Handcrafting spirits since 2011, Chuckanut Bay Distillery is known for their quality, meticulous use of locally-sourced ingredients and slow-crafted Bellingham style. Over the last seven years, Matt Howell and Kelly Andrews’ distillery has produced spirits out of their “off the beaten path” location on Railroad Avenue.
In 2019, the award-winning distillery will move to a new location: a three-story building on Cornwall Avenue, once home to the Bellingham J.C. Penny. The building, built in 1905, is on the Bellingham historic register. In addition to housing J.C. Penny in the 1950s, the building has seen many changes throughout its storied 113-year career. Now it will house Chuckanut Bay Distillery’s new production facility, tasting room and eventual bar.
“We’re going to have a brick and mortar storefront for the first time,” Howells says. “It’s very exciting, because currently people have mixed reactions to our location.”
The current location, located in the alleyway behind Rumors Cabaret and Boundary Bay Brewery, has a certain charming appeal to it, but Howell suggests it depends on the person. For some, it has a speakeasy feel; a small brick room in an alleyway where you can see the stills fermenting in the background. For others, it’s what it sounds like; an alleyway that seems like a hole in the wall or garage. The introduction of the new space will create a brick and mortar storefront that shows off the product properly and provides a bigger space for people to congregate and drink the award-winning spirits.
“I’m excited about a lot with this new project,” Howell says. “We’re going to be able to maintain our processes, make them more efficient and display our product in a better way with the new building.”
The new building will be mostly glass on the exterior, with windows everywhere, as they try to replicate the exact storefront of the 1950s J.C. Penny. The only difference will be that instead of displaying clothes, stills will hold front and center stage. Adding all new structure to the building has prolonged the process a bit longer than Howell wanted, but they aim to be tentatively open to the public by winter 2019.
Following the transfer of production to the new location, Howell plans to open a bar in the near future, something he’s very much looking forward to. The idea of sharing his spirits and teaching his patrons how they can be used in cocktails is enticing.
“All the fermentables we use are from Whatcom and Skagit counties, and come from within 27 miles of our location,” Howell says. “We’ll then take that final product straight from our stills and bring it right to our bar where it can be mixed into drinks.”
Chuckanut Bay Distillery’s main line-up of spirits consists of their gin, vodka (wheat and potato), bourbon, whiskey, Krampus Herbal Liqueur and Old Busker Coffee Liqueur. Howell says he’s always thinking of new spirits to create, and plans on bringing back the popular Green Man’s Dram hop schnapps at some point.
“In the future, we want to create a quarterly club where people can come pick up a spirit and use that quarter’s spirit to create high-quality drinks at home,” Howell says.
So what’s the best way to experience a Chuckanut Bay Distillery spirit – mixed or neat? And how does he prefer to drink his own libations?
In the distillery’s early days, Howell drank everything they made neat. He says if he can drink something neat and it tastes good, he knows they’ve achieved their goal. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t excited about making cocktails. He loves cocktails and enjoys finding the right balances in ingredients. He emphasizes that complexity isn’t always the goal; sometimes a cocktail can be just right with three ingredients. At their new location, Howell says they will educate people about their drink program and why certain ingredients work well with certain spirits.
So what does Howell prefer right now?
“It’s always hard to pick just one, because all these spirits are kind of like your children,” he says. “I love them all. It can be really hard to play favorites. But right now, bourbon neat in a brandy snifter, and gin martinis with some Dolin Blanc are what I’m enjoying.”
There’s a whole world of alcoholic beverages Chuckanut Bay Distillery wants to create. Lucky for us, their new location will allow them to do so – and look good in the process.