A Look Inside the Secret Whiskey Economy
We meet early one morning in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood. The industrial-looking warehouses have not changed much in the past decades with the exception of their tenants. What was once a factory is now divided into work and living spaces. A former brewery has been turned into art studios. And a warehouse once used to manufacture gigantic cranes is now home to one of the most interesting whiskey makers in the country: Westland Distillery.
Photo: Westland Distillery
While the company’s SoDo location is worth exploring, today we’re headed 60 miles north of Seattle. Past the city’s downtown core with its growing number of shiny high-rises, past the indistinguishable suburbs with strip malls and I5 interchanges, we arrived in Skagit Valley—or, as Matt Hofmann, Westland’s master distiller, calls it, “Magic Skagit.”
We’re here to visit a few people who are part of what Matt calls “The New Grain Economy”—doctors, chefs, and farmers who want to change the way we think about grains like wheat and barley. Westland, after all, depends on quality barley sourced from the Pacific Northwest.
Our first stop is Washington State University’s research laboratory focused on wheat, barley, buckwheat, and other small grain. The aptly named Bread Lab is run by Dr. Stephen Jones and is focused on bringing flavor and nutrition back to wheat. A long time ago, the fields around Skagit Valley were abundant with grains, but the advent of industrial wheat brought down the price of the commodity and made the farmers shift their focus to more valuable crops. In more recent years, however, farmers have taken to using wheat and barley as a rotation crop to break disease cycles and to restore the soil, which is where Dr. Jones comes in. Thanks to his research and work as a wheat breeder, local grain farming is becoming viable again.
Photo: Westland Distillery
Barley is the main ingredient in those bottles of Westland single malt whiskey. And since 2014, Westland has been working in conjunction with the Bread Lab to develop new strains of barley to use in their whiskey. We are still three to four years from learning the results of these experiments, but one thing is for certain: Westland is just as invested as the folks at the Bread Lab in the continued development of grains as an important locally developed crop.
Matt introduces us to a young chef, busy at work at one of the stoves in the Bread Lab. His name is Niels Brisbane, and, if you have not heard of him yet, you likely will very soon. Soon after earning a degree in Biology from UC Davis, Niels went to study at the Seattle Culinary Institute with a goal of mixing his passions for food science and diversity of food. Fast forward a few years and Niels has spent time as sous chef at one of Seattle’s most exclusive restaurants, Canlis, and is now the culinary director at the Bread Lab. In his new position, Niels is able to experiment with menus and ingredients that were sustainable, experimental, and regionally sourced. “We need to think beyond salmon when we think about Northwestern cuisine,” Niels muses as he works at his stove. When he is done, he presents Canlis’ signature dish—a porridge made of locally sourced barley (recipe below).
We head out again, and, after a short drive, we arrive at Hedlin Farms where the grains for both Niels’ porridge and Westland’s whiskey are grown. The owner, Dave Hedlin—a third generation farmer—paints a story of his great-grandfather, Rasmus Koudal, coming over from Denmark in 1906 and settling in Skagit Valley because the scenery reminded him of home. Over the years, Rasmus would grow the farm in small increments—“I don’t want much land, just the land that adjoins mine,” Dave says, quoting his great-grandfather. Today, Hedlin owns 500 acres, 200 of which are certified organic. Dave explains that Hedlin Farms is broadly diversified, growing small grains and fresh, market vegetables. They also sell a lot of vegetable seeds. “If you are currently enjoying kimchi in Korea, sauerkraut in Germany, or coleslaw in New York City, there is a 50/50 chance the seed for that cabbage came from this farm,” Dave says.
Growing small grains used to be a necessity for Dave, who used them as a rotational crop, but it would be impossible for someone like him to compete with anyone in Iowa. With Westland and Dr. Jones’ research, though, there is renewed interest in wheat and barley.
We take a quick drive down a muddy road to one of the barley fields. Dave walks about 50 feet into the waist-high stalks and points to the crooked line in the field and admits to talking on the phone while he planted it. Then he takes a deep breath and looks around. “It’s a privilege to farm in Magic Skagit,” he says.
Canlis Steamer Clam Barley Porridge Recipe
(Makes six servings)
• 1 cup dry barley
• 1.5 sticks butter
• 6 tablespoons Shiro Shoyu
• 1 tbs lemon juice
• 2 tsp garlic paste
• salt (for seasoning)
Rinse the barley well. Be sure there are no hulls still attached to the barley. Groats with the hull still attached will usually float when soaked in water. Add of 3 cups water to dry barley. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until tender to yield 3.5 cups cooked barley.
To make barley milk, combine 0.5 cups of your cooked barley with 1 cup water in a blender and spin until smooth. Then strain through a chinois strainer. The barley starch will settle out and must be mixed thoroughly before every use.
Next, combine the rest of your cooked barley with your barley milk and soy sauce in a small pan and bring to a boil to activate barley milk starches. Add garlic paste and lemon juice and then emulsify in butter. Last, salt to taste and add steamed clams (recipe below).
Steamed Clams Recipe
• 150 steamer clams
• 2.5 cups white wine (Washington Semillon is excellent)
• 2 tbs olive oil
• 30 parsley sprigs
• 18 thyme sprigs
• 6 bay leaves
• 1 tsp lemon juice
• salt (for seasoning)
Preheat a pot over high heat. Add clams and reduce heat. Add white wine
and herbs and cover the pot to cook the clams. Pick the clam meat and season with lemon juice, salt, and olive oil. Place on top of the finished porridge.