Drawing artesian water straight from the source by hand, master distillers Ray Watson and Lesa Givens have no need to modify an already perfect process when distilling their premier spirit, Olympia Artesian Vodka. Few things can be done better than Mother Nature, and that includes the natural filtration of the artesian water used in their vodka — it’s rich with natural minerals and electrolytes, resulting in the purest and best-tasting water, straight from the Cascade Mountains.
“We’re enhancing something that’s already good,” Watson says. “A lot of brewers and distillers will filter out contaminants in their water, but if you begin with a good water source, you’re way ahead of everybody else.”
Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, the duo runs their distillery in Tumwater — a suburb of Olympia, Washington — the original home of the popular regional brand Olympia Brewing Co. and Olympia Beer, which is now owned by Pabst and brewed in California.
IT’S THE WATER
The Olympia Brewing Co. (previously named The Capital Brewing Co. for a six year stint) was founded in the late 19th century by a German immigrant, Leopold Schmidt. He proudly built a brand highlighting the Olympia region, which provided the purest water through a natural filtration method and collected minerals on its journey flowing down the Cascades. For a time, the brewery even used the slogan “It’s the Water” to reference the artesian water that endowed the beer with its unmistakable quality, before the company moved to California.
A community water source and gathering spot in Olympia, many of the residents still use the well as their main source of water. Like Olympia Brewing before them, artesian well water is used by Watson and Givens in their distilling process for Olympia Artesian Vodka, an operation which ultimately brought the brand back home.
“The underground geological formations of clay, sand and porous rock are the natural filters for the water,” Watson explains. “The water runs down the river and filters into the streambed and is then pulled back through, making a better filtration system than anything else out there.”
Free from contaminants and containing naturally-infused minerals and electrolytes, the artesian water is responsible for Olympia Artesian Vodka’s exceptionally smooth mouthfeel. “When you consider that a bottle of vodka is 60 percent water, it only makes sense that if you’ve got the best water, you can make the best vodka,” Givens says.
It isn’t only Northwest natives that notice the difference in the water. Olympia Artesian Vodka received recognition all across the country when it was awarded Silver in the 2020 New York International Spirits Competition and named the best vodka distillery in Washington state.
FROM OLYMPIA, FOR OLYMPIA
Initially scheduled to launch in early March, Watson and Givens found their plans coming to a screeching halt, along with the rest of the world, following the effects of COVID-19. It was at the same time that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked distilleries across the country to start producing hand sanitizer to assist in alleviating the shortage.
“We had this giant still and all of these materials in our hands,” Givens says. “So we pivoted to hand sanitizer mode and ended up producing about 12,000 bottles.”
When Watson and Givens weren’t making hand sanitizer at the Tumwater distillery, they were out delivering it to adult family homes, children’s services and other organizations in need all over Thurston County. As the country has begun to adjust to a new normal, Watson and Givens have been able to shift back to their vodka distilling operation, just in time for its release in late August.
Olympia Artesian Vodka wouldn’t be what it is today without the story behind it. Every part of the distilling process is done locally, the water is drawn from the well, loaded up on trailers and driven a short distance to their distillery, where it goes straight to their still.
Proudly displayed in the distillery, above their bottling line, are a series of black and white photos captured of laborers and brewers in action at the original Olympia Brewing. These photos pay homage to the original brand and honor the people — and community — who helped build it. “We feel an incredible responsibility to continue the legacy of the brand,” Givens says. “We have their faces on the wall to remind us it matters.”
Watson and Givens’ aspirations for their Olympia Artesian Vodka are anything but low, with over 80 retailers in Washington alone — ranging from grocery and liquor stores to bars and restaurants — they have begun to sell in Montana and plan on Oregon in the next few weeks, with California next.