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Distill, my heart: Former chef uses cooking knowledge and tricks of the trade to learn all about making hard alcohol

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Colin Levi, owner of It’s 5, an artisan distillery in Cashmere, looks at the color of a batch of Sorghrum, alcoholic spirits made from sorghum. He distilled the batch last September. Most of his products sit years in barrels before they are ready to sell.

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When you consider the family history of It’s 5 owner Colin Levi, and his wife and accounts manager Carol Levi, it’s not entirely surprising that they would find themselves managing a craft distillery. Both had great-grandparents that boot-legged spirits in the 1920s. In fact, it was boot-legging that brought Carol Levi’s family to the Wenatchee Valley.

Of course, had you told Colin Levi that he would be running a craft distillery 10 years ago, he would have been skeptical. He spent 22 years as a chef, and has lived all over the state. When It’s 5 opened in 2009, he knew nothing about running a distillery, and even less about making hard alcohol. He has now been owner of It’s 5 — at 207 Mission Ave. in Cashmere, it’s tucked away by the train tracks — for six years.

I had to learn it all — this industry is extremely secretive, it’s hard to get information. So a lot of stuff is trial and error, and you make a lot of mistakes,” he said. “So that’s what we did: we made a lot of mistakes.”

The transition, however, wasn’t as hard as it sounds. Levi said he sees a lot of parallels between cooking and making alcohol..

I’m a creative guy, being a chef for so many years, it’s in my blood,” he said. “I like to mess around with stuff that is different, that will give our customers something to taste that’s not the standard whiskey, not the standard vodka, that sort of thing.”

He said he works to accommodate all sorts of tastes with unique flavors and even obscure products.

If you walk into the distillery, and you don’t like whiskey and you don’t like gin, I’ve got to have something you do like,” he said.

In the making now are a handful of exotic liqueurs, including chokeberry and black currant flavored liqueur. Levi is also tinkering with a caraway vodka and an ouzo — a Greek distillate made from anise. The ouzo has a distinctive taste, like licorice, despite being 80 proof.

Each new flavor and product is a constant cycle of distill, taste and redo. Their gin — one of their bestsellers, Levi said — took him over 20 batches to perfect.

There are no recipes — you have to experiment,” he said.

So experiment he did, distilling small batches of two gallons or so and making adjustments as necessary — adding less lemon this time, more juniper the next. But Levi said that’s what makes his work so rewarding. Not only is it an artistic outlet, but you get to share it with others.

There’s nothing like bringing a new product to the place where’s it like ‘oh yeah, this tastes great and this is something I could sell,’ ” he said. “There’s nothing like talking to customers and giving them a sample in the tasting room and seeing them embrace it, love it, and ultimately buy it and go away saying ‘That’s just great.’ ”

The distillery has been received well, particularly by tourists, he said. People from all over the country and even visitors from Canada drop by to try the handful of vodkas, bourbons and brandies offered.

People from Seattle and elsewhere on the coast make day trips to visit the distillery and pick up a little taste of Central Washington to bring home with them. It is, after all, Washington fruits that bring the flavor to their apple and cherry brandies.

All the fruits come from just around here; our corn is coming out of Quincy,” he said. “We try to get as much product from the area as possible.”

More exotic products, like the juniper used in gin, are shipped in from as far away as Italy. Levi said a big factor in deciding to stay in Cashmere was that it provided a central location to all of the fruits and other products the distillery used. Plus, it allowed the business room to grow and expand.

We’ve gotten bigger, that’s for sure,” he said. “We’ve added equipment and we’ve added different ways of producing stuff. Our lines have changed, [too]. We’ve gone from fruit products to all sorts of grain products. I think just about everything has changed.”

That growth is not only in his tasting room, but in the industry. Levi believes craft distilleries are where craft brewing was some 25 years ago — an expensive, niche industry with an ever-growing fan base. People are growing more and more interested in the craft of distilling, and more and more willing to shell out the extra cash for a better bottle of liquor.

We can see that that type of attitude of the consumer, when it changes like that, it just makes the products that we make more desirable and more sellable to the consumer.”