Here at Portland’s Distillery Row in SE Portland, Oregon, distillers are producing vodkas, gins, whiskeys, rums, and specialized spirits, including brandies, aquavit, and liqueurs. And they’re all open to the public, with tasting rooms situated right along-side the stills. The stills alone are an attraction; all different, fascinating structures and objects of beauty. Touring Distillery Row makes for a fun and tasty day trip.
The six distilleries located in Portland’s Distillery Row currently produce more than 40 unique spirits. This number is always changing, of course, as the distillers put out new products, but, the point is, this is no one-pony show. It’s also certain that the number of distillers will increase, and newcomers will be welcomed with open arms.
Artisan spirits distilling is a burgeoning craft industry, and all the Distillery Row’s distillers agree that their success is due, in part, to being located a short distance of one another, which enables them to employ the same cooperative efforts Oregon’s wineries, beer breweries and cider houses use. They collaborate on joint flyers, maps and events. They freely tell you about other distillers’ products. They share tips. All this makes for better products and a great atmosphere for your visit.
Get the Passport
It’s not required, but a Distillery Row Passport is the way to go. Buy a Passport at any of the distilleries for $20.00 and each distillery will waive the basic tasting fee. Included are also discounts from 40+ local “partner” businesses, including restaurants, shops, theaters, bars, hotels and galleries and services, as well as maps, and space to jot down tasting notes or favorites products. Best of all, the passport is good all year, so you don’t have to visit all of the distilleries in one trip.
Brandy Barn Stone Works: It’s not every day you get to try whiskey made from spelt and oats, as well as the more common rye. But you can at Brandy Barn Stone Works. And when fruits are in season, proprietors Sebastian and Erika Degen keep busy distilling a wide variety of craft distilled fruit brandies and brandy-based liqueurs, including cranberry, quince, pear, rhubarb, plum, cherry, and apricot. They also have a coffee liqueur, ouzo, grappa, and Nocino, made from local green walnuts, a spirit which goes back to medieval times.
New Deal Distillery: In 2004, business partners Tom Burkleaux and Matthew VanWinkle helped pioneer distilling in Portland with New Deal, the fiirst distillery to open in Distillery row. When they started, there were only a handful of craft distilleries in the entire country. As news of their enterprise spread, other entrepreneurs contacted them to learn how it’s done. Today, talking with Tom is like taking a class in distilling and he shares his wealth of knowledge with friendly and well-spoken passion.
He points to their first still, which sits in storage in the loft of their current warehouse space. They’ve worked their way through 13 stills and their current still is a beauty, a German-made wonder of copper and stainless steel they’ve owned for three years now.
Their line of products include two different straight vodkas, as well as their Hot Monkey hot pepper vodka, Mud Puddle bitter chocolate vodka, two gins (both wonderfully juniper-forward, yet truly distinctive in taste), ginger liqueur (delicious), and a coffee liqueur. They also have a small batch line they call their Distiller’s Workshop Series.
Eastside Distilling: Edgy and creative, Eastside Distilling has been in business since 2009 and offers a prolific cadre of products that include two award winning bourbons and a potato vodka. There’s a line of rums, including silver, coffee, ginger, and spiced rums, as well as seasonal offerings like egg nog and peppermint bark liqueur. For a truly unique product, try their Cherry Bomb Whiskey and Marionberry Whiskey.
Rolling River Spirits: The newcomers in Distillery Row are Tim, Rick and Joan Rickard, who are making a family project with their distillery. When I visited back in October, they’d been open just a month. They’ve released their first product, a wheat-based vodka, from their custom-built still. Soon to be released: aquavit, a hot pepper vodka (using scorpion peppers), a coffee vodka, and a gin. Do visit.
Vinn: Also a family enterprise, The Ly Family is originally from China. They also lived in Vietnam before moving again to the States. Vin is the middle name shared by the five siblings of the Ly family. They make rice-based spirits, including a vodka, a Chinese spirit called “baijiu” (pronounced “bye-joe”), and two fermented rice wines, called Mijiu Fire and Mijiu Ice, (pronounced “me-joe”). Baijiu goes back some 4,000 years, and the Ly family recipe goes back many generations. Try their version of the Bloody Mary; it’s the best.
House Spirits Distillery: Aviation gin was awarded 97 points by Wine Enthusiast and has become a nationally, even world-wide, known brand. They also make an award-winning aquavit, and vodka and an aged malt whiskey, a coffee liqueur and a white dog. House Sprits was founded in 2004 and moved into Distillery Row in 2005, joining New Deal, and helping anchor the area.
The Revolution is ON!
Any day they’re open is a good day to visit Distillery Row, but we luck into a special event. In what epitomizes the Row’s cooperative spirit, the distillers have organized an event dubbed “Craft Whiskey Revolution.” Each of the six distilleries makes a special 53-gallon barrel of whiskey, each starting with the same malted barley mash. They distill the mash and concoct their own batch of “white dog.” This raw distillate is clear, un-aged– legal moonshine, which has become a trendy around the country, even if most of what’s produced just isn’t any good.
Each distillery prepare a barrel their own spirit, and each barrel is branded with the Distillery Row Logo. Next year, everyone can look forward to tasting the White Dog, when the 80 proof whiskeys will be tasted and the results compared.
We gather at New Deal Distillery for the branding of the White Dog barrels. Tim Rickard of Rolling River Spirits (the new kid on the block), wielding a blow torch, heats the branding iron and the he and Tom Burkleaux of New Deal Distillery (the group’s veteran of the group) position and press the hot iron down on the first of the new wood barrels. Success!
For the Best Experience
Some Distillery Row visitors are serious connoisseurs, home brewers or distillers themselves and some, including me, are here to try something new and maybe come up with a new favorite cocktail. Because all the activities occur in a small geographical area, you see people at one distillery and then again at another and before you know it, you’re conversing and sharing highlights. The distillers and staff are friendly and enjoy talking about what they do, how they got started, and what they’re trying to accomplish. And they really want to know what you think and what you like too.
The tastings are just that—you won’t be tipping back shots of anything—bu
t still—don’t expect to taste everything. Be sure to drink responsibly. Take public transportation, a cab, or have a designated driver. Shuttle services and even pedi-cab services are available as well. If you drive, be selective about what you taste, and make a day of it; eat before you start, and have something to eat again before you start home.
Do taste a mix of what you know and like and a mix of something new. If you’re normally a gin drinker, try the gins to compare them. But take advantage of the opportunity to try something new. This is your chance to taste vodkas made from rice, aquavit, a ginger or quince liqueur, or a cocktail that includes drinking vinegars.
Most of all relax and enjoy; this is Portland, after all! You’ll taste some truly unique spirits, find some products you just have to take home, pick up some great cocktail recipes, and discover a new brand of spirit for your stand-by drink. There are great restaurants and fun shops nearby to explore. No doubt; you’ll learn a lot about the craft of distilling artisanal spirits and you’ll have a great time doing it. – story and photos by Nancy Zaffaro, RFT NW Wine, Brews, & Spirits Editor
IF YOU GO…VISIT:
Distillery Row, located in SE Portland’s Buckman neighborhood, www.distilleryrowpdx.com
Eastside Distilling, www.eastsidedistilling.com
House Spirits Distillery, www.housespirits.com
New Deal Distillery, www.newdealdistillery.com
Rolling River Spirits, www.rollingriverspirits.com
Stone Barn Brandy Works, www.stonebarnbrandyworks.com