Westland Distillery has set up a new whiskey storage facility and farm west of Burlington, which the company said will expand its work with Skagit County researchers and farmers to develop new barley varieties and flavors in whiskey.
The Seattle-based distillery has built two rackhouses — where whiskey is stored in barrels and aged — with a third under construction on 80 acres off Josh Wilson Road.
About 20 acres will be planted with barley, serving as a testing site for new varieties that may be grown in the future by Skagit Valley farmers.
The distillery, which makes single malt whiskey from 100% malted barley, works with the Washington State University Bread Lab to develop flavorful barley varieties that grow well in the region’s mild climate.
The distillery uses Skagit Valley-grown barley in 30% of its whiskey, and gets it malted grain from Skagit Valley Malting.
The company was running out of space and viewed Skagit County as the perfect place for a new facility, said Steve Hawley, director of marketing at Westland Distillery.
“Given the work we do, partners we have, and people we are invested in, it made a ton of sense,” he said.
No whiskey will be distilled on site, only stored. The business is hiring several employees to staff the site.
Westland Distillery held an open house at the new facility Thursday evening. About 75 attended.
Matt Hofmann, managing director of Westland Distillery, said it’s uncommon in the whiskey industry to bring together the barley growers, maltsters and distillers.
“Everybody here has to be linked because we’re not following the commodity (market) playbook,” he said.
Instead of selling products at low prices as an agriculture commodity, farmers earn a premium by selling their grains to local flour mills, brewers and distillers.
Stephen Jones, director of the Bread Lab, said the Westland Distillery expansion will keep barley where it is produced, further boosting growers’ profits.
Jones said the Bread Lab breeds colored barleys — purple, green, black and blue.
”That will bring flavor to the distilled product and give growers something unique to grow,” he said.
He said barley, a cool season grass, thrives in the region’s normally mild springs and summers.
Hofmann said the distillery will use its barley test fields to see how the new varieties grow, helping reduce risk for farmers.
Dave Hedlin, one of the farmers who grows barley for Westland Distillery, attended Thursday’s open house. He said his 500-acre La Conner farm plants the grain to break disease cycles and return organic matter to the soil.
He said partnering with the distillery makes growing barley more profitable. With high farming costs compared to other parts of the country, Skagit Valley farms have to find ways to increase the value of what they grow, he said.
”We’re not the low-cost producer so we have to differentiate ourselves in the market — whether it’s remarkable whiskey, beer or flour,” Hedlin said.
Westland Distillery has more expansion plans, including opening a bottling facility nearby at the Port of Skagit.