Building A Better Whiskey
A collaboration story
Capacity and Quality Makes Talking Cedar A Solid Partner for Craft Distillers
What if the traditional way of distilling single malt whiskey was flipped on its head – where flavor comes first with a focus on sustainability throughout the entire process – from the farmer and the grain grown, to the brewery to the distillery? Copperworks Distilling in Seattle, with the collaboration of Talking Cedar Brewery and Distillery in Grand Mound, is doing just that.
When we peeked in on Talking Cedar last fall, it was to share the work they were doing to locally source the grain they used, creating a more sustainable method of brewing that would have a bigger impact on local growers. Talking Cedar is still relatively new to the brewing and distilling scene comparatively, opening their doors in 2020 during the middle of a pandemic, but with eight massive fermenters, a 40’ column still, three large Italian copper pot stills, and six small stills, the startup has set its sights on becoming a useful partner to craft distillers as close to home as Olympia and Seattle, and as far away as Indiana.
When we first learned about the partnership between the Talking Cedar and Copperworks, the first question we asked Copperworks co-founder and president Jason Parker was what led them to Talking Cedar. Surely there were breweries closer to home that could provide the craft beer they wanted to produce their whiskey.
Building A Better Whiskey
Before we talk about logistics, let’s look at Copperworks’ process to learn why they felt Talking Cedar was the right fit for them. In a nutshell, Copperworks distills high-quality craft beer (brewed without hops) to make their single malt whiskey, as well as a series of gins and vodka. And while that may sound non-descript, it’s not how most single malt whiskey is made. Traditionally, distilleries make what they call a “wash”. It's not made to be drinkable. It's not tasty, and the focus is a higher yield of alcohol, not a good tasting beer. For generations, the target of that distillation has been how much alcohol you can get. For Copperworks, flavor is what's driving their process, not yield.
“When we founded Copperworks,” explains Jason, “we thought, wouldn't it be great to use a quality craft beer with no hops? We leave the hops out because we don’t want the bitterness that hops would contribute We focus on the flavors of the malted barley and brewer’s yeast flavors. What would that taste like?” Fellow co-founder Micah Nutt and co-owner Jeff Kanof agreed it was worth pursuing. “The difference between Copperworks and other distillers is the quality of our brewing,” Jason shares. With the help of Talking Cedar, Copperworks makes beer worth drinking, but then they don’t drink it. They distill it.
Jason was a professional craft brewer, and Micah, an experienced home brewer. They initially made a sweet wort (a beer without hops or yeast, comprised of malt extract from grain mash and water) at Pike Brewing, where Jason was the founding brewer back in 1989. They trucked the sweet wort in totes three blocks downhill to Copperworks, pumped it into their fermenters on site and added brewers yeast to produce a fermentation. When fermentation was complete (three weeks later) they began distillation. It worked great and they were really pleased with the results, but they quickly became aware that their local partner didn’t have nearly enough capacity to produce the amount of beer needed to distill their whiskey.
While they were able to find a remedy locally for a brewery to make their sweet wort initially, it got to the point to where the limiting factor wasn't just production capacity, but their own fermentation capacity. “We just couldn't put more fermenters in,” recalls Jason. “We have three fermenters. Talking Cedar has eight, and ours are a quarter their size.” With that capacity, Copperworks would only be limited by Talking Cedar’s capacity, which is virtually unlimited at this point.
Talking Cedar Brewery & Distillery: Making History
The tribally owned and operated craft brewery/distillery, located in the Chehalis River Valley, is the first of its kind in Washington. The Chehalis Tribe, together with Heritage Distilling Company, joined forces to successfully lobby Congress in 2018 to repeal the Andrew Jackson-era statue that prohibited distilling on native tribal lands. In 2020 they opened their doors to the public, offering locals and visitors to southern Thurston County craft brews, spirits including whiskey, gin, flavored vodkas and rum, and a 37,000 square foot brewpub featuring two distinct bars that overlook their production facilities.
Keeping things local is nothing new to the Chehalis Tribe. They’ve been connecting with the land for centuries, harvesting local water from a private well just up the road in Grand Mound, and their mashing and fermentation process allows local farmers in the valley to reap the benefits of spent grain for their cattle. Diversifying their economic base and supporting local growth is an important goal for Talking Cedar.
We were still curious about how Talking Cedar first came up on Jason, Jeff, and Micah’s radar. Enter Scott LaRoy, Talking Cedar’s plant manager. Both Jason and Scott have been part of the craft brewing scene before there was even a microbrew scene in the PNW. Scott’s journey began with Hart Brewing Co. (now Pyramid Brewing Co.) in Kalama, Washington, which then opened a 50-barrel brewhouse in Seattle in the mid-90s. With degrees in chemistry and microbiology and a love of fine beer, Jason was the first brewer at Pike Place Brewery (now Pike Brewing Co.). He refined his craft at Fish Brewing Company, Redhook, and would eventually become Brewmaster at Pyramid Breweries in Seattle where he met Scott.
“We were highly involved with getting the new facility in Seattle up and functioning,” recalls Scott. Back in the mid-90s it was top of the line stuff for automation back in that day. Jason ended up working in the brew house and I ended up working on packaging.”
With his experience working at Redhook, Jason saw a glimpse into the future of how bigger breweries, still relatively small compared to national commercial breweries, could be built. Together, Scott and Jason built, managed, and maintained Pyramid Brewing and really got to understand each other’s skillsets. Jason would eventually leave Pyramid after 13 years but got back into the craft beverage scene when he co-founded Copperworks in 2012. Scott continued to work at various Pyramid facilities throughout the region, settling in California for a time where he honed his skills at a fully automated Pyramid facility in Berkeley. He eventually made his way back home to the PNW where he received an offer from Elysian Brewing Co. to build out the manufacturing facility in Seattle. After Elysian was up and running, Scott received an offer from Heritage Distilling Company that would eventually lead him to the Plant Manager role at Talking Cedar.
