Rich Clemson is proud of his service.
He served in the military as a young man and now, nearly four decades later, “veteran owned” is printed on the brochure for his new distillery and emblazoned on its website.
But the warrior name and logo refer to more than the obvious. It’s meant, Rich Clemson said, to not only honor all of the armed forces but, in even broader terms, recognize everyone who has done battle, including people fighting personal struggles, even struggles solely within themselves.
“Warrior kind of embodies the spirit of what people go through,” he said.
The motto for his new Warrior Liquor Distilling: “Be a warrior. Conquer life.”
The grand opening for the tasting room is Friday. But the distillery has been in operation for about seven months in a renovated warehouse in east Spokane, a stone’s throw from the highly recognizable ADM Milling building.
To start, Warrior is offering American dry gin, vodka and flavored vodka in six varieties: coconut, grapefruit, huckleberry, pineapple, blood orange and vanilla.
Additional flavors – perhaps pumpkin or maple or cinnamon – are in the works for fall.
And, come early 2019, bourbon, rye and single malt whiskey – by then in the barrel for about a year – should also be ready to bottle.
Rich Clemson, who spent four years in the U.S. Army in the early 1970s, is hoping Warrior’s offerings will eventually be distributed throughout the western United States. Meantime, he’s been talking with distributors and restaurateurs about carrying the products locally. For now, they’re available in the tasting room at the distillery.
The Clemsons – Rich owns the distillery with his wife, Mary – would be happy to give you a tour. They bought the building about three years ago and went about gutting it. Since then, they’ve added new trusses, a new ceiling, new plumbing, new office space and a new entry way. Most of the 6,800-square-foot space is used for production and storage.
They’re hoping to experiment down the road – aging rye in old port barrels, for example, and adding “Sugar Baby,” a brown sugar bourbon, to their repertoire.
But first, try the gin. There’s a subtle hint of citrus on the nose as well as on the finish. That gentle brightness is tempered with juniper, black pepper, coriander, angelica root, and grapefruit and blood orange zest.
The plain vodka is smooth, but it isn’t flavorless. “There’s just a hint of grain flavor,” Mary Clemson said.
And that’s what the Clemsons were going for. They want the grain to shine in the glass.
All of the grain, Rich Clemson said, comes from local farmers, including Bill Myers of Colfax who also mills all of the grains the distillery uses.
“The local grain is a huge component,” he said.
So is the water filtration system, which includes reverse osmosis. The process involves passing water through a semi-permeable membrane that holds back dissolved salt and other minerals such as iron, manganese, calcium and lead.
“You’re not going to get any kind of flavor from the water that will impede the flavor of the grain,” Rich Clemson said. “That’s what you want to taste. You want to get the goodness of the grain.”
Warrior’s copper stills, both from Germany, arrived last summer. The rest of the stainless steel equipment as well as the control panel came from Hungary. It took about a year and a half for the entire sophisticated distilling system to be built and shipped. A crew from Hungary installed it.
The equipment “is a huge investment,” Mary Clemson said.
“It’s state of the art,” Rich Clemson said. “It’s fully automated. It gives us process control. We can statistically, numerically follow the process through.”
Warrior produces about four batches of liquor per week. Each batch requires about 2,500 pounds of grain and yields 800 to 900 bottles, or about two barrels.
The first 100 barrels are French oak. After that, the plan is to use American oak.
The couple, married for 31 years, had a manufacturing background, but spirits were new to them. They trained at a distillery in Culver City, California, for a week every month for about a year to help learn the business.
“We gained a lot of experience,” Mary Clemson said.
Before that, the Clemsons owned and operated the Spokane pasta-making company Pasta USA for 17 years before selling it in 2006. A few years later – in 2011 or 2012, they said – they got the idea of starting a distillery.
“We got bored and decided to get back into manufacturing,” Rich Clemson said. “We like to make stuff.”
And, he said, “when you make something, you want people to like it.”
Brad Budge, who owned and operated a brewery with his brother for about five years before shuttering it about two years ago, serves as Warrior’s master distiller.
Other than him, the operation – at least for now – is largely a family affair.
This summer, the owners’ daughter, Kayla Clemson, is helping out in the tasting room as well as with social media before going back to school in Seattle to study nursing.
The family is confident, Rich Clemson said, that Warrior “will hit the ground running.”
They’ve had a seven-month “head start” on production. And, during that time, “we’ve already made improvements on running smarter and faster.”
The goal, Rich Clemson said, is “to make a world-class product.”
The website invites people to “join our Warrior Tribe and experience our bold, superior taste.”
A street artist in San Francisco drew the logo, which shows a warrior stick figure brandishing a bottle in one hand and a spear in the other. The Clemsons have dubbed the figurine Harcos, which means warrior or fighter in Hungarian.
“It’s kind of a tribute to the guys who did our equipment,” Rich Clemson said.
But, more than anything, he said, the logo, name and invite to join the “Warrior Tribe” is “philosophical than anything. We’re not trying to suggest you overindulge in alcohol,” Rich Clemson said. “It’s more about enjoying life and friends, the social aspect, the camaraderie. Take a break and relax. I hope it resonates with people.”