Walla Walla Distilling: Husband and wife distill words, metal and grains
written by Catie Joyce-Bulay | photography by Bradley Lanphear
“Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful,” writes the poet Rita Dove. The same could be said for spirits.
While Katrina Roberts Barker’s poetry distills the language of the everyday into pure lyrical form, the distillery she and her husband operate does the same with the grapes and grains of the Walla Walla Valley. Walla Walla Distilling Company, celebrating its tenth year, is one of several creative pursuits for this artist pair. “Our family culture is very much one of creating things,” said Roberts Barker, who teaches English and creative writing at Whitman College, “of really looking hard to find, salvage and repurpose what’s been tossed off or overlooked.”
Roberts Barker’s poetic work and life as farmer, mother, teacher, winemaker and distiller seem to flow together in a perfect blend, just like the botanicals she mixes for the distillery’s floral-forward gin. It’s easy to imagine how one informs the other. Vines and family life enter into her poetry, while her poet’s eye for detail seeps into the work she does with her hands.
“Some mornings we go out into the vineyard and prune tiny things,” she said. “It’s all about dirt under your nails and the smell of dew and vine—a kind of solitude with nature.” She likens shaping the lines of a poem to tending to the land.
The essentials of crafting the perfect Washington Whiskey
“There is something fascinating about trying to take something down to its most essential parts,” Roberts Barker said. “I’m fascinated by the whole notion of spirits—the idea of spirits as both something that you imbibe, but also that you can be spirited and have spirit. I just find that the language is fascinating as well as the actual process.”
For her and her husband, Jeremy Barker, the process begins long before any ingredients hit the still. They grow and harvest their own grapes from the vineyard surrounding their house (and make wine under the label Tytonidae Cellars). Barker malts his own grain, which is harvested from the field adjacent to the distillery.
Where Roberts Barker’s focus is on the more nebulous aspects of taste and mouthfeel (of both words and spirits), Barker, who built their four stills by hand, is more visual and numbers-minded. “I’m a stickler for details and for good craftsmanship,” he said.
The equipment of the distillery is pieced together from recycled items Barker has salvaged. With a nod to steam-punk aesthetics, an old beer keg is brought back to life as one of the chambers for the whiskey and vodka still. A grain silo, taken apart in the fields, is reassembled and resurrected as the malt house.
Barker, who has a degree in communications from the University of Idaho, picked up an assortment of trades from plumbing to welding over the years. “I also credit the time I spent working for Mark Anderson at the Walla Walla Foundry,” he said. “Learning different trades, honing my own artistic skills, and being inspired by a variety of great artists and artisans we worked with who came through.”
Barker’s fine art pieces mingle with his functional art, where, he said, his current focus lies. A series of cast bronze sculptures dot the tasting room like constellations. The first collaboration between husband and wife, the sculptures are of Roberts Barker’s hands holding collections of found natural objects. They, along with tables and shelves he crafted from a downed black walnut on their property, add an earthy element that softens the edges of the industrial-style tasting room.
Roberts Barker, a Harvard University and Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate, has published four books of poetry and been included in poetry anthologies. Her two worlds have mingled for awhile now. She learned wine and grappa-making in Europe while on a writing grant after graduate school.
Their three children, ages 10, 12 and 15, whom they homeschool, have also caught the creative repurposing bug. Outside the distillery sits an old school bus their middle child is renovating into a book mobile.
The distillery’s location is yet another example of repurposing. It is housed in the old guard station of a former World War II army base, surrounded by the original barred wire. Still a work in progress, the couple plans to open to the public on a more regular basis, with tastings and food service. Barker showed me how he is converting one of the stills to channel smoke from the fire that heats it into a meat smoker above.
“One often doesn’t know one’s readership in poetry who has come upon a small poem in a book found on some table in a used bookstore,” Roberts Barker said. “Similarly, we can’t know how far a bottle of our spirits has traveled, or how a sip of our spirits might shift the awareness of a visitor here in town. But always, I think, with both poems and spirits: ‘Here, drink in, I made this for you.’”