Touring Three Distilleries in Portland, OR

March 17, 2011

As part of our workshop called “Distillation of Spirits 101,” my husband and I got to tour three distilleries in Portland, OR one Saturday.

The first one was Bull Run Distillery, which was not in operation yet. The tour was just our group with the owner Lee Medoff, and he was able to talk a lot about getting into the business. He had been distilling for over 15 years, previously at House Spirits. As a result, he actually designed his own stills and had them built locally instead of in Germany, which resulted in a huge cost savings. He seemed excited to be doing a whiskey using Oregon grains, brewed into a beer by an Oregon Brewery for him, and then distilling into a whiskey. He said it wasn’t that he was exactly following any style, but that was a unique thing. He didn’t want to copy, he wanted to be an orientalist! Other tidbits gained from Medoff:

  • The Heads of distilling will cloud up when water is added, but the hearts won’t.
  • While yeast does affect the flavor of wine and beer, it does not affect the flavor of distilled spirits. Therefore, he ferments with an aggressive yeast at warm temperatures to ensure that fermentation does not get stuck.
  • Spirits oxidize at the speed of glaciers when they come into contact with air.
  • He does not recommend anyone really making vodka because it is not cost effective. He added that so much of the flavor of vodka comes from the water used to dilute it from 190 proof and not so much the ingredients. He toured a vodka plant in Poland where the vodka going out one door was using the local nasty water and as a result was nasty. They shipped some 190 proof to another factory that used better water, and it was much better. Same base material but different waters resulting in different qualities.
  • Grains are the most efficient/cost effective method of getting alcohol to distill, as sugar prices are currently raising as it is going towards creating fuel.

Overall, this was the best tour of the day, and my husband really wants to go back when the place is in operation.

The next place we went to was Integrity Spirits, where we were stood up by the owner and therefore did not get an official tour like we were suppose to. While we were waiting for him to show, we did taste their infused vodkas, gins, and absinthe. Afterwards, the tasting room employee was able to let us in to see the stills, and luckily our teachers had been there before and could discuss what we saw. Basically, Integrity buys grain spirits and puts them in their still. The still has a special kind of tank on it that the alcohol as steam passes over the herbs and spices to become infused before the steam condenses back into spirit. My husband and I had been there before accidentally.

The last stop for our day was at House Spirits Distillery. The owner, Christian Krogstad, gives tours on Saturday on the hour, so we were not the only ones on the tour, and as a result, the tour was not as custom as it had been at Bull Run. At Bull Run, he was able to skip a lot about how to distill because we already knew from the class, but if you don’t know how it is made, Krogstad did an excellent job explaining it (remember, both men used to work together). He even had little bottles of heads, hearts, and tails for you to smell. He explained that they have a local brewery make them the 7% potential alcohol beer wort for the whiskey which House Spirits then ferments. He said that distillers don’t call it “beer,” but instead “whiskey wash.” The fermented wash is distilled once reaching about 60 proof, becoming a “low wine.” It is distilled once more to about 160 proof. It takes 600 gallons of wash to yield 50 gallons ready to be aged in oak barrels. It is diluted slightly to 120 proof to prevent the alcohol evaporating too much when it is put into oak barrels. Traditionally, it is then aged for about two years, where it gets its gold color, and then is diluted again for sale. However, House Spirits also sells young and clear whiskey as White Dog Whiskey. We were able to taste this young whiskey, which as a very good nose and a slight bit of fruit on the taste. It was nice. We also tasted a gin made out of rye with juniper, lavender, coriander, cardamom, Indian sarsaparilla, sweet orange peel, and anise. The other tasting included a Scandinavian style Krogstad Aqua Vit, which was pretty refreshing.

Hous Spirit's prettier, "more photogenic" Lambic still

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