Story and photos by Kyle Mittan
A pipe dream that became real is growing into big business for Josh Mayr.
Serendipity, for Josh Mayr, came on a sunny day in August 2009.
Mayr, then a new sales associate for an Aberdeen radio group, had just sat down at his new desk and opened a drawer stuffed with sales leads his predecessor had compiled. As he flipped through, one file caught his eye.
“Wishkah River Distillery,” it said.
Mayr’s discovery came just a few years after he and his uncle had come up with the same name for a distillery, but back then it was their pipe dream.
Now it was real.
“I remember instantly going, ‘Well, I’ve got to go check this place out,’” he said.
Mayr hopped in his truck and drove to 2210 Port Industrial Road in Aberdeen, where the distillery and tasting room still sit.
When he arrived, Mayr met distillery founders Sid and Sue Watts. A relationship developed. Mayr continued to work as an ad salesman but volunteered to help at the distillery.
One day in February 2012 the Wattses asked Mayr to come to the distillery.
Sid Watts had found a new job in Australia, and they had to sell the business. They didn’t realize Mayr was interested.
“That’s when I said, ‘Hold that thought,’” Mayr said.
He immediately met with Chris Olsen, a close friend and owner of City Center Drug in downtown Aberdeen. Four months and two investors later, Olsen and Mayr were holding the keys.
In the last three years, Wishkah River Distillery has grown from a Harbor footnote to a real contender as the next powerhouse in Pacific Northwest distilling. With bottles of his vodka, gin and whiskey in about 400 bars, restaurants and stores nationwide, Mayr has high hopes of bringing recognition and revenue to the Harbor.
“That’s my goal, and that’s what I intend to do,” he said. “And I will swing for the fences until I get it done.”
At 36, some might say Mayr found his calling a little late — but that wasn’t for lack of trying.
The Aberdeen native started off as a machinist, spending a stint building fruit packing machines for Wenatchee-based Van Doren, Inc. But an epiphany during a shift left him wanting more, and he moved to the Seattle area in the early 2000s.
There, Mayr worked as a car salesman before landing a gig selling mortgage products in Bellevue and the area’s east side. With a six-figure salary and a condo on the Kirkland waterfront, Mayr did just fine until the recession left him going from bank to bank to find a job.
“At some point, you have to look at yourself and say, ‘It’s over,’” Mayr said.
Mayr stayed in the area long enough to sell insurance for a few years but paid regular visits to his girlfriend — now his wife — who was living in Aberdeen. He eventually moved back and took a job as a merchandiser with Anheuser-Busch distributor Crown Distributing.
By 2009, he was sitting at his new desk in the Grays Harbor Radio office. Two years after that he held the keys to the distillery.
Anyone who gets Mayr to sit down behind his cluttered desk and listens to him discuss the beverage industry will soon figure out that he is a quick learner.
He can rattle off the advantages and disadvantages of selling spirits versus just beer. He knows where the nation’s pockets of spirit distilleries are. He also knows that all distillers eventually come to a fork in the road with their business and have a decision to make.
“You either grow or die,” he said. “There is no other choice.”
Wishkah River Distillery is at that fork, Mayr said, but the choice is clear.
“My focus has been always to grow this business and — this sounds corny, but to put Aberdeen on the map,” he said. “To create a destination and space in the craft distilling industry to where people can look at Aberdeen and one of the first things that pops into their minds if they’re not from here is, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s where Wishkah River Distillery is.’”
Mayr knows he’s on the right track and says he’s garnered interest from investment groups.
“My number-one goal right now is to find an agreement with an investment group who will commit to making a multimillion-dollar investment in downtown Aberdeen,” he said. “The jury’s still out on whether I’ll be able to accomplish that, but I think we’ve laid a pretty good foundation.”
Mayr’s success isn’t just self-proclaimed — people at the forefront of the area’s revitalization movement have noticed his drive.
“When you have an opportunity and bright, passionate people like Josh to come home and … create a business that is connected to the heritage and history of his family, it’s pretty great. It’s a building block,” said Scott Reynvaan, who’s worked as a consultant to the City of Aberdeen and later as a volunteer with the Aberdeen Revitalization Movement. “Granted, Mayr didn’t inherit the business but he saw value in the enterprise.”
Reynvaan also sees the value in Mayr’s long-term goals, and where they might take the Harbor.
“Imagine potentially a brewpub or brewery or Wishkah River Distillery actually being on the Wishkah River,” Reynvaan said, adding that such a location could be a key factor in getting Highway 101 traffic to actually stop in the area.
With all the jobs Mayr’s had, he’s learned not to try to predict the future. He said he doesn’t know how long he’ll remain at the helm of Wishkah River Distillery but added that he likes the industry and could see himself working in it for a long time.
He also doesn’t mince words when he describes what it’s like to make something from scratch — something he really hadn’t done since his time as a welder and machinist.
“It’s awesome,” he said, adding that it took a few months for him to get used to seeing his own product on the shelves of bars and restaurants.
As Mayr pushes for his ambitious long-term aspirations, he said he’s looking at other, more immediate ways to grow, as well. Expanding distribution into Canada, he added, was one idea.
As he talks about those ambitions, it’s clear Mayr knows the risks. But he’s approaching them with confidence.
“It may be a pipe dream,” he said, “but I feel I’m close.”
Wishkah River Distillery
Want to try it?
Tasting Room Open
Tues-Sat 12-5:30 PM
2210 Port Industrial Rd., Ste. A
Aberdeen, WA 98520