Five years ago, officials with Chehalis Tribal Enterprises had an inkling of an idea, managing director Chris Richardson said, wanting to create an alternative destination for adults that was close to the family-centered Great Wolf Lodge in Grand Mound.
The idea began as a sports bar and grew from there. Soon it evolved into a brewery, distillery, family-friendly restaurant and finally a 35,000-square-foot building that would house all three, he said.
Now the Chehalis Tribe is putting the finishing touches on what it calls Talking Cedar, an investment in excess of $20 million, Richardson said, that is set to open on June 30. It's not only a new destination off Exit 88, but also a new brand of beer that the tribe wants to first self-distribute in the region, then seek wider distribution for its kegs, cans and bottled products.
Richardson said they envision selling the Talking Cedar product under private labels to tribes throughout the country.
It's an ongoing step, he said, to diversify its investments away from the tribe's Lucky Eagle Casino in Rochester. That has become more important because the pandemic forced all casinos to temporarily close, cutting off a key source of revenue. Little Creek Casino near Shelton and Nisqually Red Wind Casino reopened last month, and Lucky Eagle reopened June 11.
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The tribe joined forces with Gig Harbor-based Heritage Distilling Co. to mass produce hand sanitizer to combat COVID-19, plus produce spirits under the Heritage name. At Talking Cedar, they will be able to blend about 30,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per day, managing director Richardson said.
As for the spirits that will be produced at Talking Cedar, they include Heritage's brown sugar bourbon, vodka, gin and other flavored spirits.
"Heritage is honored to partner with the Chehalis Tribe in this historic endeavor," Chief Executive Justin Stiefel said in a statement. "When we set out to plan a craft distillery with them several years ago, none of us expected to be using the equipment to make hand sanitizer."
And nobody expected the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chehalis Tribal Enterprises Chief Executive David Burnett said their original plan was to open Talking Cedar and be in production by April. They also are still waiting on a copper still from Italy to complete the tasting and distillery side of the business, he said.
As you enter Talking Cedar at 19770 Sargent Road SW in Grand Mound, the pub is on the right, the tasting room to the left, but both look out onto their respective production areas. The restaurant is sort of in between, but no matter where you sit, food and drinks can be ordered from any location.
The brewery space has six 120-barrel fermentation tanks, and one 60-barrel brew house, which allows a production run of 22,320 gallons per batch, according to the tribe.
It also has five grain silos on site -- something you might more commonly see on a farm -- which will supply grains for the brewery and distillery. The spent grains are going to be used by a Lewis County dairy farmer.
On the second floor, there are two classrooms. Before the craft district was created in Tumwater, South Puget Sound Community College had had discussions with the tribe about placing its craft brewing and distilling program at Talking Cedar, spokeswoman Kelly Green said.
Now, those classrooms will be used for non-credit continuing education classes, and potentially for-credit classes for tribal members and students who live in the area, she said.
Visitors will be able to take a self-guided tour, which will include some key historical information.
Among those facts: Talking Cedar is the first legal alcohol distillery on tribal land in the history of the U.S., thanks to the repeal of a statute passed in 1834 prohibiting distilleries in Indian Country. Congress repealed the ban in late 2018 after successful lobbying efforts by the Chehalis Tribe and Heritage Distilling, according to the tribe.
To run the new endeavor, Talking Cedar recently held a job fair that attracted 149 applicants; the tribe hired 64 people to work in the kitchen, as wait staff or in production areas. Full-time workers receive benefits.
In total, Talking Cedar will employ 120-130.
Key members of the team include Bill Lundeen, head brewer, who previously worked for Harmon Brewing in Tacoma and Bridgeport and Blitz-Weinhard breweries in Portland. Jason Summers, brewery general manager, comes from Columbia Distributing
Adam Adrian, a well-known restaurateur in Olympia with ties to such restaurants as State & Central and Mercato, is executive chef of the Talking Cedar restaurant.
The restaurant will serve appetizers, including poutine, plus salads, burgers and sandwiches. Among the entrees: Pork Schnitzel, a breaded pork cutlet, served with mushroom gravy, mashed potato and vegetable.
As for the beers, the first batches have been produced at a separate location while work continues on the main brewery. That location near Talking Cedar has been producing IPAs, a German-style Kolsch and a raspberry blonde ale, Lundeen said.
"We assembled a great team," tribal chief executive David Burnett said. "All the right people are in place to make this a success."