Seattle’s ‘Vice Tour’ has its virtues
The history of Seattle is steeped in vice: Bootleggers running liquor in from Canada or hidden stills on the islands dotting Puget Sound; entrepreneurial women running brothels where a tired logger who’d just been paid – or the timber baron who’d paid him – could find a companion for a night or an hour; speakeasies and saloons and gambling halls were once commonplace. Now, everything is washed in what sunshine the city has to offer.
Well-known tour company Show Me Seattle’s new “Vice Tour” ($69) makes for a nice introduction to Seattle’s lascivious past. Though I’m generally not big on shuttle bus adventures, or group tours, after watching some tour companions from South Carolina, I learned that an introduction is useful when you’re not even sure what to ask.
True, vice just isn’t that hard to find in Seattle -- the city is a checkerboard of distilleries, wine shops, and marijuana dispensaries, and so as a local with easy access to all that stuff, I don’t need help finding new indulgences. But if I were in from out of town, maybe somewhere with tighter laws, this tour is a good way to shoehorn a bunch of sinning into an afternoon. Plus, you don’t have to drive – always a good choice when there’s liquor involved.
First Stop: Copperworks Distillery
I boarded a shuttle bus – with seven curious other travelers -- to find what yesterday’s sins look like today. Our driver is Dave Groh, he used be known as “Cab Elvis” for his past driving attire. He’s shed the side burns and wide jumpsuits; he’s still sporting aviator specs. It’s fun to picture him as a late model version of The King, even though I’m not even a tiny bit high.
Groh knows the city and its history well. En route to our first stop he recaps Seattle’s bootleg days. Seattle had local prohibition two years before the national law went into effect – and it was completely ignored by scofflaws and police officers alike. That includes Roy Olmstead, the police lieutenant behind one of city’s biggest rum-running operations. Olmstead was one of the United States’ first wiretap busts – he later went completely clean, going so far as to teach Sunday school to prison inmates.
The reformed Olmstead would not have approved of our first stop: Copperworks Distillery. The space is warm and smells of wood mixed with the yeasty tang of fermentation. The gorgeous handmade stills are a steampunk dream of curved shiny metal, copper and brass, bolted thick glass windows reminiscent of an old deep sea diving suit. Our host is co-founder Micah Nutt, a wiry man with a long goatee and even longer hair. He walks us through the distilling process; I’m surprised to learn how much sitting around is involved in distilling liquor. “I set up a bench for the eight or nine hours it takes,” he says. “I might do some paperwork, but really, I’m just watching…”
Copperworks gets their wash – the base for their spirits – from a local beer maker, Elysian Brewing Company. They mash barley malt only and provide Copperworks spirits with their distinct flavor. In the tasting room, with a salvaged 1900’s bar back, we try three spirits. Vodka ($32) with undercurrent of something fruity – not my speed. Gin ($40), scented with juniper – delicious, and badly wanting a glass of tonic with ice. And whiskey ($60), smooth with a little smoke underneath. Our group, now chatty and warmed, returns to the shuttle bus and two of the women tuck paper bag wrapped bottles under their seats.
Second Stop: Vela; Field Day; Suncliff
Up next, the shuttle drops us at a “threefer” – three marijuana businesses under one roof. Vela, up front, is a retail shop. Next is Field Day, a small grow lab, and at the back, the processing lab for Suncliff. The space is minimalist and modern; it looks more like a gallery space than a retail operation, more like the Apple store than a place selling drugs.
Washington State passed legalization initiative 502 in 2012; now there’s a weed shop for every other Starbucks. Seattle’s mayor at the time, Ed Murray, was present at the opening of Seattle’s first legal recreational marijuana business. Murray is gay and legally married to his partner; the state legalized same sex marriage rights the same day as it legalized marijuana. On the way to the weed, driver Groh shares Mayor Murray’s words on the subject: “…legalizing gay marriage on the same day as marijuana makes perfect biblical sense. An updated translation of Leviticus 20:13 states — ‘A man who lies with another man should be stoned.’”
