The center of Washington viticulture can seem an inhospitable place to those who don’t like to sip cabs and syrahs. Even for the wine-enthused, hours of tasting around Walla Walla can grow weary. That’s where these local spots, all of which produce booze that isn’t wine, can save the day.
As you walk in the doors of this downtown distiller, the twang of a Brad Paisley song drifts through the air. On the wall hangs a wind chime made of twine and bullet casings. “Only one more trespasser to complete my wind chime,” painted words above cheerfully proclaim. If you were looking for an escape from the squeaky-clean grandeur of the valley’s many tasting rooms, you have found it here.
Among other liquors, 2nd Street is home to the Rat Bastard vodka line, which includes an infamous pepper garlic flavor—fantastic in bloody marys. The distiller's honey rose liqueur is heavenly over vanilla ice cream, and a gin and tonic made with its Silver Horse rose petal gin highlights all that’s fresh and vegetal.
Milton-Freewater in Oregon, while quickly becoming a satellite hub for Walla Walla’s sprawling wine industry, is still very much a sleepy agricultural town. Surrounded by miles of apple orchards, it seems inevitable that there would be excellent cider here; what’s surprising is the trendy, industrial-chic digs. The soaring ceilings and factory exterior of Blue Mountain’s taproom are thanks to the building’s former identity as a Tree Top processing facility. You can opt for a pint or a tasting flight, which could include anything from the Pete Limely, a pineapple and lime number that tastes pleasantly of a white gummy bear, to the Razzmatazz, made for Julian Hard Cider in California. That raspberry-infused cider is reminiscent of Manischewitz (but, like, in a good way). There are also plenty of options on the dryer side, for those who don’t associate “pleasant” with “gummy bear:” Their basic dry cider is so crisp and clean it almost seems good for you.
Keith Dahlgren (Mr. D) and Craig Wollam (Mr. W) launched DW in 2014, inspired by the valley’s bounty of high-quality wines. Rather than crafting their brandy from the sort of swill you wouldn’t even use to cook (the undignified origin story of most brandy), DW starts with wines that are in Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Cellar Selections. “Brandy is the original cocktail base; it will be again,” says Wollam.
Visitors can expect a tour, a tasting of all current offerings, and a cocktail mixed by Mr. D or Mr. W in the setting of a 1940s Air Force officers’ club. The Airport District tasting room, like many of the buildings in the area, housed bomber crews during World War II, and the decor evokes these origins. A DW cocktail recipe book is currently in the works, where the distillery will reveal the deft proportions behind its riff on a paper plane (dubbed a B-17) and its bracingly booze-forward brandy old-fashioned.
The sound of a crowd rises from Quirk Brewing, wheeling through a dusty sky tinged brilliant orange by the Walla Walla sunset. It all comes from a tiny, robin’s egg–blue building that taproom manager Kevin Klein describes as a beer oasis in a “sea of wine.”
“So many people, especially in the warmer months of the year, walk through the doors and they look like Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” says Klein. “It’s because they’ve been drinking fucking tannic syrahs all day. And they show up and they’re like, ‘Dear god, just give me a pilsner, please.’” Originally from Seattle, Klein is well acquainted with the big city’s intensely saturated craft beer market; to stand out, he says, breweries must either cling to some gimmick or else be hyperspecialized in a certain style of beer. Quirk, as one of only a handful of breweries in this valley, is free from the limitations imposed by an overcrowded industry.
Quirk owner and brewer Troy Robinson makes everything from blackberry Meyer lemon sours to Belgian wheat beers to extra special bitters with equal skill and attention, producing a constantly rotating lineup more diverse than those of many breweries in Seattle. Agapa’s Mexican Cravings, the most frequent among Quirk’s rotating lineup of food trucks, presents truly massive servings of light and fresh Mexican fare, the nachos heaped with seared zucchini and fresh mozzarella, the pico de gallo mouthwateringly acidic.
Easily found at the farmers market on Saturday mornings, Water Buffalo’s tiny four-barrel operation doesn’t include a taproom just yet. “Chief Executive Captain of Beerstuffs” Michael Rossi got into brewing when he was living and working at an outdoor education school in Southern California, where Modelo Negra was the closest thing he could find to a dark craft beer. He and his friends started making their own beer in a bid to improve their circumstances, and upon moving to Walla Walla, Rossi’s hobby really took off.
Water Buffalo’s saison ale, dubbed Ceres’ Harvest, is brewed with local heirloom apple varietals and has a puckeringly crisp acidity that echoes the fruit. The brewery is also notable for running a solar-powered brewing operation, and for being the only glass recycler in Walla Walla. Yes, you heard that right—in a town utterly subsumed by the wine industry, a tiny brewery is the only place you can drop off your glass recycling.