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NEW SPIRITS

Oregon's microdistilleries lead the market.

by Melissa Bearns

First it was wine, as Oregon winemakers gained fame and notoriety for their fabulous pinot noirs. The explosion of high quality, handcrafted grape-y goodness from California and the Northwest reshaped the industry and, at the same time, educated the public. Quality wines became the norm, replacing the two or three bland brands that had once dominated the market. Consumers learned the difference between a light, fruity Beaujolais and a complex, rich cabernet. The national vocabulary expanded to include words and phrases like hints of oak, spicy reds and tannins.

Marché's James West mixes a cocktail with Oregon-distilled Medoyeff vodka.

Then it was beer. Oregon's microbreweries gained a reputation nationwide for producing some of the tastiest porters and ales money could buy. Consumers learned about hops and the differences between a hefeweizen and an ale. Beer terminology became general knowledge and people in New York, Chicago and L.A. now drink Oregon brews.

Today, Oregonians are once again leading the newest trend in booze as products from our 10 or so small-batch distilleries gain national attention and recognition. You can read about Oregon gin, vodka and eau de vie in Gourmet, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Men's Journal, Food & Wine, The Wall Street Journal and Bon Apétit, to name a few.

According to Bill Owens, founder and president of the American Distilling Institute, about 72 microdistillers are operating in the U.S. Ten of those are in Oregon. Only California, with 12, has more operating small distilleries than Oregon. Michigan has 10.

Part of the reason we're seeing so many local, small-batch distilleries popping up around the state is because it's those same folks, the people who've been working for decades with beer and wine, who are now trying their hands at distilling. "I see it as a natural evolution of both the wine and beer industries," said Ty Reeder, distiller for McMenamins. "With such large numbers of people working [with beer and wine], you're bound to have people looking for the next step."

 

They Call Him Yoda

While most of Oregon's microdistilleries have only been in operation for a few years, Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek Distillery has been in the game for more than two decades. Other Oregon distillers refer to him as the grandfather or the Yoda of small-batch distilling in the state. He founded Clear Creek back in 1985 as a way to make money from the pear orchards he owns in Hood River. But he also had other objectives, including putting Oregon on the map for its high quality local products and finding a better, more profitable use for the land; to lead the way in alternative land use and prove to farmers it's possible to make money without selling out to developers. Plus he wanted some pear brandy, which, at the time, was extremely rare.

Like an older sibling who breaks in the parents by fighting for later curfews and more freedom, McCarthy paved the way for Oregon's now burgeoning distilling market. For 21 years he's educated the public, going restaurant to restaurant, talking to one person at a time explaining what he does and what he makes. He's also refined his pear brandy, officially called Eau de Vie de Poire, and created an award-winning product so exceptional it's well known throughout the nation and even in Europe, where eau de vie originated. He's also expanded his product line to include about a dozen other spirits, with an Eau de Vie de Douglas Fir as his most recent.

"It's been 21 very long years," he said. "I would say we make lovely stuff and many of our products are recognized as the very best in the world." The Eau de Vie de Poire was awarded a double gold medal at the World Spirits Competition held in San Francisco in 2000, a year in which no other eau de vie was even awarded a single gold. The next closest contender received a silver. "We're finally starting to make some money," he added. "And getting some attention. So I don't feel like I have to personally hand sell every bottle."

 

Legalize It

McCarthy was brewing up fine spirits while some of today's microdistillers were still playing with Legos. But his longevity isn't the only thing that makes him a key player in the development of distilling in Oregon. He and the McMenamin brothers got the OLCC to change their regulations, making it possible for small-batch distillers to actually sell their own products and hold tastings. Without that change in the rules, microdistillers would have a tough time making a go of it.

The way the OLCC works is that a producer of spirits sells their products to the OLCC, which, in turn, places those products in OLCC-controlled liquor stores through retail agents. Prior to 1987, OLCC regulations prohibited a distiller from selling distilled products to anyone except the OLCC.

"What the McMenamins wanted to do, and also Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek, was to take it out of the huge industrial process and handcraft small-batch products," said Katie Hilton, rules coordinator for the OLCC. "The trouble is they didn't make enough to sell it through the OLCC's liquor stores."

So, according to Marketing Director Renee Rank, the McMenamins hired a lobbyist and convinced the OLCC to change the regulations. "We carved out in law an exception to allow these small manufacturers to get their products out through tastings, and a way for them to sell their own products by becoming one of our [retail] agents," Hilton said.

That made the whole business of microdistilling much more palatable. Even though a small-batch distiller will most likely lose money for the first three to five years they're in operation, they can now directly promote and sell their products, which makes microdistilling as a business possible.

