Spend enough time around Seattle restaurateurs and you hear the same concern again and again: There are just too many restaurants. True or not, certain entrepreneurs are looking at different ways to expand their empires without necessarily opening a new joint. Some have experimented with cookbooks, spice rubs, and unconventional outlets at the airport or stadiums. Yet the most revolutionary gambit is John Howie’s: launching a distillery in Woodinville with the dual purpose of supplying his restaurants and local retailers.
At the heart of the venture is head distiller Erik Liedholm, the longtime beverage director for John Howie Restaurants and a fascinating guy to talk to. I sat down with him recently to discuss his plans for Wildwood Spirits, and it was an eye-opening dive into the world of modern distilling.
Liedholm is incredibly knowledgeable about almost anything drink-related: he’s an advanced sommelier and soon will be a master distiller. His intellectual curiosity is a driving force behind the project, as evidenced by the time he spent mastering the technique in Michigan State University’s Artisan Distilling Program working with noted distilling expert Kris Berglund.
Erik Liedholm of Wildwood Spirits Co. Photo by John & Joseph
Wildwood’s initial offerings have been the standard vodka/gin lineup, though the “Kur” gin has won a double gold medal and “Best in Show” at the New York World Wine and Spirits Competition. It’s definitely a more citrus-driven gin, and Liedholm shows his attention to detail by infusing the 13 ingredients separately, then blending the infusions. This allows more precise blending, and enables Liedholm to use hyper-seasonal ingredients like Seville oranges year-round. Whiskey will follow, though of course barrel-aging is a necessary step in that process.
Moving forward, it’s the specialty spirits that most excite me, and, seemingly, Liedholm as well. The equipment installed in the distillery will allow him to work with volatile materials and to make aromatic spirits like grappas and amaros, including custom grappas for area wineries. In fact, the only limitation seems to be his imagination: We speculated about aquavit, brandy, and single-malt whiskey.
While Wildwood is technically a separate business, John Howie’s backing will go a long way in giving Liedholm the freedom to play with techniques and ingredients without the financial pressures typical of a new distillery. “Our production isn’t going to be governed by the same constraints as a typical start-up,” Liedholm says. “We don’t need as high a yield, so we can focus on higher quality.”
That economic reality underpins the venture. While Wildwood’s success remains to be seen, especially in the wider market, it does seem like a harbinger. Alcohol is a major profit source for most restaurants, and if opening their own distillery (or brewery or winery) lowers costs in the long run, I expect to see other major players in the area explore it as well.