Wille’s Tin Shop: New distillery with a long history

It was a match made in history.

The grand opening of Wille’s Tin Shop, Long Beach’s second distillery, was held on Thursday, Dec. 5, the 86th anniversary of the passing of the 21st Amendment, or “Repeal Day,” as it has come to be known.

Turns out that Thursday was also the first, and one of the last chances to taste and buy the distillery’s 101 proof vodka, Long Beach Water.

“The taxes double at 100 proof,” master distiller Forest Cokely said, so they plan in the future to offer batches at 99 proof.

A bottle of the first commercial batch of “Long Beach Water” sits on the shelf at the grand opening of Wille’s Tin Shop on Dec. 5 in Long Beach. The first batch was made at 101 proof, while future batches will be lowered to 99 proof to avoid increased taxes according to master distiller Forest Cokely.

Wille’s began as an idea of Robert Molina, owner of Roxanne’s cocktail lounge, who brought it to Cokely years ago. His response was anything but encouraging.

“I was like, ’It’s gonna be terrible,’” Cokely said. “‘The logistics, the legalities, licensing—all the ‘L’s are gonna be a lot of problems.’”

Cokely finally gave in. Even then, opening Wille’s took more than four years to navigate the “L”s. The federal government shutdown four times during the process causing delays in licensing. Being only the second distillery in Long Beach, local government and regulators had little procedural precedent.

One precedent is that with its present license, Wille’s is not able to have folks just show and ask for a drink. You are permitted to schedule tastings at the facility and, if you’re 21, you’re allowed to buy a bottle ($25) there, with a limit of two a day. If you like your Long Beach Water in a glass, neat or mixed, you’re in luck since Wille’s happens to be located in the same building as Roxanne’s which will offer the spirit. And soon, you’ll be able to get a bottle at local liquor stores, including Hi-Lo Market, which opens Thursday, Dec. 12.

The distillery is named after a 113-year-old metal shop that operated in Long Beach and Signal Hill. Debbie King was the last owner of the enterprise until it shut down in 2014. She sold the name to Molina, who repurposed it for the distillery.

“I didn’t know how he was gonna fit ‘tin shop’ with alcohol but he really tied it in with the craftsmanship and integrity,” King said.

Memorabilia that King had saved from the original tin shop is everywhere in the distillery. She went around the room pointing at the items and recalling stories as one might with old family photos. The W on the Wille sign is backwards. It used to be neon. A trash can, still holding the Wille’s emblem, was made at the shop.

“Now it’s on display so people can see it, not just me when I go in my garage” King said.

One of the original signs from Wille’s Tin Shop hangs behind a fermenting tank at the grand opening of the distillery of the same name. The backwards W on the sign has become one of the central branding marks for the distillery.

Steve Wille, was of the last generation of the Wille family to work at the shop, just like his dad, his grandfather and great grandfather before him.

“Solder, weld, flashings, hanging rain gutters; a magic show came in once,” Wille said. “Sometimes the [Long Beach] Grand Prix guys would come in. We did all kinds of stuff.”

Though Long Beach didn’t get its first distillery until this year, with Downtown’s Portuguese Bend, master distiller Forest Cokely hopes to capture some of Long Beach’s history in his spirits.

“I want people to realize how important Long Beach is to the history of the United States,” Cokely said.

After Prohibition, bartenders from the UK came to Long Beach to teach people how to bartend again.

“The U.S. Bartenders Guild was literally started in Long Beach,” Cokely said.

A gin will be called “Ginipero,” as long as label approval goes as planned. Whiskey, brandy, and rum are also in the works.

“We’re gonna be available in other states, we’re gonna be available in other countries,” Molina said. “As small as it is, it’s gonna pack a punch.”

Wille’s Tin Shop is located at 1115 E Wardlow Rd. More information on the distillery is available at willestinshop.com, on Instagram at @willestinshop and on Facebook.

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