The Washington food and beverage industry, and the craft beverage world lost one of its luminaries recently – Samuel David Desner, of Salish Sea Organic Liqueurs, succumbed to seizure complications. As we step into the golden days of summer, we’d like to take a few moments to remember one of the brightest minds of our times, who left us way, way too soon.
Sandy Desner, Sam’s father and business partner, reflects, “Sam will be greatly missed by us, and many others. The deepest feelings I experience, beyond the sorrow of his loss, is pride at how Sam lived his life, the values he believed in and espoused, and the quality of the life he led. He spent almost a third of his life following his passion for liqueurs and the natural world, and created a company that has brought pleasure to many and retains great potential.”
For someone who made craft liqueur for a living, Sam Desner was not really into drinking. “Sam did not drink much or often, and none in the more recent years when his health issues started. Sam really didn’t have a go-to flavor or drink. It was all about the creative art of social interaction, pleasure and community. Sam loved the alchemy in creating and refining herbal flavors,” said Desner.
Sam’s vision for Salish Sea Organic Liqueurs, a craft distillery which he ran with Sandy, was to produce a wide range of premium certified organic liqueurs created with real herbs, flowers and fruits. Think small batch, lovingly handcrafted liqueurs in sumptuous flavors such as chrysanthemum, honeysuckle or allspice –to name a few. Sam’s muse? Western Washington’s Salish Sea with its gleaming turquoise waters and thriving marine life. Salish currently produces 21 flavors, and was preparing the release of two new flavors this year.
Desner reflects on his son’s magnanimous personality, “On the continuum of where people fall, Sam was a little out of the norm. He was born with a strong sense of self and it was early in his life that we came to understand that we needed to provide support and get out of his way. Sam was incredibly tenacious, obsessive about detail, and saw the world through a black and white lens. Things were always clear to him, although others might not agree. Incredibly tenacious in his commitment to others, if you were a friend, it was a lifetime commitment.”
Sam had a number of passions and loves, snorkeling in Hawaii being one. “He was eight the first time we took him to Maui. The first day he was very tentative at the beach, but by the second day he had become a water lover and we spent many hours snorkeling together during the many trips to the islands. Sam also loved aikido and various martial arts, old and rare books, and music,” reminisces Desner.
It was at Evergreen College that Sam’s passion for mixology developed. His interest in alcohol was not so much as an intoxicant, but rather as a way to assist social lubrication, which leads to building community and creating pleasure for others. At Evergreen, he opened a social gathering space in his apartment where those imbibing were kept safe. This included providing rides as designated driver, a bed for those who overindulged and, as always, the guarantee that anyone near to him would be cared for. These nights became legendary, and Sam impacted many lives.
“About three months after he dropped out of Evergreen, we were concerned. Sam came by the house and stated that he had decided to make liqueurs, and to try these, which I did, and they were pretty good. Sam was 21 at the time,” said Desner.
Sam Desner was curious, creative and compelling. He was an experiential learner and frustrated by the inability to find single-tone flavors and the lack of certified organic liqueurs. So he simply taught himself how to make liqueurs. He prioritized reflective and hands-on learning over classrooms. There wasn’t a singular moment of epiphany – but a deep, sustained drive that led Sam to take Salish Sea Organic Liqueurs to new heights.
The company was Sam’s brainchild, one that he saw from inception to execution. Over the next year and a half Sam mapped out new creative horizons. Desner recounts: “I watched Sam as he worked to perfect his methodology, learn about distillation and alcohol regulation. I expected him to lose interest but this was not Sam’s nature. In 2012, I suggested that if he really wanted to create a business, I would provide direction and we would see what happens. You can make a great product but that isn’t the same as running a business, especially a highly regulated one. Thinking I knew my son, I did not expect him to dive into this process with a complete commitment that followed, and so in October 2013 we formed a limited partnership to raise capital and Salish Sea Organic Liqueurs came into existence. We leased the distillery space in February 2014 and opened to the public January 2015 with 16 different certified organic liqueurs.”
Lots of adoration, awards and accolades followed. During the next five years Salish became one of the premier certified organic liqueur producers, receiving over 50 national and international awards for its certified organic liqueurs. “While he valued and prioritized all his relationships, if there is one single highlight, it would be Salish Sea Organic Liqueurs. Within the category of Salish, it would be Salish’s Hibiscus Liqueur taking the Double Gold Medal Award, Best of Category, at the American Distilling Institute International Competition in Baltimore in 2017,” said Desner.
At Salish, Sandy and Sam Desner were a formidable team. “Little did I realize at the time – the amazing gift it was to be able to spend such quality time with my adult child these last eight years. If there was a day we weren’t together, talking five or six times a day, was not normal. We were best friends, business partners, and child and parent. This is what I will miss the most, the everyday interaction. Next, I will miss the person he was. He made many of us better people because of his high, unyielding standards, coupled with his compassion and support of others,” said Desner.
The award-winning distillery is up for sale, and besides a healthy business, the buyer will inherit Sam Desner’s wonderful legacy. Besides being fiercely passionate about everything he did – those who knew Sam well will tell you that one of his most defining traits was his tenacity. His strong sense of commitment and microscopic attention to detail is reflected in the impeccable quality of products at Salish Sea Organic Liqueurs, his labor of love. A self taught craft-distiller, Sam adhered to time-honored methods of cold maceration to extract the best flavor from the choicest botanicals. That meant flying in ruby-red hibiscus flowers from Egypt, and exquisitely perfumed lavender all the way from France. Only one in about six liqueurs passed his exacting standards and went into production. Above and beyond all, Sam stood for people, with his large heart and protective nature.
“We are hopeful to find a company, person or persons who have integrity, with a commitment to being certified organic, and a desire to continue Sam’s legacy. The quality and range of his products is unique and it would be sad to see that lost. We have the capacity to provide a turnkey operation, including key personnel and production knowledge, along with an inventory of over 3,000 cases of liqueurs including all 21 flavors currently in production. We will assist with any transition, but will not continue any long-term involvement,” said Desner.
It would be fitting to raise our glasses to celebrate Sam Desner’s exceptional life with a cocktail. We recommend a dash of his favorite Hibiscus liqueur mixed with sparkling wine – spirited and special, much like the man himself.