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Erik Liedholm: Sipping, Swilling and Distilling

  • Author:
    Nancy Nilles
  • Published:
    Fall 2016

Even as a young boy growing up in East Lansing, Erik Liedholm knew he wanted to work in the hospitality business.

He spent hours hanging out at his best friend’s family’s restaurant, Jim’s Tiffany Place, marveling as the staff expertly worked together to create the dining experience. He was hooked. “It didn’t hurt that it was a great restaurant, run beautifully,” he says.

Now an award-winning wine sommelier in Seattle, Liedholm recently added distiller and the Northwest’s first certified coffee sommelier to his résumé. “I like beverages,” he quipped. So far, he’s not aware of anyone else with such a mix of expertise.

Liedholm has been wine director and partner at John Howie Restaurants since 2002. He manages wine lists and a team of sommeliers for the company, which operates five restaurants in the Puget Sound region.

In search of something tactile—and enabled by a new state law—he recently turned his interest in spirits from tinkering in his garage, “in a Jed Clampett, moonshine-y sort of way,” into a full-fledged distillery. Wildwood Spirits Co., named after the street he grew up on, launched in 2012.

Its Michigan roots extend beyond the name.

“The brand was developed at MSU,” Liedholm says, after he relentlessly pestered MSU chemistry professor Kris Berglund for help.

MSU stepped up again for Wildwood’s partner restaurant, Beardslee Public House, owned by Howie. When Liedholm noticed acoustical woes in the warehouse-like space, he called on renowned MSU acoustician William Hartmann, who arrived a week later with a plan.

“So many of the things I’ve been able to do come from using the resources at MSU,” says Liedholm, who returns to Michigan several times a year to visit family and give guest lectures on campus. “Everyone’s been so forthcoming that we’ve been able to accomplish so much more than we otherwise could have.”

When he was a student, MSU had the nation’s only student chapter of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Members were invited to the group’s annual conferences, where Liedholm mingled with the likes of Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse. “We went bar hopping with Jacques Pépin,” Liedholm recalls. “He taught me how to make the perfect roast chicken!”

Frivolity aside, “It was a really valuable experience,” he says.

He thought he wanted to be a chef, until a colleague opened his mind “to how interesting wine could be. Not just what was in the bottle, but how it got there.”

Liedholm’s parents are academics—his father is a longtime MSU economics professor—and he credits them for nurturing “the idea of learning.”

Liedholm, who has two young daughters, continues to learn about wine.

He recently returned from a trip to Italy, and planned to take his wine team to Napa, where they’ll study the region’s wines and dine out to learn “and hopefully get inspired.”

So what’s Liedholm’s go-to drink? “My desert-island beverage is champagne,” he says, noting its versatility. “If you don’t have champagne in the fridge, you’re not ready for life!”