By Stephen Miller
– The Capitol Hill Times –
For years now, the chemists inside Oola Distillery’s Union Street lair have been concocting the brand’s first whiskey. Unlike vodka and gin, for which Oola has already established a positive reputation, whiskey requires some serious patience, and owner Kirby Kallas-Lewis has been waiting calmly as his first batch of the stuff whiled away the better part of the past three years in oak barrels. The time has finally come to break it out.
Oola’s Waitsburg Bourbon was released in limited quantities to restaurants and bars across Capitol Hill this week and will be available for sale in Oola’s sales room Aug. 21.
“I got it exactly where I wanted it,” Kallas-Lewis said, standing in his distillery before a table lined with empty glass bottles waiting to be filled and capped. After specializing in mostly gins and vodkas, he said it took many years of reading and research to get ahead of the learning curve involved with all the variables that go into crafting a great whiskey. Most importantly, he said, “I was figuring out what happens when it hits the barrel.”
It’s obvious to anyone who knows anything about drinking that barrel-aging a whiskey is an essential and critical step in honing a unique flavor. Particularly for bourbon, there are rules even regarding the origin of the barrels in which the spirit ages. Kallas-Lewis chose white oak barrels hailing from the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas that boast an alligator char, which allows the whiskey to penetrate the wood up to a ¼ inch.
Initially, he said he wasn’t planning to do a traditional bourbon. But as his plans evolved he “got really into the classic bourbon rules.” In the end, he said his goal was “to bring something new and interesting to bourbon tradition,” and he named his product after a small town north of Walla Walla that has a good mix of newcomers and old-timers.
That “something new” is evident on the first sniff of Waitsburg (the whiskey). Kallas-Lewis said he set out to create a bourbon with a very present rye content, one that would add an edge of spiciness and keep away from leaning too heavily to the side of a corn whiskey. In that he succeeded. Waitsburg has an upfront bite in the nose and a noticeable spice that clings amicably to its 90-proof alcohol content. But its also has a pleasingly long and mellow finish, giving Waitsburg the complexity Kallas-Lewis was striving for during the dozens of trial runs that led to it. “You can do a test batch with a super small barrel, but it’s still excruciatingly long,” he said. His first attempts originally came in with too low a rye content.
The new bourbon gives Oola something else to offer the market that has seen some downward momentum since the passage of 1183. Sales rooms profits have been down since liquor went private and the additional taxes and fees have caused Oola’s gin price to jump up $7 a bottle and its vodkas $4. Sticker shock and what appears to have been an effort by many to stock up before the passage of the law has had a noticeable impact on the company’s sales.
But now, Kallas-Lewis said it’s getting better. “It feels like we’re through the rough part,” he said. “It takes hard work and creative thinking. What was tough before was just the transition that kept changing. Now it’s fun – fun to forge new relationships with different retailers and see how to make it work.”
Oola is currently working to stand out in a market that is full of good products. In some ways, the private system, which is more flexible in terms of marketing campaigns and sales, has been of benefit, he said.
“We’re also realizing that we have to get out of state as well to get enough bottles sold,” he said. Oola currently distributes to Chicago, but Kallas-Lewis wants to break into California and New York, where his son is living. “I want to be careful to not grow to fast. You kind of dig yourself in a hole if you’re not careful.”
Looking forward to new products, those empty whiskey barrels are pretty appealing. Since traditional bourbon law requires that the spirit be aged in new white oak barrels each time, Kallas-Lewis has been dreaming up plans for all his leftover casks. So far, he plans to try a barrel-aged gin, an apple brandy that he hopes to try this Fall, and a Washington grape-based brandy. “There’s so much life left in them,” he said.
Oola Distillery’s Waitsburg Bourbon is currently available at Liberty, Canon, Tommy Gun, The Tin Table, Restaurant Zoe, Local 360, RN74 and How to Cook A Wolf, as well as the distillery sales room, 1314 E Union St.