CHS Q&A: Kirby Kallas Lewis dances around craft distillery Oola

We broke the news on new life in the old Panzanella Bakery space at 14th and Union nearly a year ago. It’s suddenly a busy intersection —  Skillet Diner just opened right across the street. Today, CHS talks with Kirby Kallas Lewis, the man behind about-to-open craft distillery Oola.

Paperwork on file from the department of planning contains plans to turn part of the Oola building into a hardware store. One-stop drinking and industrial solvent shopping would be convenient as long as you remembered to hit the hardware store before the tasting room, but what kind of business would you ideally like to share this space with?

(Laughs) I have a lease on the whole building—the hardware store is definitely not happening. Ideally, it would be a bar/restaurant, with an evening presence as well as a daytime presence.

(Ed. note: The Dulces people will *not* be joining Oola on Union opting instead for a new space in Kirkland.)

I read you plan for the Oola space to double as a dance venue. How are you involved with Seattle’s dance community?

I’ve been a board member at On The Boards for years, and my wife, KT Niehoff, is a contemporary dance choreographer and the artistic director of Lingo Dance Theater. The idea is to create a sense of community beyond the distillery.

How have you changed the space to accommodate dancing?

In the event space, we put in a heated sprung floor. There’s a layer of plywood over the concrete, a layer of tiny sponges, another layer of plywood, a layer of heating coils, and a koa wood floor on top of that. It was very involved.

How does the flavor of your Pisco style brandy made with wine from eastern Washington differ from a Chilean or Peruvian pisco?

Probably the best answer to that is “to be determined.” We’ll try a few different kinds of grapes, white and red. We experimented with some red grapes and came up with a very nice brandy traditionalists would approve of.

Will you be serving any eastern Washington-themed cocktails?

Yes, definitely! The way the laws are written, I think with a catering license I can have private events, open to bartenders and writers such as yourself, and serve classic cocktails, prohibition era cocktails, and original cocktails. Profit is production-based, so I could do things like that, take some risks and have some fun. Once the cocktail bar is up and running, I could really put my distillery on the map that way. Successful events would attract the interest of local bartenders.

“Tasting room” makes me worry that patrons will be expected to spit the liquor out. How will your tasting room function differently than a bar?

The sad truth is we can’t add a drop of anything to the liquor in the craft tasting room. Not water, or ice cubes or anything. And only small tastes, less than a shot. Of course, I can do retail, sell Oola products. The tasting room has a little mezzanine in it–the plan is to turn the tasting room into a small bar in the future. 

Speaking of plans for the future, how would you describe the aesthetic you’re going for with Oola?

Let’s see…sort of “elegant rustic.” The wood in the tasting room is salvaged from our hotel in Waitsburg. We’re using it because it has nail-holes and stains and shows the passage of time. The counter-top is going to be copper, and we’re using just the original concrete floors.

Where do you like to go for a drink in this neighborhood?

I love going to Marjorie, Liberty and Tavern Law. Licorous is also a favorite. They’ve started a Thai street food night and a taco night.

Do you prefer a cocktail or a neat shot of good liquor?

I prefer cocktails unless it’s amber spirits—if it’s bourbon or whiskey, I like it neat or with one or two rocks. I consider a martini a cocktail, though you’re basically drinking neat gin.

Do you go to a different bar when you want a neat shot than you do to get a cocktail with bacon-stuffed olives and paper umbrellas and mini-pies the word “infused” in the menu description?

One of my favorite bars is the Tin Table. I was just talking to a friend who does photo tours in Peru, who is very interested in Pisco brandy, about how the Tin Table makes the best Pisco sours. I would go to all the bars I mentioned for a neat shot or a cocktail, though. They choose their spirits carefully. You could get a neat shot and say, “What kind of cocktail can you make with this?”

Do you drink well liquors under any circumstances that you remember?

(Laughs) If I have, I don’t remember. Absolutely not, and it’s not because of elitism. Craft distilleries are struggling to make it, and every cocktail you buy with their product in it makes a difference. The money just cycles in the region that way.


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3 thoughts on “CHS Q&A: Kirby Kallas Lewis dances around craft distillery Oola

  1. Congratulations, Kirby (and Skillet)! I’ve lived on 15th between Pike and Union, behind the Chloe, for the last 5 years and have watched the intersection of 14th and Union make it’s gradual transition. I’m on the road a good 8 months out of the year and, having left town in March, will return in several weeks to a new neighborhood!
    Great vision…way to go.

  2. Thanks. Editor fail. Corrected. Though I kind of like Licorice for a bar name. I’d call it Liquorish however.