Whisky Wisdom: Interview with Kirby Kallas-Lewis, Part 1

Whisky Wisdom continues the exploration of interesting people in the whisky world. This entry was born from a trip to Seattle and a targeted visit to OOLA Distillery. While the main focus is the interview, we will also intersperse our own observations throughout.  

Interview with Kirby Kallas-Lewis, owner of OOLA Distillery.
Seattle, WA. March 20, 2017.

Kirby Kallas-Lewis is the owner and master distiller at OOLA Distillery. Founded in 2010 and located on an unassuming block in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood next to the 10 degrees event space, the place somehow manages to fit in a tasting room and production facilities in a smaller area than should seem possible. Meeting with Kirby is an experience all by itself, as the tall, expressive distiller was very generous to us with his time. Our ten minute interview lasted forty. Honestly, it was like chatting with Doc Brown’s younger cousin, except instead of tweaking flux capacitors to charge his Delorean, this guy is bending his experimental impulses to spirits. The staff we met, Alan and Nicole, were energetic and engaging. Those impressions had nothing to do with the fact that they were the ones pouring us samples.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about how OOLA came to be?

Kirby: Before OOLA, I was running a gallery in Manhattan and another in Seattle – I sold antique tribal art from the South Pacific – so a distillery was a natural segue, right?  Seriously, I was wanting to change careers – it had been over 20 years in the art business and while I loved the art from this region (and still do), the business side was getting difficult due to the extremely high prices of the artifacts I was selling.  Being passionate about food and wine, I looked in the world of wine (both growing grapes and making wine) and restaurants, but nothing clicked until I came across the world of making spirits.  From that point on I was obsessed.  I loved that the craft distillery world was in its infancy and one could really make a mark if things went just right.  Unlimited creativity, hands on production of something tangible and of high quality, all this made a compelling world to leap into with both feet (after 3 years of intensive study of the process).

For those wondering about the name OOLA, it is in reference to a German Shepherd who, according to Kirby, was the best dog who ever lived. We may have also sipped some of our spirits in the tasting room and made passing remarks to each other in the nature of “Oh La La!” and “Oooooh la!” What, you wouldn’t?

Q: What makes OOLA unique?

Kirby: I think it has to be our commitment to quality and honesty. We don’t cut corners.  Everyone on the OOLA team is proud of what we do and careful to only put out the best spirits at every step of the way.  We are constantly attending workshops and learning the fine points of this industry in every way we can.

Q: What do you think of the craft distilling culture in Seattle specifically and the US in general?

Kirby: It is a culture of passionate makers and business brains. I find it to be toughest on the people who got into this with primarily a business focus.  It’s an extremely tough industry – the taxation on our industry is close to killing the forward momentum we could be having.  Right now it is fueled on individual passion and a deep commitment to this world of spirits.  It really does not make sense as a business in so many ways.  The community is more fragmented than most of us would like, but we are all so damn busy.  Organizations like ACSA and ADI and DISCUS go a long way to creating community.

Just how vast has been the rise of American distilleries over the past decade or so? Take a look at this map on the ADI website. Our awareness only being from a consumer standpoint, it was fascinating to learn about the associations, the communities and the challenges a distiller has to tackle in the normal course of business. It can be easy to look on distilling as a unique blend of art and science, thus overlooking the real business acumen needed to make distilling commercially viable for any extended period of time. It’s also something that doesn’t necessarily make the best grist for marketing, so it may be no surprise that it is often overshadowed by the sexier elements of whiskey production. We’ll be the first to admit it is an element we often overlook unless there is something specifically prompting us to dig for it.

Q: What do you think are some of the specific challenges and benefits of being a craft distillery?

Kirby: The challenges and benefits both seem to come from the fact we are small.  We compete head to head with the huge mega brands and do not get any of the benefits of economies of scale in production or huge marketing budgets when it comes to sales.  It is tough to stand out and compete with these barriers to hurdle.  On the other hand, being small allows me to create exciting and excellent products in small batches that would make no sense to a large producer.  We can experiment endlessly with grain and yeast strains, new blends, etc. – really respond to our individual markets.  Some of our whiskey releases are less than 100 cases.  I think this sort of thing keeps us inspired here at OOLA and makes our brand interesting to customers.

Want to learn about OOLA’s special whiskey series or wonder how Kirby’s personal taste influences the spirits he makes? See Part 2 of this interview, along with more about our visit there.