When Distiller’s Way first started, the goal, according to Head Distiller Jesse Parker, was to create spirits for private labels – single restaurants, restaurant chains, golf courses, or whoever else came calling. Parker, who had gotten his start distilling elsewhere in Washington State had almost left distilling before taking the job, choosing instead to keep distilling – if for nothing else then to be able to afford a mortgage.
“It wasn’t super exciting work, but it could pay the bills,” Parker said.
Exciting or not, the business hit a snag when Washington State passed a law making what they were doing extremely difficult.
“We jumped around and refocused,” he said, pivoting instead to creating spirits for big box retail stores instead. “When we first started doing that, we’d occasionally come across barrels here or there of spirits in 10-year range.”
Parker and his two business partners all loved bourbon and wanted to do a high end liquor, so they did what any good whiskey lover would do. They bought and then sat on the barrels and the Doc Swinson’s brand was born.
Named ostensibly after one of the original founders of Seattle, David Swinson “Doc” Maynard, Doc Swinson’s is more the embodiment of the four owners chaotic personalities, all rolled into one, Parker said with a laugh. They liked the name and the Prohibition-esque design they created (and the fact the name meshed with the design), so they went with it.
Occasionally, they’d sell some to local restaurants, or to people they knew. Perhaps not surprisingly, people liked them. It was at that point investors took notice, and Parker said they were able to refocus, shifting Doc Swinson’s into the captain’s seat of their productions.
As they earned cash from selling the barrels they’d find, they began purchasing more. Then, they decided to add another layer, finishing casks, to the equation. For their bourbon for example, they began by finishing in Oloroso sherry casks.
“The bourbon we were working with was had heavy stewed fruit flavors with nothing to really to cut that heaviness. Oloroso was the perfect partner for that,” Parker said. “Then we tasted it and realized it needed more body, so we introduced Pedro Ximénez sherry casks into the blend. Finally, we wanted something that would stick around for a long time, so we used Cognac casks.”
All three casks are finished separately before being blended together where they then sit for a few more weeks.
For their rye, they decided to take a slightly different tact. Starting with a blend of a 95% rye and a 51% rye, they still need to find a way to put their signature on it.
“There weren’t a lot of rum-finished ryes at the time. Now, there are a few, but still not a ton,” Parker said. “We had an old project that included four different rums, and we had the casks still laying around.”
With the casks available, and a dream to have a solera system sitting in the back of his brain, Parker said they set out and made one.
“The solera seemed like a really natural way to come up with a slightly ever-changing and more complex product while keeping some form of consistency to it,” he said.
Doc Swinson’s started with 13 barrels originally, but have plans to hit 570 barrels in three tiers by the end of the year. A fourth tier is planned for some time in the future.
As the brand grows, Parker said, they plan to keep innovating and introducing new finishes when they can. This has taken shape in the form of their Exploratory cask series, which has seen six releases so far, all of which incredibly limited in the number of bottles produced.
The latest, a 15-year-old Kentucky bourbon, was released in February 2020, with only 2664 bottles total. Other releases in the series take advantage of more interesting casks and barrels, as well as more local producers. The first release, for example, was finished in Madeira casks and produced only 285 bottles while the second release featured Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon barrels from Kiona Vineyards in Washington’s Red Mountain AVA (a release that produced 433 barrels).
When it comes to the Exploratory cask series, nothing is out of bounds, Parker said. When he finds interesting barrels – everything from plum dessert wine to kirsch and beyond – he stores them away until the time is right.
The goal, at the end of the day, is to have as much fun as possible making whiskeys. Parker said he never wants to be in a position where he feels like the industry is working him instead of the other way around. That’s where the experimentation comes in – it keeps things interesting while still making whiskey that people are clamoring for.
“The goal is not to become the next Bulleit, but to make a great product and get to a majority of states,” he said.
Sam Slaughter is the author of the book Are You Afraid of the Dark Rum?: and Other Cocktails For '90s Kids. His work can be seen in Maxim, Bloomberg, InsideHook, The Manual, and more.