The island’s first (legal) distillery, Whidbey Island Distillery in Langley, turns 10 on Sunday.
Owners Beverly and Steve Heising turned their 9-acre property into a successful business with a potentially 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.
The distillery released two limited bottles to celebrate its anniversary: lavender loganberry liqueur and another Community Batch blackberry liqueur.
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 business donates $2 to a charity of the volunteers choice when they donate the berries and another $2 when each bottle is sold.
One man donated 282 pounds of blackberries last year from his family’s farm in honor of Beverly Heising’s late brother-in-law. That one contribution made up more than half of all blackberries donated. There were 350 pounds of blackberries donated last year that were turned into this year’s batch.
This year, the Heisings said they hope to receive 420 pounds of blackberries so they can make even more bottles of their rich, dark-hued elixir.
The process for making whiskeys and award-winning liqueurs has changed in the last 10 years. In the beginning, they had to constantly monitor their still, nicknamed “Bubbling Betty,” for eight hours.
The distillery produced about 12 barrels of whiskey and liqueurs that first year.
Then they made the change that they think will be their legacy.
“We can be anywhere in the world and (Steve) can start up, stop or change temperatures in the still,” Beverly Heising said.
The still is automated and connected to a computer that the Heisings can control from wherever they want. The Heisings said they don’t know of any other distillery with the capabilities, and their son, Jimmy, helped them configure the technology years ago. 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 beginning.
Another longtime employee, Mike Huffman, has been with the company since the beginning and has seen it grow from making 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 the 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 also make whiskey and 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 them hard and they had to lay off all their staff for a period of time.
Although it’s been difficult, they have since been able to re-hire their staff and even found a way to bring in customers for tastings. Instead of doing the tastings indoors in the tasting room, people 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 in it all 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.