Swede Hill Distilling has been around for long enough that owners Kevin and Pam Milford figured most Eastern Washington liquor connoisseurs had heard of them.
But even after selling their Apple Pie Moonshine around the region for the past five years, the Milfords always seem to meet someone who isn’t yet familiar with their brand.
All it takes is one taste of their signature Apple Pie to make ‘em remember.
“We’ve learned not to assume that everyone knows about us,” said Pam, a former elementary school teacher who took over full-time marketing and distribution for Swede Hill about two years ago. “Now that we’re a little more established, we’ve been working on getting our name out there more.”
The couple started commercially producing their Apple Pie Moonshine out of their garage on Occidental Road back in 2013. They also staff a makeshift tasting room in the garage by appointment.
Prior to starting the business, Kevin had been earning rave reviews from family and friends for his homemade apple pie moonshine, which he produced with an 8-gallon stovetop still.
He took that feedback and started playing with some recipes. Before they knew it, the Milfords were producing cases of the stuff.
“It was never our plan to start a business, but it’s been a lot of fun,” Kevin said.
“Our family really pushed us to do it,” added Pam. “And now, we’re glad they did.”
Once Kevin figured out how to achieve a consistent flavor and proof for the Apple Pie, he dialed back the alcohol content to appeal to more casual drinkers.
“We bottle it at 60 proof because 80 was just too high,” Kevin said. “If it’s that high, you start to lose the women. What we wanted was a sipping spirit, but also one that you could mix with other ingredients to create some really good drink recipes.”
The couple consulted some local bartenders to come up with recipes like the apple mojito and apple margarita. The margarita recipe also works well with their Cherry Moonshine, which was introduced in 2016.
“It’s more of an infused vodka — not what you typically think of when you think of moonshine,” said Kevin, who also works as an engineer at Hanford when he’s not handling all of the distilling for Swede Hill.
“Moonshine can be made out of anything. It’s just a name,” he added. “Calling it moonshine doesn’t mean it’s anything like the stuff they made under the light of the moon in the old South.”
In addition to the two moonshine varieties, Swede Hill recently started bottling an American whisky. At least one other variety is in the works, but it will be “down the road a bit,” Kevin said.
Swede Hill products are available locally at Wray’s Market Fresh IGA and Xpress Liquor & Wine in Yakima, Slim’s Market in Naches and the M.O.R.E. Café in Selah.
The couple produces approximately 1,000 cases of their flavored moonshine per year, selling it wholesale to local distributors and the state of Idaho (which still operates state-run liquor stores).
They have been working with Craft Beverage Yakima to build their brand, and they also do a lot of in-person event marketing.
When the Milfords aren’t making moonshine or hosting tasting sessions in their garage, they can be found at events around the state during the spring, summer and fall.
Among their favorite local events are Rock The Gap and A Case Of The Blues, but they also travel to Walla Walla and the west side to market their three products.
“It’s really fun for us to help out community organizations and meet new people, so we really look forward to the events,” said Pam, who never expected to be this busy with her family’s side project. “We’re going all the time just to keep up. The business has kind of taken on a life of its own. It’s never ending, but at least we are enjoying it.”
Since they never expected to be doing this in the first place, the Milfords have been pleasantly surprised by the response they’ve received around the Northwest.
They consistently hear from people who appreciate the unique flavors that are derived from the apples on their family orchard. Pam’s father, Ron Carlson, still helps maintain 50 acres off Occidental Road, where she grew up.
Swede Hill refers to the Swedish immigrants who came to the Yakima Valley in the early 1900s and planted apple orchards that surround the distillery. Pam’s grandparents were among the original Swedish immigrants in the Valley, and they farmed the land where the family’s distillery currently resides.
“We want to highlight everything the Valley has to offer, so we are really focused on using local fruit and working with other local businesses,” said Pam, who graduated from West Valley High School in 1987, along with Kevin. “We want to sell the idea of ‘farm to bottle’ to make people more aware of our rich agricultural history here.”
The couple hopes to eventually build a new distillery and tasting room, but for now, they say they have enough space in the garage.
They believe the first five years is just a taste of what’s to come for Swede Hill Distilling.
“It’s a growing industry — the most of any state,” Kevin said. “As more small distillers like us build a name for ourselves, the large chain stores will be forced to recognize what we have to offer.”