry County liquors. Dry County Distillery now has UPC bar-scan price codes that will let the Johnstons branch out to more liquor retailers. Howard Johnston said he’s talking with Haggen to carry his product in their Marysville store and Costco might be a possibility in the future.

In the meantime, the Johnstons are happy to be at the forefront of the craft distillery wave that’s washing over the state while sorting out their own production bugs and planning for the future. They’re happier they’ve done it without going into debt, but it has squeezed their finances.

“We were blessed with cash,” Howard Johnston said. “But Home Depot, they love to sell me copper. And now we’ve got to sell liquor.”

Kurt Batdorf: 425-339-3102;