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FROM COFFEE SHOP TO DISTILLERY. THE JOURNEY OF SUN LIQUOR DISTILLERY.

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By Joel Butler, MW

Founded just eight years ago by brothers Michael & Mark Klebeck, Sun Liquor evolved from their Capitol Hill coffee shop, Top Pot.  They decided to have a bar, and contacted a local bar manager and part-time brewer, Erik Chapman, to set it up.  His only (almost) conditions? All ingredients from bitters to syrups would have to be made from scratch, the spirits later produced should contain no corn syrup or glycerins and be made from organic grains and sourced as locally as possible.  Not too big an ask, but not so easy achieve then!

Taking the name of the old Chinese family laundry that occupied the original Top Pot café, Sun Liquor got started. The laws in Washington for craft distilling were changing in those days (2005) and subsequently, Michael hit the jackpot in 2008, securing a distillers license in the same space as a bar. Then he found the space in the picture above to make it work. For legal purposes, the two entities have different addresses. You should know the bar grub is very good!

Erik’s experience over several years was that organic wheat would make the best gin and vodka.  He had used organic wheat for years to make a ‘wash’ for his house-made bitters. Taking their business to the next level of control, given that 90% of their sales were spirits, Chapman notes, “logically meant that we would focus on organic grains, nothing with glycerin or corn syrup and use only the best fresh or dried natural herbs and spices for flavoring.”

Erik Chapman, Head Distiller of Sun Liquor, preparing to bottle 50ml vodka bottles for Alaska Airlines

Erik Chapman, Head Distiller of Sun Liquor, preparing to bottle 50ml vodka bottles for Alaska Airlines

What started as just enough “booze” for the bar has blossomed into a robust and growing operation, with a major coup this past year in getting an Alaska Airlines contract for minis of vodka, gin and rum.  “It took us a year of discussion with them to get the contract.  Michael liked  old airline traditions of service, and the look and feel of flying in the 50’s and 60’s.  Alaska wanted to make some changes,” Chapman adds. Alaska has a strong customer service tradition, and the idea of working with a local home-based company added incentive to the idea.  Eventually, the biggest challenge for Chapman was determining if Sun could supply enough product, and really get the packaging right. Alaska really liked the idea of organic spirits, too.

“We needed to spend some serious bucks for a new bottling line for 50ml bottles, and hustled our butts off for 6 months getting the line up to speed.  We had to hand bottle about 55,000 bottles before the machine arrived and while we getting it fully operational, but deadlines are deadlines!”  Erik notes with pride, and certainly relief now.

Production now stands around 12,000 9L cases, and Sun sells in WA, OR, CA, AK, VT, NV and soon, AZ, with more states hopefully to follow, if production can increase.  The difficulty for Sun is getting access to enough organic wheat and other grain. Early on, Chapman says, they sourced all their wheat from Washington growers, but it’s impossible to get enough supply now, so Sun buys from British Columbia as well.  For their Sun Rums, Chapman gets fresh cane juice from the Caribbean, though he may (seriously!) start pressing “our own cane from the southern US.”

Sun Liquors distinctive packaging designed by the owners, including the small eye-dropper home-made bitters bottles What is notable about Sun Liquor’s potables is their combination of purity and flavor.  While they use other distilleries to provide their “wash”, all spirits are pot-distilled, and part of the secret is the still, which has a reflux system. Gins and Vodka are distilled from wheat only. Chapman notes that  “We can do up to four distillations in our still, and get up to 90% pure spirit, which is the advantage we have based on the still’s design. It definitely takes time to run batches (up to 8-9 hours)—not everyone wants to do it.”

Sun Vodka is distilled four times, the last two for removing bitter compounds in the tails, and is slightly overproof at 42%.  “We tried it at 40%, and it was just too smooth for our taste,” Chapman drily said.  The vodka is delicately wheaty-grainy in aroma (it has aroma!). The texture has a lovely satiny, almost sweet note and is nicely “earthy” with a hint of herbal-citrus accents almost like a tequila.  Chapman attributes it to the copper still pulling out sulphates. Subtle but characterful, there is just enough bite in the finish to give a long, interesting finish, thus quite long…for a vodka. (17.5/20 points)

Sun’s two gins reflect opposite styles. Hedge Trimmer (referring to the juniper hedges in Austria that supply the berries) is a classic London Dry style.  “My idea was to make a perfect gin for cocktails; something balanced, nice and citrusy, not completely over-proofed (84 proof),” says Erik.  High quality dry juniper from Austria, Angelica from Italy and various other herbs and spices like cassia bark, Grains of Paradise, California orange peel, coriander and Chapman’s secret ingredient, “Cannonball” watermelon rind are all put in a bag and soaked in the third distillation for 24-48 hours before he does a slow distillation.

Hedge Trimmer has strong coriander aromas, then floral and lime peel notes. The juniper is subtle, very pretty, and the flavors fairly smooth, then almost spicy on the finish (red pepper).  A distinctive, long and fine gin (18/20)

Gun Club Gin is Sun’s “Naval Strength” , Plymouth gin style.  At 100 proof it would be strong enough to light black powder, just as the British Navy dictated!  For this gin, Erik wanted to make a winter cocktail oriented gin.  It is more heavily juniper and coriander, to which he adds cardamom, clove, nutmeg and cranberry. For Chapman, the key to making a “3-D gin is finding the right fresh ingredients to ‘complete’ the dried stuff.”  Thrice-distilled like Hedge Trimmer, Gun Club has 13 botanicals.

The bouquet of this gin is strongly juniper, but earthier, with definite spice notes.  The flavors are strong, even earthy, with a touch of red pepper on the finish. While smooth, that fiery note makes Gun Club a strong, extremely flavorful and smooth drink, and a more serious gin for Gin lovers! 18.5/20

Sun’s two Rums, a Silver and an Aged two-year-old spirit are wonderfully fresh, as they are distilled from fresh cane juice, not heavier cooked molasses.  The Silver is distilled 3X, so it still has that lovely grassy-herbal ‘sugary’ nose, and is very smooth, even at 90 proof.  The finish has a good bite to it, however, but there are no caramel or cooked flavors. “It’s a great dacquiri mixer,” Erik notes.  The aged rum spends two years in American oak barrels, used and new, but is distilled just twice.  Finished overproof (94 proof) it has a lovely pale yellow color and wonderfully fragrant bouquet, redolent of cane sugar, citrus, vanilla-cinnamon oak spice, and even something akin to a briny ocean iodine note!  Smooth, it still has a spicy kick on the finish adding bite and density to the sweet cane flavors.  Really unique for its purity. (19/20)

I asked Erik after tasting his spirits if he had anything new in mind for the future. He was a bit coy, but I think it’s safe to say that the “SUN” will soon rise on a single malt, an apple-based brandy and perhaps a pear brandy, too.  We are keen to see them.

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