Seattle Design: Our/Vodka Brings New Ideas to Ballard

T.s. Flock
Posted on May 13, 2015, 9:21 pm
19 mins

Good design and entrepreneurship both often begin by identifying opportunities to improve a standard model—whether that model is in business or a physical object. Unsurprisingly, many designers are also entrepreneurial, creating objects and business models simultaneously. A novel example of this has recently landed in Seattle in the form of Our/Seattle Vodka, which is run by local designers connected to an international network and backed by Pernod Ricard. Seattle is only the third city to have one of these operations, after Berlin and Detroit, with more coming to New York, New Orleans and Miami, and if it is effective in these cities, it may become an effective way to move a portion of production from centralized distilleries, though at this point these small locally run distilleries will produce only a fraction of what the larger distilleries can in a year.

The concept is the brainchild of designer Åsa Caap who worked in collaboration with Swedish design agency Great Works to develop the model several years back. It was a personal gamble, as the team worked independently on their own time and made seven pitches before the concept was picked up by French conglomerate Pernod Ricard as the main investor. Last month, Caap won an entrepreneur of the year award in Stockholm for the project, which is in essence a form of international distillery franchising. This reverses the model that Pernod Ricard and other conglomerates have employed for decades—buying up smaller companies and centralizing production if the product is not peculiar to a region. To create the spirits locally in small urban spaces, a new kind of still had to be invented and distillers had to be trained for it. Meanwhile, all the other parts of operation had to be done in house—including marketing and distribution to a small, regional market—which meant finding teams with a broad range of skills and a strong entrepreneurial track record.

Pernod Ricard is the one who pays for these operations to get up and running, not the local partners, so it is crucial to them to select entrepreneurs with business savvy, innovative approaches and a passion for the product. Rather than partnering with established distillers, designers have become the go-to teams for the Our/Vodka model. Designers, after all, know how to create spaces, to market a product and engage with a community, which is of paramount importance when working on a local level.

The Team: Who is Our/Seattle?

In November 2013, designers Nin Truong and Christa Thomas were approached by Pernod Ricard as potential partners in the Our/Seattle venture. Truong and Thomas have worked together since 2004, co-founded WKND studio in 2007, and run Café Weekend in the Hiawatha Lofts. WKND studio produces public art, product and clothing design, including in-house projects Maiden Noir and Blk Pine Workshop. Needless to say, they stay busy, but the whole team was indefatigable and enthusiastic when I spoke to them in their newly opened tasting room in the heart of Ballard.

“At first we were reluctant about starting another new business because we already had a lot on our plate,” Truong says. “After we met with several of the other partners from around the world, it was like a bigger global entrepreneurial family and it felt like a good fit. We also saw Our/Seattle as a platform for us to support and collaborate with other creative individuals throughout Seattle.”

Truong and Thomas are very much connected to the local artistic and design communities, as is writer-producer Stephen Pleadwell, whom Thomas met while they were both attending University of Washington. Pleadwell is the third partner and was brought in to share the work of overseeing operations. His creative production career demands a similar skill set and plenty of stress—with television credits that include Alaska State Troopers, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Hoarders—so he seems quite at ease in his role.

Ballard was home for Pleadwell for many years. He was married a few blocks away at the Leif Erikson Lodge and his son was born at Swedish across the street, which in turn compelled him and his wife to find an affordable house for the growing family. He now lives in Beacon Hill, closer to Truong and Thomas, but he seems to take a special pleasure in working again in a neighborhood with so many personal connections and a space that is designed to put one at ease.

The Our/Seattle Vodka Tasting Room at the corner of 20th and Market St in downtown Ballard

The Our/Seattle Vodka Tasting Room at the corner of 20th and Market St in downtown Ballard

The Space: Clean and Bright

The space designed by Thomas and Truong is clean and spacious, but does not feel so empty that one gets lost in it. Its furniture and tasting bar were created from fir rafters salvaged during the conversion of the space. Good stewardship of materials and resources is part of the pair’s design ethic, and it complements the Our/Vodka model, which cuts the carbon costs of shipping the product by distributing from smaller, local sources rather than a giant distillery overseas.

Truong gave me more of the history of the space during our tour of it: Once a neighborhood grocery store in the 1930s, it became Ballard Camera in 1948 until it closed in 2009. Many wondered what would become of the corner space as it sat abandoned for several years. Ballard, like many other Seattle neighborhoods, has been rapidly changing over the last decade. Many older buildings have been gutted or bulldozed and new residential towers are packing in tight around the historic center. Centrally located on Market Street, it was important to the team that the space be a welcoming addition to the neighborhood that honored its history.

“Christa and I kept all of brickwork and structural columns within the building and had the contractors salvage the wooden ceiling rafters,” Truong explains. “We wanted to create a comfortable space that would be very flexible. All of the furniture pieces can be re-arranged so we can host everything from workshops and pop-ups, to intimate living room conversations and dinner parties. We took advantage of the southern exposure to fill the space with lots of plants to bring down the scale of the room since we had opened up the old drop ceilings to expose the true height of the interior.”

The specialized still that produces Our/Seattle vodka in Ballard

The specialized still that produces Our/Seattle vodka in Ballard

The whole team has been proactive in trying to reach out to other establishments and build a buzz around the Ballard business community as a whole. To that end, for their kickoff they partnered with local nonprofit Feet First, which promotes walkable neighborhoods in Washington. Olivia Lee, who spearheads sales and community outreach, was very pleased with the first “sip and stroll” tour of Ballard, which started from Our/Seattle and hit Hilliard’s Brewery, seafood restaurant Barnacle and Hot Cakes bakery before landing at Hotel Albatross for tacos. Not only were attendees happy with each stop at far corners of the neighborhood, they also discovered other businesses along the way that they hadn’t noticed before. Projects that increase awareness and activity in the local scene were part of the inspiration for Truong and Thomas in the first place, and the whole team has gotten excited to organize future distillery tours, highlighting other businesses producing spirits locally.

