The distilling equipment hasn’t even arrived at Wildwood Spirits Co. yet, but the Bothell distillery is already nabbing awards for the first batch of its products.
Wildwood’s Kur was named best gin at the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition, an annual event that draws some of world’s premier wineries and distilleries. The company’s Stark Vatten vodka received a silver medal award.
The distillery and an adjoining brewpub, Beardslee Public House, are the latest ventures from John Howie Restaurants, which owns and operates the John Howie Steak and Seastar restaurants in Bellevue. The new additions are set to open in January and will be a departure from Howie’s previous focus on fine dining and sports bars. Beardslee will serve affordable, farm-to-table cuisine with a focus on communal dining.
Erik Liedholm, Howie’s wine director, is co-owner and distiller at Wildwood. We caught up with him to discuss Wildwood and the accolades it’s already receiving.
425 Business: What does this award mean for Wildwood?
Liedholm: We didn’t go into this blindly — there was plenty of homework, and we had already won some (national) awards. So we got some info about this international competition, and we’re thinking, just for the heck of it, let’s see what happens. Because Grey Goose, Glenfiddich, all the top producers from Scotland, the top bourbon producers from Kentucky, they all enter it. We thought, let’s really see where we are on the international stage.
We were confident in what we’ve done, but we were overwhelmed by getting a Best in Show for the gin.
How did Wildwood get its start?
A lot of it was some of my own doing at home, being a virtual distillery at home. I bought a pot still in Portugal many years ago and had been experimenting with the process. I had made a good grappa that was actually pretty good … and so my buddy and I started making grappa just for us. John (Howie) got wind of it and said, “Why don’t we do something bigger?” That’s when the idea of the project came up, but we were tied in that the state of Washington wouldn’t allow anyone who owns restaurants to also own a facility that produces alcohol. When the new legislation passed in 2012, it enabled restaurateurs to have that capability to own a distillery. When that happened, we started to sharpen our pencils.
You said there was plenty of “homework” involved. What did that entail?
While I was doing my experimenting at home, I was reading about the theory and the experts in the field. It just so happens that the expert in craft distilling is a guy named Kris Berglund from Michigan State University, my alma mater. I had no idea. I graduated 100 years ago, and they didn’t have any distillation department. They had biochemistry, but they weren’t into craft distillation. I called him up and said, hey, you’re a professor at my alma mater. You’re Swedish; I’m Swedish. We both grew up in East Lansing. Let’s party.
So I worked with Kris off and on for four years. I got practical knowledge, but I wanted more theoretical knowledge, so I went through the master distiller program through the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in England. I took my final just this year and passed.
How will Wildwood fit in with the other John Howie Restaurants brands?
Our distillery would be self-sustaining if we just supplied to all our other restaurants. But we will also have a tasting room, we already have a distributor, and we’re already selling our distillets (in retailers such as Whole Foods and Thriftway, and in restaurants including Miller’s Guild and Loulay). Everything outside of our restaurant sales is gravy, so we can really focus on quality.
As far as expanding, we can only go so far before economies of scale get in the way. If we do need to produce more, it’ll be a question of getting a larger facility, new equipment, and a whole new capital investment. We look to produces about 300 cases a month.
The Bothell project is a departure from John Howie’s fine dining reputation. Does that have you nervous?
Conceptually, it’s something we don’t do yet, but it’s something we know we can do well — comfort food. It’s going to be farm-to-table, very simple and affordable food. Somebody can eat there every day if they want to and not feel like they have to take a mortgage out on their house.
A lot of what fine dining represents is the china, glass, and silver that’s used. The seating, the ambiance; a lot of money’s spent in those elements. The only thing that’s going to change (in Bothell) is service elements. Everything is going to be served on a sheet tray with paper. It’s a very casual element, but everything else we’re very familiar with in terms of building things from scratch. We already make our charcuterie in-house at John Howie Steak, but (at Beardslee) we’re just not going to put it on a $200 platter.