Although Capitol Hill may hold the distinction of being Seattle’s favorite area for a late night cocktail, most of its patrons probably don’t expect the city’s premiere nightlife neighborhood to also produce the liquor that it liberally imbibes. Yet, for the past two years, co-owners Kirby Kallas-Lewis and Jeana Harrington of OOLA Distillery have done just that, turning a labor of love into a model for the city’s slowly growing but swiftly changing micro-distillery movement. More change is in store for OOLA as the partnership behind the distillery shifts.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet that I’m leaving,” Harrington tells CHS. “One of my big flaws is that I haven’t taken the time to reflect. But looking back, given how capital intensive starting a business is and the fact that we’ve only been selling for a year and a half, getting into the black recently made me really proud. To see that is really exciting, and there was a week in November when we got orders to 17 different states out. It takes a lot of strategy to get that accomplished.”
One of the founders of Capitol Hill’s micro-distilling movement, Harrington is leaving the Pacific Northwest for Chicago after eight years in order to be closer to her family. Although Harrington will remain on as a co-owner, her presence within OOLA will be relegated to that of a “de facto ambassador” for the brand as she moves on to other opportunities within the spirits industry.
Even though her time at the distillery will come to a close at the end of February, Harrington says that she still has a hard time imagining that the business she helped build will no longer be a part of her every day life. But when she does manage, the fact that she helped start a new, independent business in one of the most competitive areas of town will always fill her with pride.
“I wanted to be in a dense urban setting to help build the brand,” said Kallas-Lewis on their decision to open OOLA in the core of Capitol Hill at 13th and Union. “When we started, the state liquor stores were in place and an active sales room at the distillery was key to our early success. Plus, I have lived on the Hill for a long time — it has the best of what Seattle can offer and I wanted to be solidly part of that.”
For both Harrington and Kallas-Lewis, building up OOLA has been about more than just opening up a new business. To Harrington, whose previous work in finance was found to be beyond comprehension for her friends and family, helping OOLA get on its feet allowed her to finally have a tangible manifestation of her hard-work.
“Given how much I care about my career and how much effort I put into it, I just really wanted to do something that I loved and could share with others,” Harrington said. “When I meet Kirby, and this opportunity came up, that was it. I had wanted for a start-up, and helping to build something from the ground up was really exciting for me.”
As for Kallas-Lewis, who crafts the liquor while Harrington has handled the day-to-day business, the establishment of OOLA has been about delivering the best product he can with the highest quality of local ingredients possible.
“I’m committed to making the best spirit I can — why else bother?” Kallas-Lewis said. “Crafting something special and unique that stands out in the field. We hear about organic and sustainable this and that, local this and that and are all pretty over these as exciting concepts. Maybe no longer buzzy and headline producing, but so important. These concepts should just be normal ways we all do business.”
“Organic ingredients, sustainable practices and a local footprint for the creating of our spirits are extremely important to OOLA Distillery,” Kallas-Lewis lists. “It is the only way to run a business. “
This ethos may fit in perfectly with the Hill’s connoisseur culture, but with real estate in the neighborhood only getting more expensive every year, the decision to open OOLA Distillery was a risky one. But according to Harrington and Kallas-Lewis, the ability to build bridges between other businesses in the community has helped establish the distillery as a neighborhood staple, and is helping cement the Hill’s infatuation with craft spirits.
“On Capitol Hill, there are so many restaurants and bars in such a dense environment, and for wonderful, world-renowned bars like Canon and Liberty to consider us their neighbors around the corner gave us a huge advantage over distilleries are a little more rural,” Harrington said. “Even though the rents a little more expensive, it turned out to be a good decision.”
OOLA’s growth and sustainability isn’t the only sign of distillery success in the neighborhood. On E Pike, Sun Liquor has expanded across the street to create a bottling facility to handle its new contract for “minis” with Alaska Airlines.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm for small distilleries in small pockets of the food and bar scene,” Kallas-Lewis said. “I’m amazed it isn’t more widespread, but people are slow to change. There is an incredible amount of knowledge out there amongst a few professionals in the food and beverage industry. It’s going to grow and it will grow exponentially when it does.”
You can learn more at ooladistillery.com.
Capitol Hill food+drink notes by jseattle
- Broadway’s Nacho Borracho is lining up to be open by the weekend, Kate Opatz tells us. CHS reported on the plans for the Mexican cousin to Montana here. Here are five reasons to be muy excited.
- Also in progress — work is progressing on Cafe Solstice just off Broadway, Shibumi Ramenya at 13th and Pine and on Ines Patisserie at 1111 E Union. Our 2014 roster of openings too look forward to is here.
- Speaking of craft cocktails, CHS ended up stranded downtown and took refuge at Thierry Rautureau’s Loulay at the restaurant’s scrunched little bar. Give it a try if you’re Capitol Hill homesick. You’ll find plenty of Hill behind the bar complete with Pike/Pine mustaches on the tenders.
- Another connection to Seattle spirit craft can be found at Elysian. Here’s how the beer brewery plays a big part in another Seattle micro-distillery’s production:
Every couple of weeks Jason and Micah show up at Elysian’s Airport Way production facility, opening up sacks of Great Western Washington Select Malt and working with Elysian’s brewers to turn it into sugary wash, which they then put into stainless steel totes for the trip back down to Copperworks on Alaskan Way, right around the corner from where the little Pike Place Brewery used to be.
- “Restaurant tour operator adds cannabis events“
- Capitol Hill food+drink proprietors — let us know if you’d like to join this monthly non-profit love effort.
- The Seattle Times stops by 10th Ave E’s Abay Ethiopian: “Now calling the storefront home is Abay Ethiopian Cuisine, which brings a heaping dose of East African spice to an otherwise chilled-out neighborhood.”
- This woman is suing a Central District Ethiopian restaurant and pushing the county to require posting letter grades for health inspections on the front of all restaurants.
- The secret to Altura’s success?
At Altura, that means nine cooks — five at night and four during the day — and a total of 20 employees. That’s one for every two seats in the place, a remarkable ratio for a dinner-only restaurant.
- Pioneer Square is getting a Taylor Shellfish in hopes of completing its Melrose Market continuum.
- The Marination Group — recently adding Chico Madrid to its empire — has also added a fancy pants chef.
- For anybody ready to brave the night, Seattle U’s The Spectator has posted a list of Capitol Hill restaurant’s plans for Valentine’s dinners. We hope the Seattle U kids can’t afford any of them.
- Because love sucks, V-Day also means the return of Canon’s annual St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. We hope you get squirted.
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