LANGLEY — The island’s first (legal) distillery, Whidbey Island Distillery, marked its 10th anniversary this year.
Owners Beverly and Steve Heising turned their 9-acre property into a successful business with what they say might be an industry-changing legacy.
“It seems like time has gone by fast, but it also feels like we’ve been here forever, in a good way,” Beverly Heising said.
To mark the anniversary, the distillery released two limited liqueurs: lavender loganberry and blackberry.
The latter uses blackberries picked by volunteers from all over the island, and the distillery gives a portion of the proceeds back to local nonprofits.
The process for making whiskeys and liqueurs has changed in the last 10 years. In the beginning, the Heisings and their employees had to constantly monitor the business’ still, nicknamed “Bubbling Betty.”
The distillery produced about 12 barrels of whiskey and liqueurs that first year.
Then they made the change that they say might be their legacy.
The still is automated and connected to a computer that the Heisings can control from wherever they want.
“We can be anywhere in the world and (Steve) can start up, stop or change temperatures in the still,” Beverly Heising said.
The Heisings said they don’t know of any other distillery with the capabilities, and their son, Jimmy, helped them configure the technology. Because it’s run on electric power, there is also less danger involved than standard stills.
“That’s what’s really made it doable for us,” Steve Heising said. “We can make the monitoring software as sophisticated as we want.”
Builder-of-stills and master distiller Jonathan Bower is in the process of making a new high-tech still. He’s worked with the Heisings for years.
“They’ve given me a really great education,” he said. “I told them I wanted to learn everything about making whiskey because my family owns a ranch in Colorado.”
“They’ve taught me pretty much everything I know about distillation,” he said.
Bower wants to create his own distillery in Colorado someday, a goal that the Heisings supported from the start.
Another longtime employee, Mike Huffman, has been with the company since 2010, helping it grow from 12 barrels a year to 35.
“It’s been a lot of baby steps to get there,” he said.
A decade ago, the Heisings had no idea they would be making berry liqueurs; they only started doing so after the community asked for a loganberry liqueur, like one Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery made in the 1990s.
It took the couple about a year to make their first bottle, but it was well worth the wait for the return of a loganberry liqueur to the island for their customers.
In addition to loganberry, the Heisings also make blackberry, raspberry and boysenberry liqueurs.
They are excited about an aged whiskey they expect to have available next year.
The distillery works with local wineries to make their liqueurs, but it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
The wineries give them the wine to turn into neutral grape spirits (which have a proof of 187-189 and are expensive to buy), so they can make their own ports and dessert wines. The distillery gives the wineries half and keeps half for themselves to make their berry liqueurs.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the Heisings hard, and they had to lay off all their staff for a time.
Although it’s been difficult, they have since been able to rehire their staff and even found a way to bring in customers for tastings. Instead of doing the tastings indoors in the tasting room, visitors can sip in the sun in an outdoor area.
“This has grown way beyond expectations,” Steve Heising said.
“We didn’t fully comprehend the synergy from the community,” Steve Heising said. “It became so much bigger than a ‘mom and pop,’ and that’s what’s really kept us going.”
“It’s the delight … that it wasn’t just you and I,” he said to his wife.
“I think, for us, we’ve been able to create a business that reflects Whidbey Island,” Beverly Heising said. “Everything we do we try to capture the spirit of Whidbey Island.”