Serious Eats: Drinks
Behind the Scenes at 2Bar Spirits, a Small Batch Distillery in Seattle
It's hard to imagine anyone better prepared to start a craft distillery than Nathan Kaiser. Armed with a microbiology degree, years of experience at startups (mostly in tech), and a family history of making moonshine, it almost seems like destiny. "I have a pretty good life," 2Bar Spirits owner, founder, and CEO Kaiser says. "I've got a wife, two kids, and I make booze."
I dropped by the distillery in Seattle's SoDo neighborhood for a tour and to learn about the process of making moonshine, vodka, and bourbon. 2Bar is one of the few grain-to-bottle operations that have opened in the three years since the easing of laws gave birth to Washington State's fledgling craft distilling industry.
Kaiser's excitement about his still-new business is effusive. "I made bourbon!" he giggles, even as he explains that the bourbon—his third spirit after wheat vodka and moonshine—is still aging while he clears the paperwork with the state.
In the tasting room at the front of the building, he pours tastes of the two completed spirits under a photo on the wall of his grandfather. 2Bar as a spirits company may only be a year and a half old, but 2Bar Ranch in South Texas has been in the Kaiser family for five generations. The company name comes only from the ranch side of the family, but the moonshining, legend has it, comes from both. So moonshine seemed like a logical first spirit for Kaiser's Seattle distillery.
2Bar's moonshine is an un-aged spirit made from 80% corn and 20% malted barley, a less complex mashbill than Kaiser's corn-focused white dog (which is what goes into oak barrels to become bourbon). In bourbon, the aging process smooths out rough edges as the wood interacts with the spirit, but in 2Bar's moonshine, the flavor stays true to the original ingredients. The dominant flavor is reminiscent of summer's sweetest corn, with a brightness that bourbon's time in the barrel tends to gloss over. The single-distilled vodka too, has a wonderful sweetness, creamy and rich, a far cry from anything you'll find from most major producers. Kaiser encourages flavor in his vodka, rather than trying to distill it out. He refuses to answer when I press him to compare his product to larger brands—and I can't blame him. I'd have an easier time naming a cocktail or even a bourbon that match the wafting caramel flavors of his vodka than any vodka I've had outside of Washington State.
"What you can do with booze is amazing," Kaiser tells me, remarking on the difference between his and other vodkas. "Twenty or thirty years ago, nobody knew the diversity of wine or beer. Soon it will be the same with vodka." He says that distilling "is a volume business, so after a while we won't see craft, as a word, meaning small, since distillers need to grow bigger and bigger to make more money." I ask him how he plans to grow in the future. The same way, he answers, that he got started: going door-to-door, knocking and getting people to try his product, whether they might sell it in their store, their restaurant, or just enjoy it. Like his grandfather before him—who took over the 2Bar Ranch at age eight, after the death of his father—Nathan is ready to get his hands dirty and work hard to build his business.
Want to see how spirits are made at 2bar? Pop over to the slideshow for a tour »
About the author: Naomi Bishop is a Seattle based food writer and marketer. Find more of her musings on her food blog, TheGastroGnome, where she claims that being a GastroGnome is not about sitting idly on the front lawn of culinary cottages. You can also follow her explorations of cooking and culture around the world at @GastroGnome.