Tip your glass to local spirits, wine and beer.
Chinden Boulevard has always been known as a place you could find a good watering hole, but drive down it these days and it’s hard not to notice that a change is taking place. Slowly, but surely, local craft wineries and breweries are staking claim to what was once the exclusive domain of bars and nightclubs. It’s testament to a burgeoning national industry that has been making its way into Idaho, and Garden City is not the only place it’s happening by any means.
Liquor, or distilled spirits as many like to call it these days, is the latest adult beverage to catch fire in the craft industry. In 2005 there were around 50 distilleries in the country. A decade later there are more than 750, and that number is growing steadily. The newest addition to Boise’s fledgling distillery scene is 8 Feathers, which opened on Maple Grove, just south of Franklin just over two years ago.
When Greg Lowe moved to Eagle from Texas to become the CEO of Syringa Networks, he brought his pals Larry Price and Rick McKinney with him because he needed their skills in the company. His wife, Marjie, was retired, but the move put Larry’s wife, Sandee, out of work, so the two best friends decided to start something of their own.
“Greg was born in Tennessee and lived in Kentucky, so bourbon is kind of in his blood,” says Marjie. “When he told us how the distillery business was booming in the U.S. we thought, why not?”
They did their homework, visiting several distilleries in the West, and found that they were not only doing well, they were all expanding. They also learned that southern Idaho’s dry, high-desert climate and the Treasure Valley’s pristine, artesian well water were perfect for making bourbon. But before they opened their doors the two women spent three months lobbying the Idaho State Legislature to pass a bill that would allow sampling of hard liquor, something that had only been permitted for beer and wine before.
“Apparently it had been tried before,” Marjie says, “but it failed because the sampling size was too big. We proposed a maximum of three, .25 ounce samples per person, and it passed.”
Once they were up and running, they immediately began making Greg’s signature bourbon. It needed two years in the barrel, so in the meantime, they began making whiskey to get some product on the shelves and promote their brand.
“All bourbons are whiskies, but not all whiskies are bourbons,” Marjie explains. “Our first whiskey was Moonshine. It’s aged about three months. Then we released our Corn Whiskey, which we age six months.”
Making the rounds of bars and restaurants to promote their products, Marjie and Sandee learned that whiskey is the fastest growing category in distilled spirits, and women are the fastest growing category in whiskey. Over the past five years, the number of women whiskey drinkers has grown from 12 percent to around 37 percent, so they wanted to create a drink aimed at the female demographic.
“We have a fantastic vanilla bean whiskey that came out this summer,” says Sandee. The whiskey sits in the barrel by itself for one month, then we spike it with vanilla beans for another two months and let the oils from the vanilla really get in there. A lot of bartenders are really excited about it, and our first batch has already sold out in the stores.”
The new, larger Vendome still they installed this past summer increased their production from a barrel-and-a-half a month to nearly eight barrels a month, and by the time the first batch of Greg’s bourbon was released in September, they were running on all cylinders. Both their Corn Whiskey and their Moonshine have won several international medals, including a triple gold and Best of Show for the Corn Whiskey from the Micro Liquor international craft competition this past year.
“We’re proud to be an all-Idaho product,” says Sandee, and we go from grain to glass right here in this facility.”
While there are only a handful of distilleries in Idaho right now, 8 Feathers expects the whiskey business to grow much like the area’s wine business has over the past decade.
The Snake River Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), Idaho’s first, was established in 2007. It’s home to 15 of Idaho’s 50 wineries, which contributed over $73 million to the state’s economy in 2012.
Cinder winemaker Melanie Krause and her husband, Joe Schnerr, are celebrating their tenth vintage this fall and, coincidentally, their 10th wedding anniversary.
“We looked at other areas in Washington and Oregon before we decided on Boise,” says Joe, “but we saw the potential in the environment here. It’s a great climate for growing grapes, and consumers who were drinking a lot of wine and looking for high-end wines from the region.”
