Oola Distillery, today, stands alone, the only craft spirits creator to survive on Capitol Hill born in the modern era rebirth of the industry in Washington State. And now it is ready for expansion and, hopefully, legislative changes that could make its E Union tasting room as busy and bustling as its neighbor breweries in the Central District and Capitol Hill.
How did distillery founder and head distiller Kirby Kallas-Lewis pull it off?
“Just made a huge commitment and put the life savings on the line,” Kallas-Lewis remembers. “If you stepped back and looked at as a business major, you would have stopped a while ago.”
Born and bottled in 2011 in the old Panzanella bakery space at 14th and Union, Oola is now preparing plans to grow from its Capitol Hill roots with a new craft distillery and tasting room in Georgetown neighboring Lowercase Brewing and Mercer Winery.
“The initial motivation was to get another sales room and to interact with anther part of the city,” Kallas-Lewis said. But the creative juices started flowing as the project has come together with Kallas-Lewis narrowing a focus for the new facility: craft gin.
Oola growth, changes, and, especially, a bill in Olympia, will also likely mean good things in store for your neighborhood visits to 14th and Union.
“There is a bill in front of legislators that would allow us to work more seamlessly,” Kallas-Lewis said. “The backbone of it is to get closer to parity with wine and beer, allowing more tasting locations per license, and limited cocktails. It would pus us closer to brew pub.”
The industry’s craft distillers are saying they can’t survive without Senate Bill 5549. The bill would allow distillers more freedom in serving drinks and cocktails in tasting rooms and, maybe more importantly, would allow craft distillery permit holders to open up separate tasting room locations. The result could mean new tasting rooms opening up on Capitol Hill like Heritage Distilling’s arrival on the backside of Pike/Pine in 2018 — Heritage got ahead of any wave of openings by also acquiring a microdistillery permit for the location. But it will also mean a more robust, probably even more fun, and, yes, certainly more profitable experience in visiting Oola at 14th and Union.
“We hope to do it,” Kallas-Lewis said. “It’s kind of silly when people can only taste it warm out of the bottle. I think everybody is in wait and see.”
Oola’s Georgetown effort is about more than a new tasting location in the city, though. Kallas-Lewis is planning four smaller stills and a 55-gallon boiler as the company shifts its gin production to the new facility.
“We needed more warehouse space and we’re going to be doing a lot of our gin down there,” Kallas-Lewis said. “As it develops, gin is the easiest thing to spin off in production.”
The new production infrastructure joins Oola’s original seven-still facility on Capitol Hill — home of Oola’s 400-gallon column still and the big ol’ 800-gallon pot still.
Over the years, Oola, named for “the greatest German Shepherd who ever lived,” has expanded its offerings to whiskeys including its Discourse C and Waitsburg Bourbon Whiskey, vodkas, and gins. “Profit is production-based, so I could do things like that, take some risks and have some fun,” Kallas-Lewis told CHS about his plans back in 2011.
“I was so enamored with it all … putting corks into bottles, putting on labels,” an older, wiser, more tired, but still having fun Kallas-Lewis said when we talked to him about Oola’s growth in 2016. “Filling several hundred bottles is fun, filling several thousand is not as fun.”
Oola started as a craft distiller at 14th Ave and E Union but soon switched its license to a general distiller in order to start importing bottles of rare scotches for retail. That venture never panned out, but the license allowed the company to innovate in other ways. Oola’s Three Shores Whiskey, for instance, blended Highland scotch and Canadian whiskey aged in American oak barrels. In 2012, Oola opened a complementary business — 10 Degrees event space, which is attached to the distillery — in part to help offset the burden of Washington’s liquor tax, the highest excise tax on liquor in the U.S.
A massive part of the business for a small distiller is distribution. Oola has ebbed and flowed over the years with distribution around Washington, California, New York, and Chicago, as well as Washington D.C., Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Kallas-Lewis says Oola’s focus currently is increasingly back on Washington and away from a nationwide brand.
Its focus will also remain on Capitol Hill, despite the neighborhood’s logistical challenges. In 2011, Oola had a friend and competitor in the neighborhood as it and Sun Liquor both fired up Capitol Hill’s first legal stills, launching the post-Prohibition era of neighborhood-made spirits. But six years later, Sun moved its operations off Capitol Hill citing, in part, the busy neighborhood’s challenges for manufacturing and delivery. 14th and Union has its quirks, Kallas-Lewis says, but good neighbors like 2018-born gay bar Union and enough room for large trucks makes the area work for the last of the neighborhood’s pioneer craft spirits creators.
“Anything smaller than a semi can come in pretty easily,” Kallas-Lewis said. “We get a few raised eyebrows from the drivers.”
Through it all, Oola is keeping its place in Capitol Hill’s “light manufacturing” present, putting some of the old auto row era spaces to new uses in creating craft booze experiences. E Pike grandaddy the Elysian is currently undergoing a major remodel to keep up with the pack. Independent Optimism Brewing opened in November 2015 on E Union after its owners overhauled a $6.5 million auto-row era building into a working brewery. The Redhook Brew Lab and its mini eight-barrel brewery celebrated a summer 2017 opening in the Pike Motorworks development on E Pike. And “nano brewery” Outer Planet just marked four years on 12th Ave.
At Oola, Kallas-Lewis has also worked with a changing team over the years and the investments in new equipment are nearly perpetual. 2019’s line items include a new automated bottling line. Last year, it was a 24-plate Vendome Fractioning Still.
For Kallas-Lewis, the recipe for growth sounds a little like the key ingredient in a recipe for a good whiskey — wait for it.
“We keep growing but we’re not growing at a crazy pace,” Kallas-Lewis sad. “A nice steady, doesn’t feel like whiskey wild, growth. It’s a big step to open this news space.”
Oola Distillery is located at 1314 E Union and its new Georgetown distillery is set to open “soon” in Georgetown at 6235 Airport Way S. You can learn more at ooladistillery.com.
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