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Langley couple to open Whidbey’s first legal distillery

Steven and Beverly Heising outside the bunker that houses their new distilling operation.  - Roy Jacobson / The Record
Steven and Beverly Heising outside the bunker that houses their new distilling operation.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

Steven and Beverly Heising are toasting their retirement as the spirits move them.

They've put up a still in their back yard - the first legal still in island history.

"Whenever we tell people, we get these big smiles," Beverly Heising said. "I don't know if it's romantic or what, but we never hear a negative comment.

"Everybody feels part of it," she added Monday, "and a lot of them don't even drink."

The Heisings have established Whidbey Island Distillery on their nine acres off Craw Road in Langley. They plan to start small with a deja vu loganberry liqueur, then expand, if all goes well, into whiskey, brandy and even vodka.

"We're in it for the long term," Steven Heising said. "We want the business to be for Whidbey Island and for our grandchildren. It sounds corny, but we want to be part of the island legacy. We feel we can do it."

After a mountain of paperwork, the Heisings received their Washington state license to distill alcohol this past August, taking advantage of loosening regulations for home production adopted this past year.

They've installed their Oregon-made, 50-gallon kettle-shaped copper still named "Bubbling Betty" in a brick-colored bunker, one of several outbuildings on the property.

When the still reaches 172 degrees, out comes a coiled stream of nearly pure alcohol in a neutral brandy form. Monday's batch registered 183 proof.

The Heisings are distilling surplus wine from local wineries, mostly varieties that failed to make the grade and would probably be dumped anyway. They started off with about 20 barrels, Steven Heising said.

The couple plans to use part of the distillation as a base for their first product, the loganberry liqueur. The rest will be given back to local wineries for use in producing port.

Washington state requires craft distilleries to use 51 percent or more of Washington-grown products in spirits production, and the Heisings already have purchased 300 pounds of local berries for their loganberry liqueur.

The couple hopes to produce a liqueur reminiscent of the one locally made for a short time in the 1990s by Chateau Ste Michelle in Woodinville, which used berries from Greenbank Farm.

It was called Whidbeys Liqueur, and it came in a stubby little bottle.

Although popular on the island, the liqueur was discontinued, Beverly Heising said, probably because there weren't enough sales to satisfy a large winery.

"We can afford to be small and to grow," she said. "We don't have the pressure to produce a million bottles."

She said they're shooting for a run of about 1,200 bottles of the liqueur by sometime this year, which would be carried by local liquor stores and later sold in the Heisings' planned tasting room in the same building as the still.

"Whidbey Island will be our market," she said.

Steven Heising said that if the liqueur goes over well, the next offering might be a bourbon. He's toying with the name "Whidskey," and the slogan "Island Rested."

Meanwhile, he enjoys learning the fine points of creative distilling.

"Anybody can grab a pot, put something in it and get a drinkable whiskey," he said. "I want my still to put out what I want it to put out, not what it wants to put out."

The distillery grew out of long discussions about what the couple would do after Steven Heising retired from a career in rocket science and physics in Southern California.

"I wanted to do something different," he said. "I wanted to be productive. I wanted to make something."

He had dabbled in home brew in the past, "but that didn't fit the bill," he said. Then the idea for a distillery popped up "by pure chance."

He remembered that while growing up in Saudi Arabia, where drinking alcohol is illegal, his oilman father made his own liquor at home, with the help of his son.

"Everybody had stills over there," he said, "and I remembered it was a great father-son thing to do."

As the idea fermented, the Heisings became more excited about it.

"We said if anybody can do it, we can," Steven Heising said. "The dream is becoming more and more of a reality every day."

The Heisings moved to Whidbey from California about four years ago, to be closer to their three grandchildren and to find property for their distillery.

They purchased the Craw Road property about a year ago, and moved there from Coupeville.

The property contains a farmhouse, the distillery and several outbuildings for barrels, equipment and storage for aging.

The production facilities are closed to the public for now, but future plans include a tasting room and public tours, along with a second still.

The Heisings hope to create a pure family business. Their sons, Jim of Redmond and Kris of Oregon, and their wives, already are involved in the startup, the Heisings said. The next generation is working on bottle designs, labels and marketing.

Even the grandchildren have left their mark.

"The grandkids call it the Whiskey Farm," Steven Heising said. "Now everyone calls it the Whiskey Farm."

Meanwhile, Beverly Heising continues to research state and federal liquor laws, while her husband works the technical side. Beverly Heising is also a violinist, producing concerts and CDs of her original music.

She said the distillery is a perfect way for the couple to get back to the earth after years of participating in the service economy.

"It's made me think," she said. "This is actually producing a product, something you take from the ground."

Of the more than two dozen anecdotally estimated stills tucked away on Whidbey Island, the Heisings' is the only legal one.

Asked if their state license takes the pressure off worrying about revenuers in search of moonshine, Steven Heising considered the paperwork involved, and the need to record every minute segment of the distilling process.

"We have to worry about them every day," he replied.

For more information about Whidbey Island Distillery, visit www.whidbeydistillery.com, e-mail steve@whidbeydistillery.com or call 321-4715.

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