At the edge of a grassy field, on top of a wooded hillside, the San Juan Island Distillery is a hidden gem that’s earned quite the national reputation.

In 2014, they released their first batch of apple brandy. It won gold and best-in-class from the American Craft Spirits Association, plus best-in-class from the American Distilling Institute. Which means, they made the best craft-distilled apple brandy in the U.S.

But, the brandy didn’t mature overnight. The process takes a minimum of three years. With that kind of wait time, diving into the apple brandy business is not a decision best made on a whim. It’s a long-term commitment better suited for those who delight in the process of learning and who love apple brandy. It’s one for which Suzy and Hawk Pingree are ideal. 

Former communications professors at the University of Wisconsin, this husband-wife duo make up two-thirds of the distillery’s founders. Their third partner in crime, Richard Anderson, owns an apple orchard just minutes from the distillery’s home – an unimposing barn. 

While these libations are certainly worthy of a celebration, there’s nothing highbrow about this distillery. Run primarily by the Pingrees and their adult children, afternoon tastings better resemble jovial family picnics than stuffy wine rooms.

A miniature cannon sits near the register. It’s fired upon each purchase. Visitors frequently meander in on foot from the nearby Roche Harbor Resort. (It’s less than a mile away.) At the fringes, the Pingree’s grandchildren can be seen playing everything from freeze tag to water wars.

“Suzy’s collected tons of toys for the grandkids. She even found those big blowup balls. The ones the kids can climb inside and then try to roll into one another,” said Hawk.

For all three founders, it’s about making the distillery as fun and welcoming as possible. “We want this to be a place people like to be – especially our grandchildren. What’s really special is when we see other kids join the fun. Really, tastings are just one big party,” said Suzy.

 

The Beginning of a Vision
During a sabbatical in France, the couple developed a love for Calvados, a mature apple brandy. Returning stateside, they discovered Calvados was an art form that had all but disappeared in America.

A few years later while visiting Suzy’s sister on San Juan Island, they happened upon Richard’s apple orchard. “Why isn’t this guy making apple brandy with all those beautiful apples?” they immediately asked one another.

The rest, Suzy and Hawk like to say, is history.

 

Beyond Brandy
Whoever said patience is a virtue, wasn’t waiting three years for apple brandy to mature. From the beginning, Suzy and Hawk decided simply waiting wasn’t going to cut it. 

Oh. Thank. Heaven.

Trying their hands at other spirits – they kept their focus on apples, developing a variety of apple-based gins and hard ciders. (The ciders are produced by the distillery’s sister company, Westcott Bay Cider.)

To produce seasonal gins, they utilize a combination of locally foraged and sourced ingredients. The results are uniquely flavorful. Juniper berry is certainly always present. “It wouldn’t be gin without it,” Suzy explained. But, it’s not overpowering. Additions such as nettle, elder flower, wild roses, blackberries, lavender, Madrone bark and Douglas fir all make their way into the spirits from time to time.

 

Tasting’s Only Part of the Fun
Though housed in the same barn, the distillery and cidery areas are required to be entirely separate. In one area, the cidery’s large stainless cider fermentation tanks and apple press flank either side of a room. But the real beauty is the distillery’s room. It houses a 200-liter Adolf Adrian pot still crafted from hand-beaten copper and a 30-liter copper Portuguese pot still.

If the beautifully crafted stills aren’t enough to catch your attention, Hawk will. Tasting at the San Juan Island Distillery and Westcott Bay Cidery isn’t a mere sample and be gone process. It’s an education.

Hawk is a teacher to his core. He explains the technical process of brewing cider, gin and apple brandy in understandable terms.

So, visit for the brandy, cider and gin. Stay for the stories, lessons and, if you’re up for it, round of tag with the kids. When you leave, take a bottle (or five). If you don’t feel like carrying them home, the Pingrees frequently make deliveries to Roche Harbor Resort.