Co-founders, leaders and visionaries of the award-winning Heritage Distilling Co. By Marguerite Cleveland | Photo By In-Gear Media
Conversations around campfires are often intriguing with talks about dreams and the future. Justin and Jennifer Stiefel’s campfire talks resulted in the founding of Heritage Distilling Company, Inc. in 2011. Since the early days of their first distillery in Gig Harbor, they have grown substantially and are now the largest independently owned craft distillery in the Pacific Northwest, with Justin serving as CEO and Jennifer as president. Unique flavors such as Cocoa Bomb Whiskey put them on the map.
Q. The Heritage Distilling Spirits Advent Calendar is a popular gift each holiday. Can you share with our readers what goes into creating all those tiny bottles?
A. We were proud to be the first craft distiller in the U.S. to create and launch the Spirits Advent Calendar in 2015. This year we are bottling 120,000 50-milliliter bottles for the Spirits Advent Calendar. Production started in July and continues through the end of September to put together all 5,000 calendars that will be sold in HDC Tasting Rooms and some select PNW retailers. It features Cocoa Bomb (our new chocolate whiskey), some of our most popular flavored vodkas and some of our premium whiskeys—there’s a little bit of something for everyone. We get great responses from customers who use the Spirits Advent Calendars as party favors, hostess gifts and sampler boxes. This year’s version will likely be sold out by the end of November.
Q. How did your recent partnership with Danielle Kartes of Rustic Joyful Foods to produce Florescence Vodka come about?
A. We've been working with Danielle on content, photos and recipe development for the past five years. Because innovation is such an important pillar of HDC's business, we are always looking for opportunities to introduce new products to our loyal fans. Danielle's positive and gritty work ethic, combined with our reputation for award-winning spirits, brought the idea from an initial concept in 2020 to being in the bottle now in 2022. Florescence Vodka is a grapefruit and pomelo vodka meant to be used in cocktails or straight over ice. It tastes like endless summer in a bottle, and we are getting rave reviews for this product from all corners of the spirits world.
Q. Can you share how Heritage Distilling worked with the Chehalis Tribe to create the new tribal distilling opportunity for Tribes?
A. We were approached by the Chehalis Tribe in 2015 to assist with an economic development project for their property on I-5. As it developed, the notion of adding a distillery came to the forefront. When the Tribe started construction, the federal government told them they could not build the distillery due to an old Andrew Jackson-era law from 1834 prohibiting distilleries in Indian country. Our CEO, Justin Stiefel, joined the Tribal chairman and Tribal leadership to lobby Congress to repeal that statute. In late 2018, the bill passed Congress and became law. Construction then began and it is now open for customers to enjoy brewery and distillery tap rooms and high-quality food from the restaurant. This first location is the basis of our next phase of business—working with Tribes across the country on this model. We expect to have news to share on this in early 2023.
Q. How did you become the most awarded craft distillery in North America nine years in a row?
A. To achieve this level of consistency, especially in an increasingly competitive craft distilling industry with almost 3,000 distillers across the U.S., repeatable success must start with the products and how they are made. We are sticklers for quality and creativity. Our results rely on a combination of raw ingredient selection, production process control and finished blending techniques. Of course, we must sample along the way to ensure quality control. All parts of the enterprise must be responsible for their roles. We call this the “ownership culture.” As a small company, we decided to share company stock with our employees so that they could become “owners.” But being an “owner” also means “owning” the responsibility for your role. This has instilled a sense of purpose and pride within all levels of the organization, and the results speak for themselves. Evidently, the judges agree—nine years in a row.
Q. Heritage Distilling is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Do you have any reflections on your first decade in business?
A. You don’t survive for 10 years as a company without customers, partners and employees, so first we must say, “THANK YOU” to all of them. As proud as we are of our first 10 years of success, awards and recognition, we are equally excited about the next 10 years. To kick off this next decade, we have a new line of super premium whiskeys we’ve been aging for four to eight years that we will release under a new label as single barrel expressions: STIEFEL’S SELECT. All the while we’ve been running the public business of Heritage Distilling, we’ve been secretly distilling and aging a whole new lineup of whiskeys that we’ve never talked about. They are ready, and the responses from private showings with whiskey experts so far have been amazing. We are excited to share them with the world as we launch this next decade of growth.