It's hot as hell in Roots Organic Brewery, and Christian Krogstad is grinning and sweating like a whore in a confessional. The co-owner of House Spirits Distillery is standing atop a 600-gallon mash tun, stirring its contents with a canoe ore.
"I forgot how hot you get when you brew," he says. The steaming mix resembles sewage and smells like a boiling bowl of Grape Nuts. In five years, it will smell like Colin Farrell—when this goop turns into House Spirits' whiskey.
Stirring this sludge isn't easy. It consists of 600 gallons of boiling-hot water and 1,100 pounds of ground barley malt, which is spit into the mash tun rapidly, making each stroke more difficult. Soon the concoction will be strained, placed in two 300-gallon cubes and shipped across the street to the new House Spirits distillery, where it will age in oak barrels for five years. The 600-gallon tank will make a mere 50 gallons of whiskey. The process will be repeated weekly.
Half a decade seems a long time to wait to see if something tastes right.
"It's a gamble, but I have a lot of confidence in my skills," says co-owner and distiller Lee Medoff. "I don't know how things will age in this climate. But I want everything to be local—water, woods, grains."
Like his distillery, Medoff wants his "whisk(e)y"—the (e) refers to the fact that the pair hasn't decided on the English or Scotch spelling of the liquor yet—to be Northwest-specific, something as distinguishable as scotch or bourbon.
The pair began distilling Medoyeff Vodka in Corvallis less than three years ago. Last December, they moved to a surprisingly cheaper space in hometown Portland, revving up a small liquor boom that includes locally distilled New Deal vodka and Indio Spirits, a development that has happy lushes clinking glasses all over the city. Medoyeff vodka received a tremendous response, placing the new company on the Northwest map.
The booze barons are experiencing an unprecedented boom in business, sometimes shipping 120 cases a week and getting buzz in New York, L.A., Vegas, New Orleans and other tipsy cities. Their newest product, Aviation Gin, is outselling the popular Medoyeff. The duo appeared in last month's GQ (in a piece about Northwest distilling) and are in the process of opening a "cocktail boutique" in front of their location, where they plan to sell their spirits, ingredients, handcrafted bitters, books and bartending equipment, as well as teach mixology. There's been no time for whiskey—until now.
The pair may be moving on up, but House Spirits still has a bootstrap mentality, like Horatio Alger stumbling into the next century. They distill on their own. They bottle in house, by hand. "Did you see my Ferrari outside?" teases Krogstad, in reference to his Volvo station wagon.
And these boys can drink. Sipping cocktails in the distillery (seven, actually), they mused on Oregon's distilling potential. With six distilleries in Portland alone, Medoff, 43, and Krogstad, 40, feel we're sitting on the jugular of a drunken revolution, with distillers across the state all in cahoots. An Oregon Distillers Guild is in the works, bringing all distillers together in the vein of the Oregon Brewers Guild.
"I want people to look to Portland and say, 'That's where spirits are coming from.' Not just vodka or whiskey, but I'd like to see Portland become a mecca for distilling," Medoff says.
"And strip clubs," adds Krogstad, shaking up a minty Southside—our third cocktail of the hour.
"Our competition isn't local. We all want to brand Oregon. The more the merrier. We're after Ketel One and Grey Goose," Medoff says.
"Fuck Grey Goose," Krogstad asserts, finishing his cocktail and beginning work on another round. "[Portlanders] love local stuff. Oregon beer. Oregon cheeses—"
"Oregon...Jesus?" I ask, my ears buzzing with tipsiness.
"Yes. Oregon Jesus. Have you heard the good news?"
Medoff and Krogstad are also targeting the foodie community. A cocktail dinner, with food by the crew at Simpatica Dining Hall, is planned for this Friday, Aug. 25, in the distillery, with House Spirits cocktails on the menu, designed to fit the meal.
"We want spirits to go with food like wine does. There are traditions of food going with spirits in Scandinavia, Greece, Turkey.... We want people to open their minds to that potential," says Medoff.
House Spirits will also be holding an open house for the distillery and their new cocktail boutique this Saturday, where they will also be sampling their next spirit, Scandinavian aquavit.
"It's craft distilling. And I think, without a doubt, that Portland is going to be the craft distilling capital of the world," Medoff says.
With that, we raise a final glass, a limey gimlet, to the future of Oregon's newest substance love affair, and trail off into the psychobabble of a good, quality drunk.
House Spirits founders Christian Krogstad and Lee Medoff like their flagship Medoyeff Vodka straight out of the glass, seldom cut with anything but ice. But the launch of their successful Aviation Gin, as well as a partnership with supreme Seattle mixologist Ryan Magarian (see "The Liquid Revolution," WW, June 14, 2006), has opened their eyes to glorious world of cocktails. It also led the pair to some very literary drunken ramblings.
This is Medoff's favorite. "It's simple to make and allows the complexity of the gin to shine," he says. What would happen if you drank seven gimlets? "You would channel Hemingway," says Krogstad. "You'd be Ernest's avatar."
1 1Ú2 oz. gin
1Ú2 oz. simple syrup (sugar water)
1Ú2 oz. fresh lime juice
Shake with ice.
A minty, highly chuggable and tall cocktail that would have Jay Gatsby salivating. After seven southsides? "You'd become more suave," Medoff assures me. "If the gimlet channels Hemingway—and Hemingway drank whatever the fuck he wanted—then this would channel Hunter S. Thompson," adds Krogstad.
2 oz. gin
3Ú4 oz. fresh lime juice
3Ú4 oz. simple syrup
3 fresh mint sprigs
Shake it vigorously to activate the mint, then strain into a tall glass with a lot of ice.
A traditional, simple cocktail with a slight sweetness and a gin bite. After seven aviations?: "You're Dorothy Parker for sure. Witty and acerbic. Not very attractive and oh-so-gay," says Krogstad.
1Ú2 oz. maraschino liqueur
1Ú2 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 1Ú2 oz. gin
Shake the mixture with ice.
The House Spirits cocktail dinner takes place at House Spirits, 2025 SE 7th Ave. 6:30 pm Friday, Aug. 25. Call 235-1600 or email email@example.com for reservations and prices. The open house—including distillery tours and the premiere of the cocktail boutique—takes place noon-6 pm. Saturday, Aug. 26. Free.