This recommendation for your Holiday Cheer hits really close to home for me.
We were suffering a pinch of cabin fever, back in September, and decided to drive out to a nearby suburb to check out a winery I had stumbled onto by accident, while searching Google Maps. (more on this later) After the winery, which was NOT at all wheelchair friendly (points deducted, for me), we stopped at Edgewood, Washington’s quietly excellent Acorn Brewing to have a pint. While sipping I had a thought and went back to GMaps and changed “wineries near me” to “distilleries near me“. Up pops something called “Nightside Distillery”, literally a half mile south on Meridian Avenue.
Well, why would we not? I admit to being a bit leery, as we had checked out another obscure distillery, about forty miles away, and found some of the most purely awful Whiskeys that I have ever encountered. Unbalanced, dirty, wimpy, generally heinous; the rough equivalent of what you might make if you knew absolutely nothing about making booze and just threw a bunch o’ shit together and distilled it. Maybe YOU would do better but I know I’d suck at it.
So, we approached this Nightside Distillery warily. Obeying the Covid protocols, like any good Washingtonians, they used roll-up door on the front wall of their warehouse space with a long folding table blocking access to inside. There was a pretty impressive array of bottles lined up along it. “Well,” I thought, “They are certainly getting enough practice to get good.”
Behind the table were Ray and Angie Bunk, a cheery, smiling couple who would best be described with that honored old Southernism, “Salt of The Earth“. Friendly, talkative, and deeply informed about each item, they poured us our requested tasting of Whiskeys, first, and talked us through them.
The Nightside Bourbon was ROCK solid; FAR better, to my palate, than the next-nearest distillery, just across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which has cleverly managed to market itself into some minor prominence, while sadly not producing beverages that live up to the hype. That was my exact first thought: how can these folks, so far under the spirits radar, do THIS, while the hyper-funded outfit over yonder cranks out thin, undistinguished Whiskeys and prints money?
Next up was a new Rye Whiskey, an explosive mouthful of earthy rye spice ‘n’ savory that escaped the flaw that many rye Whiskeys and and even beers display: distinct lack of that urgent, full-facial rye character. This one is drenched in the caramel and roasted nuts you expect from a great rye and follows it with a rye-ness that made my eyelids roll up like busted window shades and an involuntary “Whoa!” come rocketing out my piehole. Ray chuckled and nodded and told me a bit about the process. I asked and he confirmed it: he and Angie are not just the tasting room staff but the distillers, as well.
Now, I’m intrigued. I ask about the company and Ray tells me that he’s a police officer, police union president, and former public information officer. He’s also an Air Force reservist, used to be firefighter and, as if that was not enough of a schedule, is an occasional politician and East Pierce Fire & Rescue commissioner.
He also holds a Master of Business Administration at Pacific Lutheran University while working as a police officer. His partners are all firemen and police and public service professionals, so God Bless networking, I guess. I’m smiling, outside, but thinking, “My God, man, when do you sleep?“
I mention that we had visited Off Camber Brewing, just down the hill in Puyallup, and Angie says, “Well, you may be interested in this, then.” and whips out a Bourbon bottle with a hand-applied sticker on the side that says, “Smokey Stout”. Turns out this is that excellent Bourbon, given extended aging in barrels that were used to make Acorn’s smoked HOPS imperial Stout.
There was no mirror around but I was pretty sure that my head had sprouted antennae, like in the Bugs Bunny cartoons, and that they were quivering like a teenage Romeo about to make The Move.
“Yes, please,” was all I could get out.
LOTS, as in “almost all“, brewers make smoked ales by laying out the grains and putting them through a thorough cold smoking. They can even buy pre-smoked grains and those work fine, too. But smoking the hops? Never heard of it but it made a certain SMH sort of sense: hops used for dry-hopping, later in the brewing process would show more smokiness. Makes sense. Which is probably why the Off Camber guys thought of it, mad chemists that they are, and nobody else did.
So, I sipped, with a curiosity that almost literally itched, and…
Just flat-damned astounding.
Caramel, roasted corn, sugar cookies, pistachios, vanilla, and a nuclear but strangely elegant blast of SMOKE washed across my tongue and I had a bit of trouble speaking – or forming thoughts or breathing properly – for several seconds. “Wow!,” Part Two shot out of my mouth and I promptly ponied up for a bottle to take home.
To make a long story short, almost everything we tasted at Nightside was pretty far north of “good” and many had firm toeholds in “stunning“. Their botanical Nightside Gin was available for tasting but not for sale, which led to my driving back out to Nightside, two weeks later, to snare a bottle or three. Their Nightside Vodka was clean and pure and shockingly complex, with layers of cream and lemons and vanilla and sweet herbs galore.
Their barrel-aged Nightside “Whodka” Oaked Vodka – which Angie called “Vodka for Whiskey drinkers” was just that, a fat, viscous, palate-painting wash of wet wood, pastry crust, mint, and faint cherries. The Nightside Distiller’s Cut Vodka, distilled once more and delivered at a fat 90 Proof, was a revelation, a damnably smooth, full-throttle Vodka that would blend with your cocktails quite well, probably, but begs to be sipped by itself, ice cold.
Nightside Distilling sits back just off Meridian Avenue South, at the corner of 29th Street East. Since our first visit, they moved into the building that faces onto Meridian, making them a LOT easier to find. And you should. The link right here will take you to their website.
Prices? Okay, NOT cheap…exactly, until you run around a bit, checking on comparable prices for Whiskeys and clear spirits of this quality and interest and then “cheap” might just pop into your head. That Smokey Stout Bourbon, which I PRAY, to every deity I can think of, will not vanish permanently, was $38 a bottle and I would pay it if I had to eat dog food for a week, after. Prices run in that range, clear spirits a tad lower.
If you are fortunate enough to live near Tacoma, or up for a drive, and looking for something to give that booze-loving, semi-connoisseur pal or fam member, I PROMISE YOU you will take them completely by surprise with a Nightside bottle or two.
And here’s my lesson: as many obscure wineries and breweries as I have visited and been stunned by, I should never have tarred Nightside with that grubby brush of the crap distillery on the Kitsap Peninsula. That’s the great thing about being someone who appreciates the art and craft of making truly excellent adult beverages, as opposed to someone who just swills BudMillerCoorsPabst to get lubricated: at no time in American history has there been so many exceptional makers of these products, all standing on the shoulders of those who came before them and the cultures evolving at a dizzying pace. Nightside is a perfect example of that dynamic and a really great little distillery, run by nice folks who WORK at being better, every single day they’re open.