A new shot on farming: Omlin farm finds niche in craft distillery business
It isn’t often farmers can identify a spud or ear of corn in a grocery store that came from their field.
That’s why, after 30 years of farming, Arnie and Phyllis Omlin are excited to see their family farm on the label of their newest endeavor – growing corn and rye for Woodinville Whiskey Co., a craft distillery that released its first 5-year-old bourbon last month.
The beautiful custom label on the straight bourbon whiskey reads in part, “All of our staple grains are cultivated exclusively for us on the Omlin Family farm in Quincy, Washington.”
It might be pride, but there’s something about that label that excites him, said Arnie, who also manages the two (soon to be three) barrel houses on his farm where the whiskey is stored and aged to perfection.
“This is different,” he said. “I can put my finger on something and say I am part of that. We are part of the brand.”
The Omlin family and its Quincy farm have played an important hand in the company’s success, said Orlin Sorensen, co-owner of the Woodinville Whiskey Co. Woodinville Whiskey has created the first craft whiskey aged in a full-size barrel for a comparable length of time of those in the Kentucky region, which produces about 95 percent of the nation’s whiskey.
“Frankly, we would not be close to where we are at without the Omlin family,” Sorensen said. “They have supported us on so many levels – grain supply, warehousing and inventory management. Arnie has allowed us to focus on growing our business and production while he takes care of logistics on that end.”
The grains grown on the Omlin farm are mashed, distilled and barreled in the Woodinville distillery, then trucked back over the Cascade Mountains to the barrel houses on the farm. On one recent day, a semi-truck delivered 92 barrels, each weighing about 550 pounds and holding about 53 gallons of newly barreled whiskey.
The Omlins, along with a few friends, were busy unloading the barrels and rolling them into the barrel houses, where they will be mapped by age and stacked, or ricked as they say in the craft distillery business.
The massive rows of the barrel houses are six barrels high in parts and nine to 11 barrels deep. Arnie figures there will be 10,000 barrels stored on his property when the third barrel house is completed and filled.
“We didn’t have any idea when we first said yes,” the Quincy farmer said recently while sitting with Phyllis among the barrels.
The Omlin family found its way to the Quincy Valley soon after irrigation was first brought to the Columbia Basin in the early 1950s. Today, Joel Omlin, Arnie and Phyllis’ son, is the third generation in the family to farm in Quincy. The Omlin farm is a small but diversified farm. The family owns about 200 acres and farms about 650 acres in irrigated row crops.
Farming can be a tough life, and anyone who has farmed as long as he has could probably say they were in danger of going broke at least three times, Arnie said. And for him, after 30 years in the business, there were aspects of farming that just weren’t fun anymore, he admitted.
“And then this came along,” he said. “It’s new life.”
The Omlin family’s adventure into the world of craft distilleries began about five years ago with a chance recommendation from a grain broker at TCG in Pasco. Sorensen had called TCG looking for a corn supplier. Arnie was recommended.
The opportunity to get involved in a new start-up business didn’t intimidate the couple; the Omlins have stuck their toes in the entrepreneurial waters several times over the years, including starting a fitness club – the now closed Studio 90 – in Quincy.
“(We) have had some pretty bad ideas,” Phyllis joked.
“This one has been one of the best,” Arnie said of working with Woodinville Whiskey.
By 2012, Sorensen and his business partner, Brett Carlile, convinced the Omlins to also grow rye for them. The quality of the grain, cleanliness and a consistent reliable supply is one of the most important elements of the business, Sorensen explained.
“Without it, we cannot produce,” he said. “Arnie was not necessarily set up to provide us with cleaned, bagged grain when I first contacted him, but he figured it out and made it happen. That’s really one of Arnie’s strengths. You ask for something and he finds a way to get it done without a lot of back and forth. QFC in Quincy has also been great to work with in the processing and shipping of the grain.”
Also in 2012, Sorensen and Carlile decided Quincy would be the perfect place to store the whiskey, some of it then 2 years old. Quincy’s extreme temperature cycles promote the extraction of natural flavors from the oak barrels, Arnie explained.
The first warehouse was built and another followed in 2014. A third warehouse is under construction that will be about 9,000 square feet, or about the size of the first two combined, Omlin said.
Adjusting to managing the barrel houses was another first for Arnie and Phyllis. He had “daily schooling” from Sorensen after the first barrel house went up, said Arnie, who monitors such conditions as temperature and humidity in the barrel houses. The couple’s first attempt at ricking barrels was frustrating and tedious, taking three hours to rick two rows of barrels, Arnie said.
That’s because the 550-pound barrels, lifted by a loader, must be perfectly rolled onto the ricks so that the poplar bung (the barrel plug, so to speak) is at the top of the barrel (so it’s not absorbed by the whiskey).
These days, it takes the couple, with the help of friend Joe Escure, about 10 minutes to finish a row. Row by row, from floor to ceiling, Arnie sets the barrel on the rick using a “clock” calculation and loader. Phyllis then shoots the barrel to Escure, who positions it perfectly in place. Escure moves up and down the rows, balancing atop the barrels beneath him.
Sorensen’s future plans call for even more involvement from the Omlins.
“We will begin building a bottling plant on the farm early next year to bottle all our product in Quincy,” Sorensen said. “And if we ever go through another expansion it would likely be a second distillery on or near the farm in Quincy.”
On the business side, growing corn and rye for Woodinville Whiskey has created a new niche for the farming family. The corn and rye grown for the whiskey make up about a third of his yearly crops, and he spends about half his time these days focused on the whiskey side of business, Arnie said.
On the personal side, however, this new niche has given the family something new to be proud of. Wherever the whiskey goes – wherever it is bought or sold – there goes a piece of the Quincy Valley with it, Arnie explained.
“Among all the great things our valley is known for, we’ve also put Quincy on the map for craft distilling,” he said.
— By Jill FitzSimmons, email@example.com