Sla’inte Mhor! To Your Health
by Jessica Karpilo
Six years ago, Kathy Parks was like many older adults. She had owned a restaurant for years and loved singing in her church choir. After closing the restaurant, she had too much free time on her hands. Little did she know, a strange find at a garage sale would change the course of her life.
Kathy came across a copper wash tub with a cone on top and a coil leading to a barrel. It was old, unusual, and she found it incredibly interesting. It was a moonshine still from the 1930s. Kathy decided she could learn to distill and purchased it.
She faced one roadblock after another. In a post-prohibition America, distilling is highly regulated. Home distilleries are illegal, and it takes years to receive the proper permits to become a legal distillery. Kathy had no idea where to start.
A friend from choir suggested Kathy call local distiller “Zymurgy Bob”, author of “Making Fine Spirits”, to teach her how to use her new still. Bob agreed, but a lead test revealed that the old copper still wasn’t safe to use. This discovery didn’t deter them though; they set to work constructing new stills.
Two years, and 2.8 lbs. of paperwork later (she actually weighed it), Kathy had her distillery.
Today, at 76 years old, Kathy Parks is the oldest female distiller in the United States. Her operation is hidden away on Cultus Bay, right by the dock. People sometimes come for tours and tastings by boat. At Cultus Bay Distillery, each sip tells a story. For those lucky enough to know about this hidden Whidbey Island treasure, those stories are embedded in each bottle.
A tour and tasting with Kathy is unlike any other experience. Kathy’s eyes light up as she darts around the 200 square foot space, each tale unfolding into the next as she demonstrates how each piece of equipment works. She lovingly describes every step, pausing just long enough to tell you to smell or taste something new. “Sla’inte Mhor! That means ‘to your health!’ Sip it, don’t shoot it. And then tell me what you taste.”
Kathy takes care to use the most sustainable practices possible. The distilling process requires a large amount of water for cooling, so she’s built a heat exchanger that recycles water for reuse. She also aims to buy locally. The bottles come from Seattle, labels are printed at Sound Publishing in Freeland, and the grain is grown in Skagit Valley. The mash left over after the barley is crushed and heated is eaten by sheep. Kathy hopes to one day use peat harvested from the Cultus Bay peat bog, up the road from her distillery, to produce her pot-stilled Islay-style Scottish dark whiskey.
Kathy doesn’t just make whiskey; you can smell the juniper in her traditional London Dry Gin, and her award-winning vodka, Te Absolvo, tastes so good that you may actually feel your sins are forgiven.
When asked how long it takes to make any of the spirits, Kathy’s response is simple and succinct, “We leave it ‘till it’s ready.”
Kathy knows that she isn’t what most people think of when they think, “entrepreneur”, but she’ll argue that making alcohol isn’t a young person’s game.
“When we’re young, we often drink to get drunk; as we get older, we develop a certain taste, and when we drink, we want to know where it comes from.”
Kathy believes it’s very important for older adults to try new things. Her advice to fellow “senior entrepreneurs” is to “just keep moving.” She says it will be harder than you think, it’ll probably cost more than you think, and people might not help you because they don’t take you seriously. She’ll also tell you it’s worth every struggle to accomplish something your younger self may never have thought possible.
For a tour or tasting, contact Kathy 360-579-5632 or visit www.cultusbaydistillery.com