By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — Learning of an operation using a still that makes liquor will bring to mind for many thoughts of bootleg moonshine, mobsters and speakeasies from early in the last century.
While the images from that bygone era could be relived from an old episode of television’s “The Untouchables,” it’s not a stretch to say that this type of old-school liquor manufacturing is happening on a daily basis in Port Orchard.
And, yes, the observant officials from Washington state’s liquor control board are fine with it taking place. That’s because the liquor distilling taking place is a result of the hard work by a married couple from Port Orchard and a business associate from Woodinville.
The business, named Black Ring Spirits, is tucked away down an obscure hallway on the first floor of Town Square Mall on Mile Hill Drive. But unlike the hooch houses hunted down by TV’s Elliot Ness, this one — still and all — is a fledgling, fully legal business owned and operated by Tom and Heather Martin, who married in 2017, and Chris Schein.
Black Ring Spirits is a relatively new distillery that is making award-winning whiskey, vodka and brandy. Its success so far is as a result of the owners, who each bring their own expertise to the enterprise.
Tom is a master distiller and creates the company’s liquors. Heather, who has a background in banking, is the operations manager and oversees daily operations. Schein, a financial analyst at Boeing, is the chief financial officer who balances the books.
“Chris is one of those sick people that really like spreadsheets,” Tom Martin smirked.
Black Ring Spirits produces a variety of spirits, including several whiskeys, three vodkas and a brandy.
The whiskey variations include bourbon, rye, single malt and coffee. Vodka flavors distilled on-site are neutral or non-flavored, citrus-infused and strawberry Champagne (made seasonally and for Valentine’s Day). The company’s sole brandy is apple-flavored.
The distillery operates under a craft distillery license that requires at least 51 percent of the liquor’s ingredients to be grown in Washington.
Farmers and producers from across the state provide the distillery with goods to make the liquors. “We are proud to say we are 100-percent Washington-sourced,” Martin boasted.
Oats used in the vodkas come from Chehalis, corn for the whiskeys is from Basin City, a small community near the Tri-Cities, and Honey Crisp apples for the brandy are grown in Wenatchee. The malted grains used for the vodka and whiskey come from Skagit Valley.
“We buy much of our grain, apples and other raw materials directly from farmers to help support them. We have a diesel box truck and drive out [to the farms] and get them. We go out and shake the farmer’s hand and write them a check when we drive away,” he said.
Some of the by-products that come from making liquor locally benefit the area. Spent grains from the distilling process are given away to Port Orchard cow and pig farmers for feed, Martin said.
The distillery sells spirits out of its tasting room and to local restaurants and bars. The centerpiece of the operation — where the magic happens — is the 53-gallon stainless steel and copper still, which stretches from the backroom floor to the ceiling.
Here is an abbreviated version of how liquor distillation takes place: First, raw materials such as apples or grain are prepared for fermentation through a cooking process called mashing. During fermentation, yeast is introduced to convert the sugars into alcohol. Finally, the ingredients are pumped into the still, where the alcohol is separated and drained into 15-gallon stainless steel tanks for aging.
The distillery’s genesis
Black Ring was born out of Tom Martin’s interest in building a still.
“I’d been reading about the craft of distilling and was curious,” Martin said of his initial desire to make spirits.
In 2010, his then-girlfriend Heather gave him a birthday present — all the parts needed to build a small 2.5-gallon still.
“I put it together and started playing with making different types of liquor,” he said.
As he developed his skills, Tom and Heather began hosting taste testings for friends. People were asked to bring over a bottle of liquor sold at a retail outlet similar to the variety he was debuting. Then, the couple would hold blind tastings with scorecards. Friends would be handed a flight of glasses labeled A, B and C — two of the samples were of store-bought spirits and the third was Tom’s product.
At the first few tastings, Martin’s own liquor placed last. “This motivated me to improve,” he said.
Over time, his liquors started earning some first-place votes. “All of a sudden, my friends are coming to me saying, ‘Hey, can you make a bottle of this for me?’”
Future co-owner Schein suggested that Martin open up his own distillery.
“Chris told me, ‘You build it, I’ll fund it’,” he recalled.
As a result, Black Ring Spirits was formed by the trio of owners in the summer of 2018. They opened the doors to their Port Orchard distillery a few months later on New Year’s Eve.
However, the pandemic has tossed a wrench into the owners’ business plans. The COVID-19 calamity has reduced the number of patrons at bars and eateries everywhere, and liquor sales for the company are down about 80 percent, Martin said. Prior to the pandemic, the distillery supplied products to about a dozen Kitsap County restaurants and bars. Today, that number has dropped to just two: Whiskey Gulch in Port Orchard and Maynard’s in Silverdale.
The distillery also took a financial hit when the state recently tightened liquor regulations and forbade the sale of spirits at farmers markets. It was an unfortunate change: Black Ring had been a frequent fixture at the street markets in Port Orchard, Silverdale and Ballard.
Having a booth at the farmers markets provided good exposure for the distillery and resulted in monthly sales of approximately $5,000, Martin said. That income has now evaporated.
Helping keep the distillery afloat during this financially lean period have been COVID-relief government loans, he said. “We’ve been lucky in getting SBA disaster relief loans. Honestly, that is what has been keeping our doors open.”
Since opening a little more than a year and a half ago, the distillery has won several awards.
The most prestigious wins came in July when the company’s apple brandy “Discord” took Best-of-Class among brandies and a Double Gold Medal at the Finger Lakes International Wine and Spirits Competition in New York. The competition drew more than 2,000 entries from 34 states and 12 countries. At the same event, the distillery’s flagship “Black Ring Bourbon” and “Rickhouse Whiskey” both earned bronze awards.
In the MicroLiquor Spirit Awards in Michigan, the company’s “Toasted Joe” coffee whiskey received a gold medal. At a Best 50 Domestic Vodka competition, the local company’s “Lada Vodka” was ranked 14th best in the U.S.
“Having had this kind of success in the early-on shows, we are headed in the right direction,” Martin said.