Still Life

A Visit to Ballard’s Captive Spirits

A local bartender and third-generation distiller must wait until June 1 to sell his Big Gin on site.

By Brian Colella March 26, 2012


Visitors enter Captive Spirits through an unassuming side door of a nondescript building just off 15th in Ballard; the first thing you might notice is the baby in proximity to the booze. "It’s the most ‘ma and pa’ distillery in town,” says Ben Capdevielle. He doesn’t necessarily mean the fact that his daughter Stella hangs out with him most days at the distillery, but her presence drives the point home.

Capdevielle, a longtime bartender at spots including La Isla, King’s Hardware, and Seatown, continues a family tradition. His grandfather distilled Templeton Rye during the Prohibition Era, and Capdevielle’s father passed along the enthusiasm for spirits. The younger Capdevielle started Captive Spirits with fiancée Holly Robinson, who does events for Bastille and previously worked for Tom Douglas. The third partner, Todd Leabman, is a builder who handles the team’s bookkeeping and navigates Captive Spirits through myriad bureaucratic hurdles.

Currently, production is focused on Big Gin, which can only be found in limited release at local bars. If you want a personal bottle you have to wait until June 1. Captive Spirits, though tiny, is not licensed as a craft distillery, which means no tasting room, and currently no sales except to bars, restaurants, or liquor stores. The state will still do special orders if there’s a buyer, so Capdevielle hopes one of the nearby Ballard stores will partner up with him prior to the June 1 deadline.

This is where the craft license’s 51-percent-locally-sourced rule for ingredients gets controversial. Gin is made by distilling high-proof ethyl alcohol with juniper and other botanicals, and juniper is not something that Washington does well. And unless you distill your own pure grain alcohol, you have to import that, too. Rum, which uses sugar cane, is a no-no as well.

The owners chose to forego the craft license in favor of finding the best ingredients possible, particularly a base spirit that wouldn’t adversely affect the taste. Big Gin starts from a corn-based 190-proof alcohol from Kentucky and is made with traditional gin ingredients (it’s an “Old World” gin, designed to be tasted, not hidden, when mixed).

Capdevielle and Robinson are so enthusiastic about Big Gin that you almost believe that’s all they want to make. When asked about future plans, though, Robinson mentioned an aperitif and, no surprise, whiskey. Robinson called whiskey their passion, which makes sense given Capdevielle’s family history. The overall plan is start small (low overhead) and grow slowly, so those expansions are a ways away.

If you’re planning a visit to Captive Spirits, consider June 2, when Robinson will pull together food, drink, and live music for a release party celebrating open season on sales to the general public. Hit up the slideshow above for more info on the Ballard microdistillery, and learn more about other local distilleries right over here.

Captive Spirits Distilling, 1518 NW 52nd Street Ste A, Ballard, 206-852-4794;

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