There are plenty of distilleries in the Northwest that began handcrafting spirits and then decided to serve their products on-site in the form of a cocktail. It’s common to be able to sip a few samplings of gin or rum at a distillery tasting bar, and then order a full cocktail to sit and enjoy to finish out the tasting.
For Sun Liquor Distillery, its story is a bit different, working backward from running a craft cocktail lounge to later launching a distillery utilizing all of their knowledge from behind the bar that had been learned along the way.
Launching a Craft Cocktail Lounge
Sun Liquor Lounge opened in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in 2006, and Erik Chapman, now head distiller for the distillery, was the first person hired to join the team. He was stacked with experience and loved the concept of scratch cocktails.
“In 2006 there wasn’t a lot of bars doing scratch cocktails or old-style drinks,” Chapman says. “It was really fun to be at the forefront of that in the Seattle area with a lot of women and men bartending in the same headspace of people focused on doing craft cocktails.”
From the very beginning, Chapman and the staff were crafting up unique drinks, utilizing shrubs and syrups that were made in-house. With owner Michael Klebeck’s background in graphic design (Klebeck is also the co-founder of Top Pot Doughnuts) and Chapman’s experience as a homebrewer and distiller, the duo decided to go all in on opening a distillery. The plan was to further their mission to craft cocktails with handcrafted ingredients and high-quality products in the bar, so the groundwork for the distillery was laid in 2008 and the first spirit launched in 2011.
“There was never a thought of selling it in the bottle,” Chapman says. “We wanted to make our own spirits, but the only place they were supposed to go was the lounge.”
Throughout the process, the bartenders and servers working at Sun Liquor Lounge had a great impact in developing the products alongside Chapman. “It was tremendous to have a staff of 30 bartenders and servers to run ideas by, and it was so cool to have their input on it,” Chapman says. “It was a full team effort, and there’s no way it could have happened without them.”
Focusing on a Distillery
With Sun Liquor’s Hedge Trimmer and UNXLD Vodka coming first, and the Gun Club Gin closely following, the lounge was then utilizing cocktail ingredients made entirely under the same name. What started with just vodka and gin to get their feet wet evolved into a silver rum, an aged rum, brandies and whiskey for a full spirits line. Demand eventually increased and the team knew it was time to ramp up production and start bottling to sell their spirits outside of the lounge.
As one might imagine, running a cocktail lounge and distillery all at the same time has the potential to be a bit tiring. “It was a 24-hour business at that point, with the lounge open until 2 a.m.,” Chapman adds. “It was hard, but really rewarding.”
Once production was steady at the distillery location in Seattle’s University Village area, the decision was made to focus solely on producing spirits. The Sun Liquor Lounge changed ownership — now as Sol Liquor Lounge with much of the staff and the same vibe still employed, along with Sun Liquor Distillery products being poured on-site.
Today, Sun Liquor Distillery runs its stills to produce, vodka, gin, rum, cocktail bitters and a cult-status aged eggnog, with a wide distribution covering seven states. The distillery also has the special equipment to bottle 50-milliliter mini bar bottles, and they help to bottle spirits for a number of other distilleries. Even with its growth, the sentiment has remained the same since the very beginning of Sun Liquor Lounge in 2006 — to produce exceptional handcrafted products and to play a role in making a thriving community that celebrates the art of craft cocktails.