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  • Writer's pictureMark C. Anderson

Tiny Orcas Island Distillery Wins Big Awards With Surprising Family Approach

There are a range of reasons to love micro-sized Orcas Island Distillery.

For one, it is handmade, small batch-style, in a barn nestled in the island’s thick woods.

The exacting execution are the primary reason Orcas Hotel co-owner John Cox cites the OID's West Island Whiskey as a favorite in the curated—and comely—collection that anchors the hotel's private dining room.

And that's saying something. The cabinet houses worldly standouts like single-malt Jura (which Cox calls "Scotland's spirit sibling to Orcas Island, a tiny mountainous island off the coast of Islay where you can find snow capped mountains, swans, palm trees, and amazing whiskey") and Yama (a $500 bottle barreled in rare Mizunara Japanese oak).

"Orcas Island [Distillery] is a top pick from our whiskey list for me because I know that there is so much quality, attention to detail, and passion going into that bottle," Cox says. "It's a tiny production and literally every detail is done directly by Mr. [Charles] West."

Two, the brand breathes life into spirits the island was known for historically, including heirloom apple spirits that harken to the era when the island produced up to 6 million pounds of apples a year. According to the Department of Agriculture, Orcas was once home to 76,000 trees dropping jewels like Yellow Transparents, Blue Permains, 20-ounce Pippins, Winter Banana Antiques, Rhode Island Greenings, Northern Spies, Winesaps, and more.

Three, its old-world style evokes the Prohibition days wherein smugglers adored the San Juan Islands for all the nooks they could tuck into along the craggy coast of places like Orca to evade regulators.

It so happens that OID’s Morgan West, Charles' son and key collaborator on the brand, is well-versed in those escapades after years working as a Coast Guard deckwatch officer.

And, yes, it’s simply good liquor, as Cox attests, with the hardware to prove it: Note the Best in Category from the American Distilling Institute—four years in a row for the Eau de Vie Apple Brandy—and the gold and silver medals for OID’s American single-malt whiskey. 

But the coolest ingredient that comes with Orcas Island Distillery has to be the family-run identity of the operation. From grandpa to grandkids, it’s all hands on deck.

That intensified amid the coronavirus crisis, as the grandkids moved to Orcas from Portland with their parents to enjoy the isolation and help the cause. When distance learning was undermined by iffy internet, West asked his kids’ teacher if their education could focus less on classic curriculum and more on the family business.

"We were struggling with the early days of homeschool parenting, and we thought, 'Maybe we turn the distillery into a math lesson," West says. "They can count everything in the process—corks, sugar levels, bottles, barley!"

Grandkid Kaitlin went one better, building a spreadsheet with two dozen different sub-sheets.

On our visit the family crew and youngster education was in full force.

Avery (below left), who is all of 8 as this publishes, tallied levels of sugar and alcohol by volume on graph paper.

The distillery’s do-it-all-assistant Aiden (right)—who is familiar with the fermentation trade thanks to mom’s cider business across the street from Orcas Hotel—rattled off those numbers from a measuring device.

Avery’s 10-year-old brother Charlie turned a crank on the barley grinder, readying the grain for the mash.

His twin sister Kaitlin was inside reading at the breakfast table where, over cereal, her grandpa was recently problem-solving out loud, as he does.

“How many bottles would we need to have enough for this batch of whiskey?” he wondered. Caitlin calmly explained the breakdown.

“They’re all on top of it," Morgan West says.

Grandpa Charles oversaw the swirl of movement in the barn, checking on his gleaming copper stills. (More on those in a moment.) His wife, Grandma Carie, appeared briefly then headed to their house to make lunch; she designs the labels inspired by a family history that began when the couple met at University of California Berkeley in the late 60s.

Also in the barn, the grandkids’ parents, Morgan and his wife Diane, led Orcas Hotel Beverage Director Kyle Odell and me through a tour and tasting on a slab of wood harvested from the property, as was all the lumber for the barn itself. (Those tastings are available by appointment 11am-3pm Friday and Saturday.)

A deliciously floral and botanical gin and the round and balanced single malt proved particularly memorable.

A final twist given spirits this good: Charles West never set out to make liquor.

For years he worked as a researcher for 60 Minutes and a pioneer for ESPN outdoorsman coverage. Along the way he started his own production house and earned a George Polk Award for PBS documentary about weapons proliferation and deployment titled, "How Much Is Enough: Decision-Making in the Nuclear Age."

But eventually the intensity of the gnarly news—and an industry drift away from old-school reporting—started undermining his enthusiasm for the craft. He figured he might be better off unplugging.

Then he found a piece of raw land on an island that offered the quiet he sought.

For a time he consulted for TV networks in the morning, then fired up the sawmill on property in the afternoon, processing the lumber that would help build the property's guest house and distillery.

Still, Morgan and his mom were worried Charles might go a little stir-crazy while she commuted to the mainland to build on her own accomplished career.

"Then the wife and son decided I was looking bored," Charles says. "They bought me a distillery kit."

Armed with the little 1-gallon mail-delivered still, he found a small tank of molasses in back of family cabinet, some baker’s yeast, and heard himself think, "What can I do with that?" and made some rum.

"As a former researcher I found it fun," he adds. "I thought, 'I’ll put this together, it’s not too hard, but then what do I do?'"

The answer: Make it better by experimenting with barrels and aging and liquids that most consumers weren't familiar with.

"There are elements like tannins and vanillins that over time will come into equilibrium," he says. "They find a way—they vibrate.

"There's almost a song to it."

He built a 5-gallon classic moonshine-style still out of sheet copper and set about filling out 50-page applications with the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and the state liquor board. Soon he was scratching a TTB-approved serial number in the bottom of the 5-gallon still.

Next came the 600-liter, 100-percent-copper alembic pot still custom made in Portugal with a base handcrafted by a neighboring blacksmith Steve Gropp (pictured above with Charles).

Today he lists his apple brandy as one of his proudest creations (while nodding to pre-COVID apple-picking parties as a nice side bonus).

"The brandy is not something people easily understand," he says. "They're accustomed to cloying rather than bright and delightful. And I like that it’s a way to work with the products that come from this island."

The whiskey, however, represents the real coup.

"We entered into contest to see what would happen," he says, "and suddenly [we're] playing in a league bigger than we intended. It was a shock—and wonderful—to have happen."

It does present a good problem to have: Age 72 isn't the traditional timing to ramp up a craft distillery's production.

"We talk about it all the time: If he was 40 or 50 this would be a rocket of a product to develop," Morgan says. "This could be a hugely profitable enterprise. A lot of investors can have resources far beyond ours and do not do it this well."

Morgan continues from there.

"He tripped and fell into doing a great job," he says. "My biggest fear is that he's actually going to try to [go big]".

For now that is not the prevailing reality, for a couple of reasons: One, the priorities are to serve the island, honor its history, and reinvest in the business; two, every time they seriously weigh expansion, existing distributors wants more.

While that might not please worldwide whiskey collectors, it's great news for visitors to Orcas Island, where OID is featured prominently at places like at Orcas Island Market in Eastsound and Orcas Village Store just across the street from Orcas Hotel.

That reality also resonates with the unique energy of the island: Even after major national recognition, a handcrafted, heartfelt and homespun product remains a local treasure.

There's almost a song to it.

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