John and Dorie Belisle, owners of BelleWood Acres, have shown a flair for creating fun and interesting farm events for years now, but a new event recently took things up another notch.
March 8 was their first Bottling Party, hosted at their in-house distillery. I signed up as soon as I read about it. I was too intrigued by the idea to let the opportunity pass by.
About a year and a half ago, BelleWood opened a new, 14,000-square-foot farm store at 6140 Guide Meridian that included a bistro, bakery and retail food and gift store. Besides being a major expansion of their previous small store, the new facility featured a new artisanal distillery and tasting bar.
Billed as Washington's first true "Farm to Glass" distillery, BelleWood's own apples are the basis of what the distillery produces. Their nearby orchards were the beginning of the BelleWood Acres farm operations decades ago. As much as possible, distillery ingredients are sourced from their own farm or other local farms. Grains come from Eastern Washington. Very little comes from outside of Whatcom County.
Starting with Eau de Vie brandy, the line of spirit products now includes gin and three kinds of vodka. BelleWood's distiller Jesse Parker, who at 22 is the youngest distiller in the country, has already brought home two national awards. Their Eau de Vie was a Bronze Winner of the American Distilling Institute last year, and their Honeycrisp Vodka won a Gold at the Beverage Tasting Institute. BelleWood is one of only three distillers who use real raspberries in their infusion process.
Due to the limited size of the workspace, only 10 people out of more than 40 who responded were able to participate in the Bottling Party. We were excited to see what a bottling party was all about.
When we arrived, the two handmade stills, purchased from Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Kentucky, were the natural center of attention. They are beautiful works of art in copper and glass, one extending higher than the ceiling in a specially built glassed-in alcove. Every copper curve is hand-hammered, and the stills have a history of their own from before BelleWood acquired them.
Our afternoon began with a brief introduction to the distiller's art from Jesse. He described how apple cider is first fermented and then distilled to create the alcohol base from which the various types of liquor are made. Everyone had an opportunity to peek into the still (after a recommendation not to inhale the strong fumes) and to taste the raw product. It was potent, to say the least.
After that, the creativity begins. Flavors may be infused, another distillation may be done, and the alcohol base is adjusted to the appropriate proof.
Jesse went on to explain the hand-bottling process we'd been invited to help carry out. Since alcohol kills germs, liquor processing is not subject to the strict sanitation regulations of food operations. For instance, when the empty bottles are washed before filling, they do not need to be sterilized.
Clean bottles are filled using a special apparatus adjusted to pump a uniform amount of alcohol from the huge vat. We learned that using the two filling machines was as much art as science, as they are a bit finicky to operate.
Corked sample bottles with a measured amount of liquid are used for visual quality control. The height of liquor in a bottle varies depending on the ambient temperature. As long as the sample bottles are the same temperature as the liquor in the vat, their fluid height will provide a correct visual reference.
Next, the filled bottles are corked. No machine is involved in this process - the heel of your hand and a strong push are all that's required.
Labeling takes place on a special roller mechanism. A notch on the bottom of the bottle is aligned, the bottle is given a slow roll until the leading edge of the label adheres, then a quick twist finishes the job.
A small sticker is applied across the cork, a plastic sleeve is fitted around the top, and a heat gun resembling a hair dryer shrinks the plastic snugly to seal the bottle. A batch number is handwritten on the label and the finished bottle is put into a packing carton.
Twelve bottles and the case is complete. The carton is sealed, labeled and stacked on a wooden pallet so the product can be moved easily wherever needed.
Because we were doing hand work, there was plenty of time to get acquainted with other party-goers. We were a diverse and congenial group, and it was interesting how invested we quickly became in doing a high-quality job.
Tasty, healthy snacks were available throughout the afternoon, breaks were frequent, and the atmosphere was relaxed and good-humored - definitely a party atmosphere. Everyone had an opportunity to experience several jobs, and by the end of the party we had become a fairly efficient operation.
In a little over two hours, we packed an entire pallet load of gin - 50 cases, or 600 bottles. We felt pretty proud of ourselves!
Before we left we were served amazing pizzas and salad freshly prepared by BelleWood events manager and caterer Pamela Felke. The grand finale was an informal tasting of all the distillery's products. My personal favorite was the Raspberry Vodka, but the aroma and flavor of the Honeycrisp Vodka was also ... well, intoxicating!
BelleWood plans to host more bottling parties in the future, and several people expressed strong interest in coming come back to do it again. If you're interested, you might want to subscribe to their email newsletter from the website at bellewooddistilling.com, or call 360-318-7720.
THE TEN MILE
(printed by permission of BelleWood Acres)
2 ounces BelleWood gin
6 ounces BelleWood apple cider
Optional: squeeze of lime (not local)
Add ice to a highball glass. Pour in the gin and apple cider and stir. Garnish with a lime wedge.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959
BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158
Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151
The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190
Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639
Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden
The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.