Weed is big business here now, the state rakes in an estimated $30 million in tax revenue every month, yet marijuana still feels new to us in Washington, and we’re an early legalization state.
Elena Mishko, from Vela, talks us through the anatomy of the plant – there’s a beautiful botanical illustration on one wall of the shop. Then, she shows us the small growing operation. A stylish young woman in boots and a skirt, her hair pulled into a ponytail, Mishko is one of many chirpy weed girls I’ve encountered since legalization. My brain always hiccups on these characters; my unofficial education into marijuana was under the Just Say No years of Nancy Reagan. Fresh faced girls like our shop guide weren’t part of my world. It’s fun to hear Mishko personify the plants – she calls them “these lovely ladies” -- but the grow lab itself isn’t much to see.
At the very back of the building, there’s Suncliff, a packaging and processing lab. A flask filled with extracted oils spins in a water bath. A joint-rolling machine is referred to in-house as the “Doobietron 5000.” Lightproof bags of quarantined crops wait their turn to be fill for joints. Kerri Evault is a chemist – they call her an “extraction artist” -- for Suncliff; it’s her job to extract THC (the stuff that gets you high) and terpenes (the stuff that gives the plant its flavor) from the plant. Evault looks like a park ranger in her braids and knit hat, I keep expecting her to give us a talk on the ten essentials before leading us on a hike, but her vocabulary is all cannabis science.
Groh is a little vague on exactly why we won’t be getting free marijuana samples, but when we return to the retail area, he reminds of our 20 percent tour discount. The guy from North Carolina, a reddened retiree in a USMC shirt, asks his wife if she’d like a THC infused cookie ($8). She declines, but he buys some THC infused candy ($33). “We’ll never get this stuff in North Carolina,” he tells me, “It’s never going to be legal. But I find as I get older, I’m opening my mind to new things.” I pick up a jar of Flow CBD gel ($45) for the knots in my shoulder; it smells lemony with a grassy undertone. The jury remains out on if it really works.
Third Stop: Estates Wine Room
Back on the shuttle, Groh hands out chocolate chip cookies. “They do NOT have marijuana in them,” he says. “The first time I did this, I forgot to mention that they’re just regular cookies – I had no takers!” We head for Pioneer Square, once Seattle’s red light district. Asa Mercer and the lesser known John Pennell imported women – a scarce resource – to Seattle after the Civil War. Some were married off; others worked the brothels and saloons. Gentrification means the Romanesque brick buildings where the working girls and gamblers once transgressed now house galleries, boutiques, gourmet restaurants, and our final stop, Estates Wine Room.
Our tour group is greeted with champagne from France. “None of our wineries make champagne,” says Donna Moyer, a soft spoken woman with a stylish bob. “So we went to France. Our champagne is from A. Berege, a family house in the Eperney.” The remaining pours are from three sister wineries in the region – Double Canyon and Seven Hills in Eastern Washington and Archery Summit in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. My favorite is the Archery Summit Premier Cuvée Pinot Noir ($45).
The wine business in Washington has quadrupled since the ‘90s; there are over 800 wineries in the state. The wine room gives visitors the opportunity to experience a range of Pacific Northwest wines without leaving Seattle.
We’ve got the option to ride the shuttle back to our pickup spot or to leave the tour here. It’s a beautiful day, and I’m still very much sober. This tour is just an introduction to our local indulgences, not a full on consumption free-for-all. I opt to walk back into downtown under a rare blue sky, stopping to get gelato on the way.
Vice is a relative thing, after all.
IF YOU GO
Times: 1:45pm to 5:00pm
Pick-up: At the Seattle Convention Center -- ask in advance about downtown hotel pickup at no extra charge.
Cost: $69.00 + 9.6% tax
Phone: (206) 633-2489
Pam Mandel is a Washington-based travel writer.