I-1183's Passage Puts Liquor in Limbo

Craft distillers are left hanging between now and June.

After spending two years mellowing in barrels, Woodinville Whiskey Company's inaugural batch of bourbon went on sale Saturday morning. The distillery has 250 cases of bourbon—and a few thousand bottles of its American whiskey—ready for its Harvest Release event.

Once the fans have been satisfied and adviser David Pickerell, former Maker's Mark master distiller, has packed up his signing pens, Woodinville Whiskey will continue to sell its whiskeys through its tasting room, and the whiskeys will also be sold at liquor stores across the state. But it's unclear whether in the coming months craft distilleries will be able to replicate what's become the template for new product releases. The terms of Initiative 1183 don't affect onsite distillery sales, so distillers can continue to sell their products directly to drinkers, bound only by a two bottle-per-person limit. What's unsettled is whether spirits slated for release between now and June 1, when private license holders can start selling hard liquor, will be available for retail sale in Washington.

"We all know what happens when the initiative is implemented, but we're all dealing with what happens in the interim," Oola Distillery's Brandon Gillespie says. "We're just sitting tight."

Oola is preparing to issue two new products—a hot chile-pepper vodka and a citrus vodka—before June 1. The distillery has obtained a set price for the vodkas in 375-milliliter bottles, paving the way for tasting-room sales. But the state hasn't issued prices for the 750-milliliter bottles, nor does it intend to list any additional products.

Liquor Control Board spokesman Brian Smith confirmed that the state doesn't plan to add any new products to its inventory; according to an official timeline, the divestment process begins in January. He wasn't sure what would become of spirits scheduled for bottling before March 1, when distributors will be allowed to begin selling spirits.

A months-long waiting period doesn't make much difference to a global spirits conglomerate's bottom line. But a hiccup in retail availability could prove harmful to a microdistillery, Woodinville Whiskey's Orlin Sorensen says.

"It's not ideal right now, but it's also unclear," says Gillespie, who doesn't blame the liquor board for the confusion. "Right now, we're hearing lots of different stories."


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