Whisky Wisdom: Interview with Kirby Kallas-Lewis, Part 2

If you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1 of our visit to OOLA Distillery in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle and our interview with master distiller and owner Kirby Kallas-Lewis. While the Whisky Wisdom series is meant to be primarily interview-focused, we also like the idea of tagging on a distillery visit like this as part and parcel of getting such an interview. We’re not going to contribute the fiftyleventh tribute to the Glenlivet or Glenmorangie distilleries, places of wonder though they are. They have a hefty marketing line in their budgets, after all. Rather, we like the idea of using features like this to highlight smaller, lesser known distilleries that are on the bleeding edge of the American craft distillery movement for good or for ill. We think such people, places and spirits are worth exploring and celebrating. So, on to Part 2.

Situated down the street from a Pony and not that far from a Unicorn, with some Chop Suey (and hot dog stand!) in the back, OOLA distillery is housed in a short building of brown stone sandwiched between two high rises. It seems unassuming, until you step through the doors. The inside is small, smaller than you think a working distillery might have any right to be. The tasting room is short and broad, with enough space for maybe twenty people. So, you and a dozen of your closest friends, if you want elbow room. The spirits appear before you on the shelves, with a bustle of activity coming from just behind. Various whiskies and white spirits are on display for the visitor to admire, and that’s before you even step up to the main counter and ask for a tasting flight. Yes, we assume you’ll be doing a tasting flight because we believe you want at least a little joy in your life, even if only in one-ounce increments. Unlike many distilleries we’ve visited, there are a few different sizes beyond the standard 750ml bottling. There are 300ml and small sampler pack offerings. Attractively, the sample sizes are not plastic but glass. Sometimes the smallest of details really impress, don’t they?

Q: You might forgive us for being especially interested in whiskey. Can you tell us about your Whiskey Discourse series? How did it come into being?

Kirby: This has been really fun for me.  I wanted to create a series of small batch whiskeys that took whiskey traditions and played around with them in innovative ways.  I’m not trying to go crazy here and make chia seed whiskey (but that could also be fun, if a whole different project). The thought of creating a whiskey blend with OOLA Bourbon, a Canadian Rye as well as a Highland Scotch was a challenge and conceptually interesting to me – I stuck with it until it was absolutely sublime!  It has to be great juice at the end of the day, but otherwise cask finishes, blends (as long as our OOLA Bourbon is included), infusions, etc. are all on the table.  Again, unlimited creativity is so compelling.

Off to the side, and easy to overlook if you’re making straight for the main counter with the tasting samples, is a two-tier shelf with about twenty bottles half full of liquids of various hues (at Left). Labeled with handwritten notes, they are the results of OOLA’s experiments, a distillery’s lab on display for the passerby to see. Almost all the bottles have different kinds of wooden staves to drive the experiment, and Kirby was kind enough to allow us to sample a couple while talking about some of what he was doing. It was like looking into a blender’s diary, for this was where ideas, dreams, and wild inclinations were given free reign to try and claw their way into reality. Some might end up skunky, but who can say that some wouldn’t be wondrous? Such is the stuff boozy science is made for. We won’t impart the details since they’re all right there for you to check out yourself if you’re curious, but suffice it to say the potential was broad and fascinating. Here’s to an experimental spirit!

Q: What do you look for in a whiskey? How does your personal taste find expression in what you create?

Kirby: What keeps coming up for me as I am creating OOLA Whiskeys is balance, complexity and a long smooth finish.  These characteristics are certainly present in all of OOLA’s whiskeys.  For instance, a big round mainly corn influenced Bourbon is not my thing.  I need the complexity that a high rye content can bring to the spirit.  That said, I also want to keep that in balance and not let it take over – corn is a beautiful thing as is rye, malted barley and wheat, but they need to be in balance.

This article talks a lot about the whiskey and its creation, but where are the hard details of the good stuff? Worry not, we bought plenty of spirits and are in the process of reviewing them. We’ll link to them in this place (and the regular places) as they become available. 

Q: You make white spirits (gin and vodka). How does whiskey fit into the overall portfolio of OOLA? Does the work in one influence the other?

Kirby: Of course each spirit type has it’s own character, but from my perspective the clear/white spirits in the OOLA portfolio are a seamless extension of our Whiskey portfolio.  Our vodka is so full of flavor, has a rich smooth viscosity/mouth feel and a long finish….. sounds like a whiskey review, right?  Also, the complexity of making a good gin is certainly something I take to the table when creating or recreating our whiskeys.  The effects of the barrel are probably the biggest point of differentiation, but again, that said, the effects of the barrel are no more apparent than in our Waitsburg Barrel Finished Gin – it is profound.  I often bring the flagship OOLA Gin and Barrel Finished Gin to whiskey workshops to talk about barrel influence.  Clear spirits are firmly on our radar and NOT a placeholder until our whiskey ages in proper quantities.  They are both important to our distillery.  

Our OOLA visit was a two day affair. The first day was simply as consumers and we were happy we did. Sometimes you strike it lucky, and the day we arrived was a sale day, where 300 ml bottles of all white spirits were $10. While we were sad this didn’t include whiskey, we happily sampled the options available to us and walked out with bottles of gin and vodka. Hey, just because we love whisky doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy other quality spirits when they’re available to us.

Q: What would you like to see in an OOLA whiskey five or ten years down the road?

Kirby: 5 or 10 years down the road is a very exciting time period for us.  We are growing at a steady and healthy pace.  We are putting more and more barrels of our Waitsburg Bourbon into the rickhouse each year.  As stocks grow, it allows us to devote more of this beautiful bourbon to my passion for new projects.  These projects/releases will always be very small by industry standards, but if we finish a whiskey in French oak barrels, for example, and it turns out absolutely amazing, we can take it nationwide and beyond, not keep it to one or two markets due to limited availability. Along with expanding nationwide, I also hope we can explore international markets. That is exciting to me.  Specifically, in an OOLA Whiskey, I hope to see continued innovation.  I don’t ever want to get stagnant or satisfied.  Keep innovating is a mantra around here!

Q: Looking ahead just to the next year, what are you hoping to see for OOLA as a whole?

Kirby: OOLA Distillery is committed to sustainable practices in our production and working closely with the communities we produce and sell in.  While focus on the quality of our spirits and innovation has to continue, it is important to also take a step back and look at the business as a whole.  Last year we made huge advancements in shrinking our ecological footprint with innovation and new, more efficient equipment.  We contributed to over 100 local charities in 2016 alone.  I want to continue to have the focus trained on how to continue these trends.  As we grow and produce more spirits this gets more and more important.  We would like to see everyone here paid better as well…creating real careers within the distilling industry has to happen soon.  I can only ask my people to buy into the dream for so long.  This is another way I hope to become sustainable as a business.

Some images that appear in this feature set were provided by OOLA, while others we took ourselves. We’d like to thank Kirby and his staff for being generous with their time (and spirits) during our visit, and wish them the best of luck in the future. Look for more Whisky Wisdom coming soon, gathered from near and far. In the meantime, content yourself with some reviews!