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Glass Distillery

Small fish can make big waves

An unprepossessing exterior on First Avenue south of Pioneer Square is actually a front for beautiful glass works and, more to the point of this article, perfectly distilled vodka made from wine grapes.

Glass was the 23rd distillery in the state of Washington to be granted a distillery license; they launched in February of 2012 and opened the tasting room on First Avenue in October of 2016. When Owner/Founder Ian MacNeil shares his story, sit back and enjoy. Twists and turns, unimaginable roadblocks, and creative resolutions. It's probably best to sip some Glass vodka while you listen.

Photo courtesy of Glass Distillery

But first you'll need to decide which vodka to sip. They offer two straight vodkas-one is 100% grape-based, the other is 75% wheat/25% grape. Originally, the second vodka was made for El Gaucho's Gridiron Society (top tier customers) in 2012. Now it is only sold out of the tasting room. Flavored vodkas include Glass Nectar (honey), Glass Kona (coffee), and Glass Spice (cinnamon). There's also a rested vodka (Selkirk), Glass Vodka soda, and ready-to-drink cocktails.

Ian made honey vodka for Salish Lodge, tying in with their Honey from Heaven/Honey from the Sky service. If you don't know about that, you need to get out there. It's been happening at the Lodge for over 100 years. Ian met Danny Sullivan of Shipwreck Honey and now makes what they call "zip code honey." Bees are moved around, and each location provides a "vintage" - different color and flavor, like lavender or clover. A roux is made from honey and vodka, and they bond together so the honey stays suspended in the vodka and color remains steady.

Glass Kona is made from green Kona coffee beans from Hawaii. A cold brew coffee extract takes the vodka down to 40% alcohol. "It makes a wonderful espresso martini," says Ian. "It also works great for a White Russian or just plain over ice. It's fully caffeinated, so we like to call it a morning vodka." (Yes, a joke. Maybe.) Kona was the first flavored vodka that Ian made.

Glass Spice involves the finest Ceylon cinnamon in the world from Sri Lanka. Strips (quill) of cinnamon are soaked in vodka over the course of a week. It's cognac colored with hints of sweet vanilla cloves and a dry finish.

Photo courtesy of Glass Distillery

"Selkirk is unique, a Distilled Specialty Spirit," explains Ian. "Vodka is distilled from grapes, then 'rested' because we can't say 'aged' in charred oak barrels. It has vanilla and oak notes, starts like a whiskey and ends like vodka." Selkirk was inspired by a spirit called Starka, an Eastern European barrel-aged vodka.

Glass Vodka Soda combines their vodka, sparkling water (they "make" the water at the production facility), and natural flavors: Meyer Lemon, Mandarin Orange, Ruby Red Grapefruit. Ready-to-drink cocktails include Blueberry Lemonade, Cranberry Lemonade, plain Vodka Lemonade, Red Cherry Lime Lemonade, and a Bloody Mary. Ian will "let you be the judge" but he is sure it's the best Bloody Mary ever made. Could be another morning vodka, or maybe an all-day vodka.

Sit back with your choice and the story begins. In the first grade, Ian saw something on TV about neurosurgeons. At school, kids were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. He wrote down "neurosurgeon." It wasn't just a childish moment: he took science courses all through high school and visited a medical school. "In college I realized that to go into medicine, I should probably like people more than I did. I was too 'science-y'." This from a man who kept his vodka team together throughout the pandemic, gives charitably all the time, and spent a year as a Seafair Pirate (with Danny Sullivan, see beekeeper above). He got a degree in economics and finance, attending University of South Carolina and University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He understood distillation from his science classes and learned all about Scotch Whiskey in Scotland. "I was enamored with the whole process."

Ian and his wife Laura met in the Midwest while in high school. Laura went into commercial banking, Ian into business development for software and telecom. In the early '90s they worked in Russia, he in telecommunications while she consulted for businesses working with KPMG in Moscow. After four years, they returned to the States and decided, based on lifestyle (skiing, golfing, near water), Seattle would be home. "Seattle reminds me of Scotland," Ian says.

Ian in the Seattle distillery, March 2022

By 2008-2009, Ian was chomping at the bit to own his own company. "I wanted it to be a mix of creativity and business, to create a product, so I could see the fruit of what I created. I looked at a lot of companies-recycling, matchmaking, heli-skiing, biodiesel, an inn in the British Virgin Islands that had a 200-year-old distillery that used to make rum. That was a 'no' for Laura; she couldn't see me commuting from Tortola!

"In the early 2000s, a friend of mine had a still and we tested it out. It was pretty good alcohol, although I look back and think how easy it would have been to blow up his garage. That's why I'm heavy into safety now. I'm interested in wine but have lots of friends in the business and didn't want to compete. I love brandy (made from grapes) and Scotch whiskey. Washington supports craft distillery and making vodka from grapes was a way to get into the wine business. From a geographic and geologic standpoint, we are able to grow some of the finest grapes in the world. Making vodka from grapes is not unique, but it is more complicated. Wine grapes make a really elegant spirit, similar to honeysuckle, low in pH acidity. It makes you salivate, giving you that umami feel/flavor." Ian attended Moonshine University, a distilling school in Louisville, Kentucky. "It's like Napa for distillers. I had purchased equipment before taking the course. I wanted to make a high-quality product with the best equipment (Arnold Holstein from Germany) and be very careful about what we do."

Connie Adams/April 2022

Read Part 2 in our May issue

Glass Vodka

Seattle Tasting Room and Distillery
1712 1st Ave S
Seattle, WA 98134

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