They met over a ukulele, bonded over single malt whiskey and took the plunge to start Cultus Bay Distillery together.
Two years after their hand-crafted spirits started showing up on supermarket and restaurant shelves around Whidbey Island, Kathy Parks and Harry Sloan have teamed up with local wineries to make brandy and grappa.
The other Cultus Bay spirits include a gin, vodka, Irish single malt whiskey and Poitin, a clear traditional Irish moonshine with a colorful reputation.
Parks and Sloan have also recently expanded their reach around Puget Sound into restaurants and stores.
The small-batch craft distillery is set-up in a cramped converted boathouse that looks over the homes, docks and tidelands on the southern most tip of Whidbey Island.
Dipping into brandy seemed an obvious venture to undertake, Parks said, considering the many wineries dotting South Whidbey. Brandy is produced by distilling wine. Grappa, a traditional Italian after-dinner digestif, is made from pomace, the skins, seeds and stems left over from wine making.
“We are working with Spoiled Dog Winery and Whidbey Winery as well as a vintner from the Lake Chelan area,” Parks said. “Our brandy has eight bottles of wine in every bottle.”
The new spirits are made in the same fashion as whiskey, using a method called pot still.
A pot still is a type of distillation apparatus to distill alcoholic spirits such as whisky or cognac. A pot still collects and condenses alcohol vapors that come off boiling mash, resulting in about 40-60 percent purity. The liquid can be run through the pot still again (and again), increasing purity with each pass.
It differs from the reflux method, which does multiple distillations in one single pass.
“The brandy is quadrupled pot stilled to perfection,” Parks proudly proclaimed. “We are truly in the brandy region of Whidbey Island.”
Parks’ interest in distilling was sparked by a 1930s-era copper pot still that she found at a garage sale. She also owned the restaurant, “Up the Creek” in Lake Stevens, which had a rollicking Irish bar.
“We chose pot still distillation for the flavors it can produce,” Parks said. “A reflux sends the alcohol to the desired percent but strips the flavors, great for vodkas but not great for brandy and whiskey where we want flavor.”
Cultus Bay Distillery is one of three small-batch hand-crafted spirit wizards on Whidbey; others are Whidbey Island Distillery (Langley) and Mutiny Bay (Freeland.)
State regulations now allow distilleries to sell at farmers markets, although sample tastings still aren’t permitted.
Parks and Sloan spent every Saturday this summer at Bayview Farmers Market. They enjoyed meeting new potential customers, talking about their line-up of liquor and bitters, which they also make, and chatting about their dive into the distillery business.
“We’re not allowed to provide samples so we just talked a lot,” Sloan said. His many careers include being a professional talker as a sports broadcaster with KOMO radio and television in the 1980s.
A ukulele is responsible for bringing Parks and Sloan together.
A few years back, Sloan wanted to learn how to play a ukulele. He found a teacher, Kathy Parks, on Whidbey Island and decided it would be a nice getaway from Seattle.
“I met Kathy and then decided I needed a second lesson,” Sloan recalled.”That started the conversation about what we’d like to do next in our lives.”
They turned to South Whidbey booze brewer, Bob Brunjes, to see if their distillery dream would fit into her boathouse overlooking Cultus Bay. Under the name, Zymurgy Bob, he published, “Making Fine Spirits,” in 2012, just as small-batch distilleries were becoming popular.
Brunjes figured out how to assemble a handmade distillery into a space equal to some walk-in closets — 288-square-feet. It looks like a cross between a chemistry lab and an auto shop.
“Bob is a chemist and an engineer. We’re not either of those things,” Parks said. “He came in here and said, ‘First we need to make a manifold.’ I said, ‘Like in a car?’”
There’s no tasting room for lack of space. But the couple are glad to offer tours and tastings by appointment. They never tire of explaining how the grain of barley, grown in Skagit Valley, turns into malt and then ferments into alcohol.
Hints to their Irish and Scottish backgrounds and Catholic upbringing, pop up in the tiny work space.
Painted on the wall is the word, Sla’inte “It means, ‘To your health’ in Gaelic,’” Parks explained.
Sloan’s desire to become a priest (his seminary stint ended when he began shaving, grew six inches and figured out celibacy also applied to weekends) is reflected in two of liquor labels, Mortal Gin and the vodka, Te’ Absolvo, which in Latin translates to, “I forgive you your sins.” In 2017, it won a bronze medal from the American Distilling Institute.
“It’s the smoothest vodka,” Sloan said. “Drink it and sin and then come back because you’ll sin every day.”
• Cultus Bay Distillery will be at Bayview Farmer’s Market Oct. 20, it’s last day of the season, and at the Bayview Holiday Market on Saturdays from Nov. 24 to Dec. 22. For more information, call 360-579-5632 or see www.cultusbaydistillery.net