The first thing Erik Martin does when I meet him is apologize for the pool of absinthe on the floor. Martin is a little harried, having just gotten off shift at his day job as a paralegal to put in some evening hours at Artisan Spirits, the distillery he started with two high-school buddies. Another distiller, Nostalgia Spirits, has just moved into Artisan Spirits' warehouse to share space and equipment with them. Nostalgia, maker of Marteau Absinthe, left its old home at House Spirits, whose own line of liquors has gotten too extensive to allow for roomies anymore; months ago, erstwhile House Spirits tenant Sub Rosa moved its operations to the facilities of Integrity Spirits. Everyone's growing and shifting, and right here is evidence of the chaos that can create. Martin looks around, his eyes touching on the disconnected tubing, the hastily deposited copper still, the odiferous puddle on the floor.
"You caught us at an awkward moment," he says. "This is all going to look a lot better real soon."
It's been trumpeted in the pages of everything from Food Wine to GQ: Just as Oregon has laid claim to pinot noir and super-hoppy pale ales, it's now become the mecca of the craft distilling movement, with booze-minded upstarts turning out small-batch spirits, ready to take on the big boys like Tanqueray and Grey Goose. According to the American Distilling Institute, of the slightly over 200 craft distilleries currently operating in the U.S., 18 are located in Oregon. Of those 18 distilleries, 12 were opened within the past six years. This weekend we play host to the Great American Distillers Festival, where some two dozen distilleries, both local and from around the country, will be pouring samples for visitors and trading shop talk.
"Portland is the center of the craft distilling revolution, just as we were the center of the craft brewing revolution," says Lee Medoff, a former McMenamins brewmaster who spent some time in the wine world before opening House Spirits with his business partner, Christian Krogstad. "We're once again at the epicenter of the whole country."
It's a pretty natural progression. If you're already making beer or wine, you've got a bunch of fermented grain or fruit that could serve as the base of a distillate. And, indeed, most (though certainly not all) local distillers started out as professional brewers or winemakers. So it's not surprising that the mantra you hear is that craft distilling today is where craft beer was 15 or 20 years ago. Not surprising—but not entirely accurate, either. Yes, the local distilling scene is starting to produce genre-busting booze that has every chance of shaking up the stodgy European spirits scene. Portland distilling is entering a pivotal point in its development, and how it navigates that will determine whether it's a real revolution, or just a passing fad.
A major step will be getting past vodka, the least flavorful of all the spirits but also the most widely purchased and the easiest to make (local distillers use everything from rye to honey to grape juice), and the first one most local craft distillers offer to the public.
To go back to the craft beer analogy, it'd be like if Portland microbreweries had started by coming out with a bunch of light lagers. It's a decision driven more by economics than distillers' own preferences. "A lot of these places are bootstrap operations, and you don't have a lot of cash to start with," Medoff explains. "You've got to have a product. Everyone I know wants to make whiskey or aged rum or something, but that takes a lot more time and investment. But to do a vodka or a gin, you can produce that relatively quickly and get that out and get some cash flow going."
Sorry Grey Goose fans: In the spirits and cocktail world, you're kind of a joke. You're being pretentious about a clear, flavorless spirit—the alcoholic equivalent of boasting about the kind of water you use in your soup. "As craft bartenders, we tend to steer people away from vodka," says Carlyle bar manager Jacob Grier. "Generally, it's fairly boring."
This is why most craft distillers quickly transition from vodka to flavored clear spirits, most commonly gin. House Spirits doesn't even bother to market its Medoyeff Vodka out of state anymore, concentrating instead on its wildly successful Aviation Gin and its geek-appealing Krogstad Aquavit (a Scandinavian firewater flavored with star anise and caraway that's hard to find in the U.S.). Through its limited-edition Apothecary line, it's offered small runs of unusual products like anisey ouzo, Japanese-style shochu, and that holy grail of craft distilling, whiskey.
"My long-term vision would be for whiskey from Oregon to be this new category just like bourbon, scotch, Irish, whatever it is," says Medoff. "Call it Oregon whiskey."
Mellie Pullman, professor of food chain supply management at Portland State University, has a few misgivings about that notion. "Getting people to drink Oregon rum or whiskey…hmmm, it's not the same," she cautions. "Vodka and gin and aquavit? Maybe. But the other ones, all the prestige and status and cultural things attached to scotch and rum, they're going to be very challenging for people to believe that something made in our town is going to be better than some of those products."
Demand notwithstanding, we're about to find out if Portland can take its game to the dark side. Erik Martin, who also serves as current Oregon Distillers Guild president, says most distilleries are able to offer dark spirits after about five years in operation—and a lot of local distilleries are just getting to that stage. But what happens if some of those new whiskeys and rums are, well, a little too unconventional? Hood River Distillery's popular Pendleton Whiskey, for instance, is actually just imported and re-packaged Canadian whiskey. A more ambiguous example is Rogue Spirits, which ages its whiskey for an unheard-of 30 days. "It's our belief that aging on whiskey only serves one purpose, and that's to cover up the flavor of the whiskey when it went into the barrel," says Rogue founder Jack Joyce, arguing that because his distillers only use the "heart" (i.e., the best part) of their distillate, they can afford to age it less than most whiskey.
