Portland in High Spirits

by Francoise Villeneuve with Antoinette Bruno
Antoinette Bruno Antoinette Bruno
November 2011


Tour of New Deal Distillery and Interview with Distiller and Owner Tom Burkleaux

Interview with Distiller Christian Krogstad of House Spirits Distillery

Inside Bull Run Distillery with Distiller Lee Medoff

Who Sells What

Lee Medoff of Bull Run Distillery
Medeyoff Vodka
Pacific White Rum
Temperance Trader Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Christian Krogstad of House Spirits
Aviation Gin
Krogstad Aquavit
Limited Release Line

Sebastian Degens of Stone Barn Brandyworks
Cranberry Liqueur
Quince Liqueur
Eastide Ouzo

Tom Burkleaux of New Deal Distillery
Hot Monkey Vodka
Limited Edition Single Roaster Coffee Liqueurs
Gin No. 2

Stephen McCarthy of Clear Creek Distillery
Eaux-de-Vies (apple, pear, kirschwasser, blue plum, Mirabelle plum, framboise and Douglas fir)
Oregon Pot-stilled Brandy

An entrepreneurial streak and a sort of fetishistic fascination with going your own way are part of what makes Portland, well, Portland. “This is a town of DIY, and people just making things that they enjoy,” says Tom Burkleaux, the man behind micro distillery New Deal. He is one of a group of six micro distillers in Portland, Oregon, that make up Distillery Row.

Partly a geographical designation, Distillery row is made up of small scale distillers from Southeast Portland, who got chummy and joined forces to promote the city’s thriving craft distilling movement. Then there are distillers that are not a part of the group—Clear Creek and Bull Run being two of them. Clear Creek is very established, and Bull Run is a new kid on the block with a transplant from Distillery Row’s House Spirits behind the wheel. But whether or not they’ve all teamed up yet, these craft distillers have distributors and Portland restaurateurs sitting up and paying attention.

Beer Paved the Way

 » Click images to enlarge

For House Spirits’ Distiller Christian Krogstad, Portland’s craft brewing culture set the standard and paved the way, allowing the city’s burgeoning micro distillery scene to grow in size and notoriety. Portland spirits from small scale distilleries are popping up locally and nationally in bars and restaurants the same way Portland brews did after Portland beer burst onto the scene 20 years ago—but faster. “Distributors saw brewers happen, so now when you come to them with a craft distiller, they are much more receptive,” says Krogstad.

This may be why many distillers like Krogstad and Distiller Lee Medoff from Bull Run are former brewers. Some Portlanders also credit the Bull Run Watershed with part of the success. The watershed flows from Mt. Hood National Forest into Portland and is the city’s primary water source. Distillers say the water is a clean and ideal starting point for a craft spirit. When in Poland, Medoff visited two distilleries, one that used heavy metal water, the other really clean water—all made in one still. It made him realize how important the water and treatment of the product was and solidified his decision to distill in Portland.

Founding Fathers

One of the founding fathers of the craft distillery movement here is Stephen McCarthy from Clear Creek Distillery, who fell in love with the eau de vie de poire that he tasted in France. When he returned to the States, he realized that the Williams pear, used in making France’s Poire William eau de vie, was the very same pear grown in Hood River, Oregon. He bought an Alsatian still and began his pear eau de vie. “It’s made from pears we’re not able to sell profitably,” says McCarthy. By identifying a niche market in the Unites States for eau de vie, he’s been able to expand his product line over the years—including a glorious green Douglas Fir eau de vie and a calvados variant.

A Culinary Approach

 » Click images to enlarge

For Krogstad, that niche included New Western dry gin and an aquavit—Aviation Gin and Krogstad Aquavit, the two brands that House Spirits is most known for. The aquavit, a caraway and star anise take on the Scandinavian spirit, is “like drinking a slice of pumpernickel.” And as one of the few made in the States, it has a certain cachet. Coming from a culinary background, Krogstad approaches both the brands and his line of limited edition products with a culinary bent. “We make them with food and cocktails in mind,” he says. McCarthy would balk at this. His ideal pairing for chilled eau de vie is a glass, preferably after a long meal. But whatever the thoughts and personal philosophies on serving, one thing’s for certain: this scene has sparked astounding creativity.

Changing Our Ways

At Bull Run Distillery, which opened in 2010, Medeyoff Vodka is currently the only brand produced. But the brand keeps the lights on while Distiller Lee Medoff (a House Spirits alum) makes plans for his whisky and rum production, and a line of small run experimental products made in his custom-designed and locally built stills. What drives Medoff is pushing vodka and other craft spirits to the forefront—with food. “[Spirits] being accompanied with food is very important, but I think that unfortunately alcohol is abused quite a bit in the United States. It’s used as a drug primarily, and I think there’s a real ability to change the consciousness, especially with craft spirits,” he says.

Starting Small

 » Click images to enlarge

Whatever their goals, the distilleries all start small. At the moment Stone Barn Brandyworks is in its infancy and inhabits a tiny warehouse. Sebastian Degens and his wife produce fruit brandies, ouzos, and whiskies there, only recently bringing in the help of an employee. But it’s clear there’s a market for such specialty products. Their Hard Eight Unoaked Rye Whisky won a bronze medal at the American Distillers Institute 2011 National Competition. While they carry over 10 products, the duo often runs out of stock on a third of them. Small production can’t always catch up with the ravenous demand of locals and the national market. When discussing the Williams Pear Brandy stocked at a local restaurant for a pear sidecar cocktail, Degens says, “Once you’re on a menu, you don’t want to disappear by not being able to resupply. It became very popular and they took what we had.”

Local Support

Support from Portland restaurants, as well as local cocktail and spirits buffs, has only added fuel to the fire of a growing craft spirits industry here. City pride is synonymous with local product here. “Part of the big story of why craft distillation is so big here in Portland is the fact that we have a demographic here that’s willing and eager to experiment and try local products, whether it’s spirits or beer or cheese or carrots, and there’s great restaurants that support us here,” says Medoff. Unless that support disappears overnight—not likely—there are potential success stories here for artisans of every kind.

Related Photo Galleries