by Catie Joyce-Bulay
Solar Spirits doesn’t have your typical craft beverage origin story. The concept for the Richland, WA based distillery was formed over a weekend-long start-up event. Over the weekend, teams of entrepreneurs developed ideas for new businesses and created business plans to go along with them. At the end of the weekend, four members of the team that developed the idea for a tech-focused distillery decided to turn it into reality.
None of them, who all continue to hold their full-time jobs, had any prior experience in distilling, but each brought their own expertise to the company. “We took the approach of taking traditional craft distilling and then finding ways to integrate new and innovative technology, whether it be developing our own software system for tracking or integrating solar equipment that’s not typically used for distillation purposes,” says co-founder Kris Lapp. They came up with the term craft-tech to describe this method.
Lapp, who owns and runs an IT and media services company, is in charge of sales and marketing. Khurshed Sharifov, who owns a personal wealth management firm, has taken on the role of CEO and president. Brett Spooner, a lawyer and entrepreneur, is in charge of the company’s legal matters, and Jim Batdorf is chief distiller and engineer, while continuing to be a lead processing engineer at a tech company by day. They recently brought on Travis O’Briant as their fifth partner to round out the team.
O’Briant is a financial analyst who helps the company with growth and scaling.
Another primary focus of the company is using renewable energy and sustainable practices, says Batdorf, who holds a PhD in chemical engineering. Solar Spirits began production in the summer of 2015 using a thermal solar system in the brewing and distilling processes.
Thermal solar differs from the solar electric panels typically associated with solar power. “They are more efficient than solar electric systems because they use the solar energy for heating and do not have the losses associated with conversion to electricity and back to heat,” says Batdorf.
The system first used hot water, which Batdorf later converted to thermal oil. Thermal oil, which can be heated up to 300 degrees, is another way to make the operation more efficient. This allows them to use solar power for heating in brewing, distillation and hot water used for cleaning.
Batdorf, who had some experience in home brewing beer, fits easily into the distiller role with his science background, and enjoys the chance to be inventive. “We kind of let him be a nerd back there with all the equipment and just tinker around,” says Lapp. “The difference between him and somebody else is when he finds something wrong or something that’s been done incorrectly he has the background to pick up on the issue and he can fix it.”
Two interns from Washington State University’s viticulture and enology program help with production, which is done primarily on a pot still. Their current production capacity is around 5,000 proof gallons, with room to grow. Batdorf is developing a more energy efficient continuous still, which should be up and running for small batches by the end of the year. “The still will operate on a very low level of electric power –less than 1,000 Watts,” says Batdorf.
In addition to using efficient renewable energy, the distillery takes other steps to reduce resources. They mill all of their own grain, which is sourced from local farmers. Batdorf has engineered a system of pipes that lead directly from the mill into the mash ton, where the mash is boiled. The spent grain is then given to a local farmer and used as food for livestock.
All of their vodkas and gins are made from wheat grains, except their Pacific Coast vodka, which is made from cranberries, sourced in-state a few hours away. Initially they pressed their own cranberries, but now receive the concentrated juice from the farm, which they then turn into cranberry wine. All of the cranberry flavor is distilled out to create a clear gluten-free spirit.
Solar Spirits makes a coffee vodka in collaboration with a local coffee roaster, who won a 50 Best Vodkas in the U.S. award, and more recently a double gold in Sip Northwest’s Best of the Northwest.
In addition to vodka and gin, they also produce a grappa brandy. The grapes are sustainably sourced from local vineyards that have an excess of grapes after harvest. They work with local wineries to reuse their barrels for aging the brandy and their unique barrel-aged gin. “Like many distilleries we started our whisky and brandy programs by purchasing new oak barrels for aging,” says Batdorf. “But we have decided to move away from traditional American Whiskey and focus on products that can be aged in used oak barrels. The Scots have been doing this for hundreds of years and make excellent whisky.”
In addition to these process innovations, the team is also focused on software development to further streamline the business. Through a secondary company, Distill Tech, they have developed a software program to track the distilling process from start to finish. “When we get our ingredients, we can track that. We can track from milling the grain to then distilling, when we’re tracking what still we’re using, and where we are in the process, to its completion and then integrating that into our sales,” says Lapp, who notes that there are other software systems out there, but they couldn’t find one that can track the full production cycle.
Solar Spirits is currently beta testing the software with plans to work with other craft beverage producers to do further testing to work out bugs before marketing. They hope to eventually have it available for use throughout the craft beverage industry, with different modules set up for brewing, distilling and winemaking.
“We came together from the start-up event and figured we had something good,” says Lapp. “We all liked working together and have just grown together since as friends and business partners.” He adds the partnership has also made them more involved with the community.
“They all have this vision and dream of making Tri-Cities an up-and-coming area, tapping into the culture of craft beverages,” says Mallory Miller, who works in sales and marketing for Solar Spirits. The distillery and its tasting room are located in an old industrial complex outside of town that is also home to a winery and two other breweries. A bike path from the town to the complex was just completed.