Taking a collaborative approach—rather than a strictly competitive one—is also wired into the Our/Vodka concept. As new operations launch in cities around the country, the teams are introduced and learn from each other. One distiller trains another, passing on the knowledge and forming a support network. Distilling has been a male-dominated field, so it is interesting to note that the first three distillers in Berlin, Detroit and Seattle are women. Seattle’s distiller Allison Law was a biologist and Seattle University alum who researched autoimmune disease at Benaroya Research before making the move toward alcohol, first working at a winery. She had the sterile technique that was necessary for distilling, but the rest required a lot of research and study of her own, which she did before being hired on by Thomas and Truong. Thanks to the network forming through Our/Vodka, knowledge is easily and readily shared from team to team while each maintains autonomy. Just as Law was trained by the Detroit distiller, she will train the new distiller at the next Our/Vodka distillery to open in the US.

The Product: Bright and Clean

All of the good vibrations and collaborative efforts don’t mean a thing if the product is no good. On a personal note, I am not a big vodka drinker, as I prefer my booze to have some character, and the straight ethanol flavor of heavily filtered varieties rings hollow while syrupy flavors only temporarily mask the harsher impurities that bring the pain the next morning. In the case of Our/Seattle Vodka, one could sip it and appreciate it on its own, as it hasn’t been filtered to oblivion and it evolves on the palate as one drinks it.

Law is as passionate about the process and the science as the product itself. When I ask her about the specifics of the yeast used in fermenting the vodka, she lights up.

Simple, 375-mL, crown-cap bottles of Our/Vodka

Simple, 375-mL, crown-cap bottles of Our/Vodka

“The yeast we have comes from the Pernod Ricard laboratories,” she explains. “It was evolved naturally over two years, originally a wine yeast used with New Zealand grapes. It evolved to break down the wheat that we use. It has five natural by-products and we only distill twice to preserve those flavors.”

I didn’t get the specific chemical names, but based on the flavor of the vodka, I would guess they are esters of a sort. Its aromatic base has a light, crisp, faintly woody finish. Law pinpoints notes of cedar and citronella.

“It makes it easy to combine with other ingredients. You don’t have to throw a sugary soda on top. You can do something simple and still showcase the flavor of the vodka.”

The bottles are standardized, 375 mL, with simple white labels—nothing gimmicky, no flavors or infusions, almost generic looking at a glance, but tasteful. The modest size and packaging is smart marketing. It’s the right size to take with on a group picnic or to a dinner party, as it would be just right for a small group having a few drinks. The licensed range of distribution is only within the immediate region, which again is good news from an environmental standpoint, as shipping glass and fluids creates quite a carbon footprint. Production is limited, too—around 50,000 9-liter cases a year. Ounce per ounce, it is a slightly higher price point than some other vodkas, including Pernod Ricard’s Absolut Vodka. However, at $17.99 per bottle it is not extravagant.

The Challenges: Who is Seattle?

There is still lots of work to be done and hearts to be won for the Our/Vodka model. It is a challenge to reach new customers regardless of who is backing you, but in fact the backing of Pernod Ricard has been a sticking point for some. Alternative press in Seattle and Detroit has been icy in its reception of the model, citing a sense of corporate encroachment disguised as something homespun. To leave the conversation at that, however, is disingenuous. We have to look at what we really are as a city and whence our wealth derives.

In Detroit, a city abandoned not only businesses but by our own government in so many ways, one has to wonder how else the economy can rebound without businesses taking an interest in it and investing in it. In Seattle, a city that takes great pride in its cocktail culture, wineries, breweries and a burgeoning local distillery community, such criticism that eventually this money for a local product goes outside of the local economy is more predictable. We pride ourselves on being truly local, even if it means spending a little more. However, the discretionary income that allows this is based upon giant corporations based here, including one of Main Street’s biggest foes—Amazon. Business in Seattle is a part of these larger economic shifts happening globally, both in the larger corporate models and the independent artisanal models, which makes Our/Seattle Vodka an interesting study in the intersection of the two.

There are important conversations to be had, and they require nuance and an understanding of global economic shifts, in which Seattle is implicated. With no impending change to the corporate, multinational economic structure that rules the day, the idea that such larger companies could turn around and use their capital to create more autonomous local operations isn’t a bad thing. It’s also interesting to note that the Our/Vodka product is not really in line to compete with a lot of other parts of the market. Its eschewing of flavors and its modest portioning make it more portable for occasions already listed above. In that light, among a diverse drinking set, a bottle of Our/Seattle seems more in competition with a bottle of wine than other booze.

Time will tell how Seattle will react. For now, it seems at least appropriate that the Nordic roots of Our/Vodka Seattle have found their place in the historically Scandinavian burg of Ballard, and that the design of the space by the Our/Seattle team reflects those roots and our broader regional flavor. For those concerned that the Scandinavian vibe has diminished over the years, this may even be cause to celebrate. For those who don’t see it that way, it may just be time for a drink.

Norway’s Constitution Day, Syttende Mai, is this Sunday, May 17, 2015. Market Street will host its annual parade, so if you are attending, it may be a good opportunity to check out the Our/Seattle Tasting Room. (1836 NW Market St)

T.s. Flock
T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.