With the brewery ready to roll, Heritage Distilling was contracted to set up and manage the distillery. “I took one look at this facility and thought, ‘This is right up my alley’,” recalls Scott, who was brought in to handle the project management. Pretty high up on his list of things to do was to hire a distiller. So, he gave his friend Jason up at Copperworks a call, since he knew a thing or two about distilling. When Jason discovered the capacity Talking Cedar had, the partnership was born.
“We were still on the hunt for a brewery that had enough capacity to provide us with a lot of really great craft beer,” says Jason. And luckily, you can now transport large quantities of fermented beer by truck, where previously it could only be transported in bottles, cans, and kegs. “When Scott called and mentioned he was working in a facility with a 60-barrel brewhouse with a large distillery attached to it, we immediately got to work planning out the logistics,” says Jason.
And they’re currently still working out the logistics. “We’re able to help Copperworks scale by handling all their farm specific malts,” explains Brian Downing, Talking Cedar’s Head Distiller who moved to Washington from Louisville, Kentucky to get the facility off the ground and develop the Talking Cedar portfolio of products. The varieties of malt change frequently based on their targets. “Working with new farms and new grains has been really fun,” shares Jason.
Brian goes on to explain, “We mill into our 60-barrel brewhouse, and our team of talented brewers produces a flavorful wort which is pumped into our massive 8,300-gallon fermenters. We pitch a traditional ale yeast strain, and carefully monitor fermentation until the yeast has developed the flavor and character that Jason and his team are so excited about. When Copperworks is ready for the next round of malts, we send them a tanker truck completely full of beer, like a giant keg, which they’ll pump into their fermenters in Seattle and start distillation.”
The quality and quantity of product Talking Cedar is able to send to Copperworks is what’s made this collaboration work so well. “We’re able to manage these large batches that Jason has been trying to achieve,” explains Scott, “and by doing so, it’s opened the door for us to be able to work together again.”
Talking Cedar currently sends a tanker truck filled with 6,000 gallons of 9% craft beer up to Copperworks once a month. In downtown Seattle (the distillery is located near Pier 55 with a spectacular view of the Seattle Great Wheel) the beer is pumped into Copperworks’ fermenters, which now act as storage vessels. Talking Cedar does the fermentation for them prior to the transfer. And with so much more capacity, Copperworks receives a lot more fermented beer in a shorter amount of time, which means they can increase the capacity they have to make their spirits. “As long as Talking Cedar has the capacity, they’re giving the team here at Copperworks the ability to grow and expand as well,” explains Jason.
Scott clearly feels the partnership is mutually beneficial. “Working together with Copperworks has just been a great situation for us,” he shares. “We were looking for ways to keep our equipment busy. We’re a start-up, and so we truly appreciate Copperworks coming on board to work with us to develop their beers for their use.”
The facilities at Talking Cedar have the capability to not only help the craft brewing industry but also help craft distillers that don't have the capacity they would like to have but that comes at a cost. In fact, Talking Cedar is currently working with a distiller in Indiana that features brandy. “The possibilities are endless,” says Scott. “You just never know where it's going to end up.”
“The community of craft distillers is incredibly supportive and congenial,” shares Brian. “As long as everyone’s drinking whiskey, we’re all happy. Copperworks is a great partner, and we appreciate the ability to contribute in a major way to the growth of the distilling industry in Washington, and the growth of American Single Malt Whiskey.
It's becoming apparent that the Talking Cedar distillery is a high-performance operation with incredible productive capacity. “We’re just getting started,” says Brian, “Get excited for what’s coming next.”
Quality Over Quantity Benefits More Than Just Copperworks
“Caring about the quality of the ingredients that go into our products means that inevitably we care about the quality of the farmers we work with,” explains Jason. When it comes to sourcing the grain they send to Talking Cedar to brew for them, they’re actively working with their farms to produce barley that is of a single variety best suited for that farm under the most conservative farming practices. Their goal is to actually increase the quality of the topsoil, not to increase the yield of the grain. They do that because they get to taste a farm’s single variety of vintage barley – it’s yet another foundational aspect of what they’re able to do as a small distillery.
Co-owner and Vice President, Jeff Kanof, explains how they take this focus on sustainability one step further with the recent release of several Salmon-Safe certified whiskeys. “This certification means that the grain coming from a particular farm doesn’t include any contaminates that would harm salmon – there’s no toxic runoff into area streams,” he shares. Certification requires that the farm is protecting or planting biodiversity around streams that salmon have access to. It’s a process the farm must go through every year, and it’s peer-reviewed, so it’s a pretty serious certification.
“The fact that we’re the first distillery to produce an official Salmon-Safe certified whiskey means a bunch of things to us,” shares Jeff. “We’re small enough to be able to take advantage of a farm taking a risk like that, and it also means we’re really bad at math.” He means sourcing Salmon-Safe certified grain isn’t exactly cost-effective, but for a small batch whiskey made with locally sourced malt and with a brewer’s approach, the bottle is surprisingly affordable. If you’re looking for a top-shelf product that puts quality above efficiency, lends itself to a seriously-good single malt whiskey, and you care about a sustainable product, you’ve come to the right place.
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Talking Cedar Brewery & Distillery
19770 Sargent Rd SW Rochester, Washington 98579 (360) 858-7867
Talking Cedar Brewery & Distillery19770 Sargent Rd SW
Rochester, Washington 98579