Glass Distillery

14. Glass 1

Until recently, artisan glass was reserved for royalty and the extremely wealthy, produced in Venice by master glassmakers. Leave it to the Pacific Northwest to disrupt centuries of tradition. In the early 70’s, pioneer glassmakers like Dale Chihuly started a new movement of glass for the masses, melding traditional techniques with a sculptural approach. When vodka distiller and glass devotee Ian G. MacNeil, who is a board member at the Museum of Glass, built a brand that captures the beauty of glass and celebrates Washington ingenuity. The new business was a calculated risk that is paying off in international awards: over twenty-five of them, so far.

What would happen, MacNeil wondered, if he used Washington wine grapes instead of potatoes to distill his vodka? Observing that the vodka space was ripe for innovation, following closely behind the craft wine, beer, and brown spirits innovation of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000’s, he worked with a traditional German still manufacturer to build a still that could produce vodka and brandy, while determining the taste profile he wanted and learning a theoretical understanding of distillation. The first batches were a calculated risk: MacNeil says, “The funny part about getting into this industry is you can’t practice legally. You can’t develop a recipe over time before getting into business.” Luckily, the first batch, in 2012, was a success, and each subsequent batch gets better.

MacNeil, who worked in the software telecom space during his previous career, says Glass Distillery brought him the chance to use his interests in science and his creativity while building a business that captures a unique portion of an exploding market. The name is more than a tie-in to the Washington glass community: “From a branding perspective, we believe it captures our intention of being clear and pure and elegant without being arrogant,” says MacNeil, adding that glass and vodka are both an expression of art beginning with a hot liquid that takes the imprint of the artist. By using grapes, and by creating unique keepsake bottles, Glass Vodka stands apart from the crowd.

14. Glass 2 copy

“I designed the bottle myself, and I’d say it’s pure stupidity to make your own bottle! There are so many great pre-made bottles you can decorate for your brand—but I wanted something unique, so I made my own,” says MacNeil. Dealing directly with the manufacturer instead of using a broker or intermediary, he designed a 100% pure crystal bottle, including the stopper. “I wanted it to remind you of a beautiful bottle of Bordeaux on the bottom, and your grandmother’s wine decanter on top.” He adds with a laugh that he wanted people keeping the bottle long after they finished the vodka simply because it was so beautiful, like the iPhone box no one knows what to do with, but can’t throw away.

As for the vodka itself, the Glass Vodka collection currently contains five products: the classic Glass Vodka, minimally-flavored Kona, Nectar, and Spice vodkas, and a Washington grape/ California grain spirit blend named “Gridiron”. “Our flavors are infusions using all-natural ingredients and no sweeteners,” says MacNeil. Kona is a partnership with Washington coffee roaster Seven Coffee Roasters, using a Japanese-style cold coffee extraction that, says MacNeil, tastes like a fresh shot of espresso. Nectar is infused with honey from local Washington apiaries, and Spice is made with genuine Sri Lankan cinnamon. The result is a range of uncommonly clean-tasting vodka with an attractive mouthfeel and dangerous sippability.

14. Glass 3

As for any startup, MacNeil did everything for Glass Distillery until recently, from scrubbing toilets to accounting to distilling. When the time came to bring on a head distiller last autumn, he did it right: using a professional recruiting firm that specializes in the beverage sector, he worked for four months to track down his eventual first choice: Melaina Moustakis, formerly of E. & J. Gallo Winery. “I needed someone I could trust to make our product the way I want it made, and keep our winning trend. And Melaina is incredible—she’s got gumption and backbone, and an incredible palate.”

As a welcome-to-the-family project, Glass Distillery will be releasing a limited run of Moustakis’s first batch of vodka in beautiful colored glass bottles. The “Distiller’s Cut” batch will have 120 bottles (a number chosen whimsically by compiling Moustakis’s birthdate, month, and year) and will be released with fanfare soon as the Glass Distillery opens to the public for tours and tastings.

And what does the future hold for MacNeil, Moustakis, and their beautiful vodka? “Well, we’re working on a brandy project—we have a run of brandy that’s been aging for three years and has another seven to go.” There will be more projects and collaborations featuring Glass Vodka. Probably more international awards. And, vodka drinkers can only hope, even more restrained innovation from these passionate folks in Washington.

Text by Emily McIntyre