Clear Creek Distillery owner Steve McCarthy, whose cult-following McCarthy Single Malt Whiskey ($45) is aged three years in Oregon oak barrels, sounds skeptical when I run this logic by him. "As to Jack Joyce, sometimes he makes sense, and he has a good business mind, but in this case what he told you makes no sense at all," he tells me in an e-mail.
Having started Clear Creek in 1985, McCarthy qualifies as the granddaddy of the local craft distilling movement. And he can be a cranky grandpa at times. He's skeptical about some of the approaches of his younger colleagues, like working with bartenders to promote cocktails using their spirits. "The place and the way to drink an eau de vie is slightly chilled in a [tulip] glass as a digestif after dinner," he says. "That's where they belong." ("Ah, Steve McCarthy," Joyce says with a chuckle. "I think you have to fill out a 10-page résumé just to drink his product.")
McCarthy points out that it takes 30 pounds of pears to make one bottle of his eau de vie, as opposed to the common distilling practice of starting with mass-produced neutral grain spirits (industry speak for grain alcohol) and either re-distilling, filtering or infusing it to create a "Portland" product. Not all clear spirits in town are made with bulk corporate distillates. Highball Distilling uses locally grown rye for its vodka, and Artisan uses local honey to make the mead that serves as the base of its Apia vodka. Of course, Apia costs about $50 a bottle, whereas Medoyeff, which is made with neutral grain spirits, goes for closer to $30. It's still open to question whether the world is ready to spend $50 for an obscure vodka, just because it's made from scratch and comes from Oregon. In fact, the issue of economic viability is the raincloud that hovers over the local craft distilling movement.
"There's a lot of premium products on the shelf. It's very competitive," says Pullman. "In the beer market, the beer had gone the other direction. There was a lot of crappy American beer. And so coming into the market with microbrews was a unique offering.… With the distilleries, getting the people who are premium vodka drinkers to switch over from Grey Goose to a House Spirits product, that's going to be more of a challenge."
Even if you hold to the craft brewing model, the truth is that a lot of microbreweries have failed over the years. And, in fact, when you speak to local distillers, most of them acknowledge the fact that some of them will likely follow suit. "The next phase will be a consolidation," predicts Martin, sitting on a folding chair near the evaporating puddle of ur-absinthe. "There will be buyouts. There will be some people who don't make it. I hope I'm one of the ones who makes it, of course."
Ready to wring Grey Goose's neck, or just curious to see what all the fuss is about craft distilling? Here are a few excellent spirits to check out at this weekend's festival.
At the Artisan Spirits table, you'll want to try the Apia vodka, distilled from mead made with local honey. Make no mistake, this is vodka, and fiery as liquid lightning, but the honey gives it a wonderful mouthfeel and a lingering sweetness. Also, since Nostalgia Spirits is now sharing distillery space with Artisan, you can try its beguilingly complex Marteau Absinthe, carefully crafted by Gwydion Stone, who founded the absinthe-appreciative Wormwood Society and was instrumental in making absinthe available in the U.S. again.
Brandy Peak often gets overshadowed by Clear Creek, but this Oregon Coast maker of fruit-based brandies, grappas, and eaux de vie deserves attention. The aged pear brandy is a lovely sipper, full of fresh fruit flavor and hints of vanilla and oak.
This may be your only chance to try Tuthilltown Spirits' line of American small-batch whiskeys, which are made on a farm in New York's Hudson Valley and are available only in a handful of states.
Based in San Francisco but made under contract with New Deal here in Portland, J. Witty Chamomile is an organic, sweetly warming liqueur flavored with honey, chamomile, and spices.
Bluecoat Gin could perhaps be called the Aviation of Philadelphia: a highly successful craft gin that's neither Dutch style nor London dry. Smooth and flavorful, it keeps the juniper restrained and allows other botanicals to shine through.
Another entrant into the small-batch whiskey game, Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey has been getting great reviews, including from the notoriously picky Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek Distilleries here in town. Barley-based and aged for a minimum of two years, it's a bit of a genre-buster and can be tricky to find in Oregon, so sample it now.
Tennessee isn't normally thought of as rum country, but Prichard's Distillery has been making molasses-based spirits for a decade. Skip the oversweet fruit-flavored versions and try Prichard's Fine Rum and Prichard's Crystal Rum, which are still on the sweet side for a sipping rum, but enjoyably so. And if Phil Prichard is manning the table, take a moment to speak with him—he's a true Tennessee character, and full of enthusiasm and pride in his products.
The Great American Distillers Festival takes place at Bossanova Ballroom, 722 E Burnside St., 11 am-9 pm Saturday and 10 am-7 pm Sunday, Oct. 24-25. Visit distillersfestival.com for tickets. $20 for tasting, $10 (one day) or $16 (2 days) for festival.