After several years learning the craft at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington, Melanie decided it was time to strike out on her own. It has clearly been a good decision.
“The growth we’ve seen in the wine industry here has been fabulous,” she says enthusiastically. “We’ve been growing our winery as fast as we can handle, which has basically been doubling every year or two, and we’ve never had a year where the wine sold for longer than one year after its release date.”
Combining forces with two other wineries, Telaya and Coiled, their warehouse on 44th Street in Garden City quickly became a mecca for local wine tasting. Since then several other wineries and breweries have opened facilities along Chinden Boulevard.
“We welcome them all,” says Melanie, “because the clustering of craft products within an area is appealing to tourists, and this becomes much more of a destination.”
Now that Telaya and Coiled are parting ways with Cinder and opening their own facility in Garden City, Cinder has much needed room to grow.
“Right now we’re at 6,000 cases a year,” Joe says, “but we think we could do north of 10,000 cases in this space.”
“The problem,” adds Melanie, “is that there aren’t enough grapes being grown here. From the very beginning, we planted our flag firmly in Idaho and said we’re going to make wine from Idaho grapes as much as we can because we believe in them. But I’ve always also said that if we have a really bad year, I’ll source grapes from Washington. For the first time in 10 years, we’re having that year.”
It’s fairly common for wineries to source grapes from another region. With only 1,800 acres of vineyards currently in Idaho, demand is beginning to outpace production, and neither Joe nor Melanie see it slowing down any time soon.
“The time is ripe for vineyard investment,” says Joe. “We have professional winemakers moving into the area and taking the craft to the next level, and showing that wines from the Snake River Valley can be just as high-quality as our neighboring regions in Washington and Oregon. And even though, in some ways, they are our competition, we all want each other to succeed because it elevates the entire region.”
The craft beer business has been going strong in the U.S. since the 1990s, and it really began making an impact in the Boise area about five years ago. There are more than 50 craft breweries around the state today. Nineteen of them are right here in the Treasure Valley, and even before Cinder came along, they had discovered Garden City, where choices range from Payette Brewing Co., now Idaho’s largest brewer, to the new guy on the block, Haff Brewing.
“I was an avid home brewer,” says Brian Haff, who opened the new company a year ago with his wife, Lisa. “But I wanted to make a wider variety of beers. Now we have six fermenters, so I can have six different things going if I want to, but what I actually brew is pretty much determined by demand.”
At full production, they can put out 21 barrels, or 42 kegs, a week. Brian makes a killer IPA, a porter, and a watermelon-wheat beer that’s very popular during the summer. Last Valentine’s Day he came out with a white chocolate-blueberry porter that was a big hit.
“We sold the entire batch in about a week,” he says with a smile. “Restaurants couldn’t get enough of it. So we’re bringing that one back this fall.”
Once they decided to start the brewery it took about 18 months to open. They chose Garden City because of the low lease rates and busy Chinden Boulevard. And after barely a year in operation they’re already looking to expand.
“We’re going to do two of our beers in 22 ounce bombers,” says Brian, “so we’ll be doing a bottling line here soon. We’ve submitted art work for labels, but it’s a long process getting them approved.”
Brian believes the can is what separates the breweries that are really going to grow and expand. It’s an expensive proposition, but one he holds out hope for in the future.
“I love the idea of growth,” he says. “Right now, we’re learning about forecasting, and the logistics of getting beer made and out the door on a certain timeline. We’re starting to learn what kind of marketing really works for our business. But every time someone comes in here and says this is the best IPA in Idaho, I think, yeah, we’re doing something right.”
Even as prolific as they are, local craft breweries are still only a small percentage of the Boise area market. Almost all of the domestic beer sold here is still from monster breweries like Budweiser, Miller or Coors. But the craft industry, whether it’s beer, wine or hard liquor, is making a dent, and as it continues to hammer on the consciousness of Boise consumers, that dent will only get bigger.