Mark Williams is a one-man band with an award-winning distillery.
He spends seven days a week at his business, making spirits at Black Heron Spirits in West Richland.
Because his distillery is small and he is the only employee, Williams can use any help he can get to promote his product.
So he decided to enter a couple of his products in the Sip Northwest Magazine’s Best of the Northwest Spirits Awards competition for 2017.
The result? Black Heron Spirits won two medals.
The Black Heron Bourbon Whiskey earned a double gold – the top award – in the bourbon category.
Williams’ small batch Single Malt Peated Whiskey — a Scottish-style whiskey — earned a gold medal in the whiskey category.
According to Sip Northwest, Black Heron’s bourbon whiskey “is a classic bottling that stays true to the bourbon style while showcasing plenty of local characteristics. The backbone of corn in this coppery spirit is braided together with grain, spice and plenty of oak in a perfect marriage that ends with a super smooth finish.”
The Single Malt Peated Whiskey sold out during the holidays.
But Williams will be coming up with something new.
“The peated whiskey requires months to years to create as it develops in the barrel,” Williams said. “Between now and March – because we don’t want to rush the bottling process – I’ll be bottling an American-style single malt whiskey, and I anticipate bottling other varieties later this year.”
“I’m always creating something,” Williams said. “I was thrilled to find that a longtime favorite earned a medal and was encouraged when our new small-batch product was honored as well.”
This isn’t the first time Williams’ work has been honored.
His Black Heron Vodka was Best of the Northwest in 2015, also honored by Sip Northwest magazine.
And his Black Heron Moonshine won a bronze medal in the 2015 American Distilling Institute Craft Spirit judging contest.
Not bad for a guy who started distilling four years ago.
Black Heron was originally started by Joel Tefft.
Williams bought the business from Tefft in June 2013.
Williams had Tefft stay on for three years to help mentor him. Now, Williams is the company’s sole employee.
“I have help when it’s time to bottle,” said Williams, who admitted he has his entire life savings invested in the company.
Williams worked for the family business, the WHECO Corp. in Richland, for 24 years.
It’s a worldwide provider of heavy equipment repair and restoration services using cranes.
“I was in my mid-40s, working for the family business for 24 years,” Williams said. “At that point in my life, I started thinking I could finish my career in the family business. Or I could do something different. I drove by this (distillery) every day on my way to work and then home.”
He decided to take a leap of faith.
“Technically, it’s just pure manufacturing,” he said. “The process is what I like. If this business was about making fence posts, I’d probably like that too. I’m a manufacturer.”
He admitted he’s not getting rich in the spirits business but he’s enjoying the work.
“This area is a great place to manufacture this product because we’re so close to the raw ingredients,” he said. “But we don’t have enough people around here for great sales. The west side of the state has plenty of people a distiller can sell to. But the ingredients are far away from the distiller. So there are no free lunches either way.”
While more sales would be nice, Williams is happy with the work.
“I like the process of figuring out the equipment,” he said. “I’m just really now — after four years — getting the products down and what to do with them. Joel had certain things he liked to make. I have certain things I like to make.”
There are no regrets about leaving the family business though.
“I’m very content doing this,” he said. “My goal was to have fun and pay the bills. I’ve got the fun part down. But these medals have helped my sales. In the past decade, there has been a bourbon surge. Brown liquid is popular. People are driving in from out of town to taste it. There definitely is an uptick on bourbon sales.”
Williams thinks he may have made a mistake by entering the Peat Whiskey.
“The Peat Whiskey was entered to see how it would stack up against the competition,” he said.
It did well. But there wasn’t enough of the small batch to make a huge amount of revenue.
Williams sells eight products.
In addition, he makes a red wine blend under the Sugar Horse Cellars label in a building next door. State law does not allow wine and distilled products to be served in the same tasting room.
Everything distilled produced by him has a minimum of two years of aging.
He makes bourbon batches for four barrels.
“After two years, I might bottle one barrel and let the others age,” he said. “I can get 350 bottles, or 29 cases, to a barrel.”
The small Black Heron Spirits tasting room is near the intersection of Keene Road and Van Giesen Street. It’s open from noon to 5 p.m. every Friday and Saturday. The tasting room is also available by appointment for group tastings of six or more people.
“I don’t have a demand to be open more than Friday and Saturday,” he said.
But he also said if he gets a customer into his tasting room, he’s confident they’ll leave with a product. Especially now, with major award-winning products waiting to be sipped.
Black Heron Spirits can be reached by calling 509-967-0781 or visit blackheronspirits.com.
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