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How The First Legal Native American Distillery Was Built | Forbes



In spite of the pandemic, this summer the Chehalis tribe of western Washington opened a historic new enterprise—new not just for their 5,420-acre reservation 75 miles south of Seattle, but for all tribes nationwide. The business, situated in a 35,000 square foot complex about 8 miles from the tribe’s Lucky Eagle casino, is called Talking Cedar and consists of a combination restaurant, brewery and liquor distillery. The tribe invested $25 million into the facility, which once complete a month from now will be among the biggest in Washington, set to produce 1.8 million gallons per year 80-proof spirits, including bourbon, vodka and gin. (By comparison, there’s 31 million new gallons of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey each year.)

Covid-19 has thrown a wrench into grand opening plans, as travel restrictions have delayed a crew of Italian craftsmen who were set to install the dozen gleaming copper distillation tanks now sitting in the space. “We’ll do it with our own workers,” shrugs David Burnett, CEO of Chehalis Tribal Enterprises (CTE), unconcerned that neither the Chehalis, nor any other Native American tribe has ever built a legal distillery before. The restaurant and brewery opened in late June, operating at 75% capacity.

By 2017, the Chehalis had selected their site, designed the facility, and submitted plans to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. That’s when they received a dumbfounding notification from the BIA that their plan was illegal under an arcane 1834 law that banned distilleries on tribal land. If they built it, the BIA could levy a $1,000 fine—and send agents to go smash up the stills, Eliot Ness-style.

Having no idea the law even existed until the BIA notified them, the Chehalis—proud of their sovereignty—saw the barrier as yet another outrage. “Self-determination is a big deal for us,” says Burnett. “If someone wants to tell us we can’t do that, it just spurs us on.”

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