The McMenamins opened their Edgefield distillery in 1998 immediately following another 1987 change in OLCC rules that allowed a company to own and operate both a brewery and a distillery. Prior to 1987 you could have one or the other, but not both. And now McMenamins isn't the only Oregon brewing company to get into the distilling business — Rogue recently started making both a light and a dark rum.

 

Making a Market

Right now the behemoth corporations that control the spirits industry barely seem to notice microdistillers. While the local trend is small, handcrafted distilled products, worldwide, the spirits industry is consolidating. "That could be one of the things that's making microdistilling more appealing to consumers," said Ken Kossler, vice president of marketing and sales for Hood River Distillers. "We're seeing a huge consolidation [in the industry] and sales of major companies around the world. It's opened the door to some of the boutique operations, some of the smaller shops. And as we saw with microbrews, the Pacific Northwest is leading the way."

Unlike the beer industry, where the giants like Miller and Busch saw microbrewers as a major threat, for now the spirits corporations are taking little notice of the microdistillers. "I don't feel the top down pressure that we felt in the brewing industry," said Anders Johansen, who owns Dolman Distillery and worked in the beer industry from over a decade. "I don't think the big distilleries are looking at the small guys as any kind of competition. Nor do we have the same impact."

Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek thinks that might eventually change, but he's happy to be operating under the radar of the spirits corporations. "Guys like me, without knowing what we were doing, stumbled into an industry dominated by a couple of huge giants," he said. "And at this point, we're so small, they haven't started to pay attention to us."

 

Savvy Consumers Buy Local

Johansen, like many other distillers, comes from a long background in the beer brewing business and worked at breweries in Eugene, Bend (Deschutes Brewery) and finally for Pyramid Brewery. He said that in the 15 or so years he's been in the business of making brews and booze, consumers have become much more educated and savvy in their buying practices and in their knowledge of the products.

Sipping a frothy bitter at the Bier Stein in Eugene, he explained that one of the things the microbrewing and wine revolution did was educate the public and raise consumers' expectations. Where before people might have been happy with low quality, mass-produced pilsners or wine in a box, now they expect rich, tasty beer and a varied selection of high-quality, affordable, local and regional wines.

"With microdistilling, you're getting the same handmade, artisanal qualities you're getting with the microbreweries," said Scott Gallagher, director of leverage for Rogue Ales, which recently started distilling rum.

And that's what consumers want these days. "People don't care about the big corporations," said Bill Owens of the American Distilling Institute. "They want something where they can go to the distillery or the winery and meet the people who make it and then support those people by buying the products. The public is out there on a quest for the best. They want high quality things and distilling is just part of that, things that are crazy and over the edge in wonderfulness."

Another thing that's helping out Oregon's microdistillers is the growing awareness that buying locally-grown and -made products is one of the keys to creating sustainable communities. So indirectly, increased environmentalism and political awareness are also helping folks like Johansen and McCarthy build their businesses.

"I think today consumers, especially consumers of distilled spirits, are very intelligent people," Kossler said. "They're very knowledgeable and are looking to purchase something very different and unusual. And especially in Oregon, people are very happy to support local industry. There is a 'buy local' culture here."

Plus most of Oregon's microdistillers are committed to using local products, from grains to grapes. Reeder, distiller for McMenamins, said they use pears from Hood River in the pear brandy. For their aged brandy, they grow the grapes on site in Edgefield. "I can look out my window and see the vineyard where my grapes are grown," he said.

McCarthy uses the pears he grows in his own vineyards for his famous Eau de Vie de Poire, and Johansen has been eyeing an Asian pear orchard up the road for a new product. For his Eau de Vie de Douglas Fir, McCarthy hauls buckets of high proof neutral spirits out into the forests in the spring and snips the bright green buds off the tips of the trees right into the buckets. And Bend Distillery uses juniper berries harvested locally in their gins.

Local restaurants like Marché were some of the first supporters of the local distillers, carrying their products from the start. Specialty cocktails like Marché's summer Basil Vice, which features House Spirits' Medoyeff vodka with Oregon huckleberry and basil, also help promote the products. For the winter, bar manager James West uses Medoyeff vodka in another cocktail, the P.A.S.S., a perfectly balanced blend of vodka, fresh grapefruit juice, crème de cassis and champagne that's just amazing.

West stocks various local spirits including a few from Clear Creek, House Spirits and Bend Distillery. He said mixing it up with local products behind the bar is just an extension of Marché's commitment to support local farmers and growers by buying their products and featuring them on the menu.

But West doesn't stock the products from Oregon distilleries just because they're from Oregon. Pouring out two small samples of apple brandy, one from the famous French distiller Calvados and one from Clear Creek, he swished the amber liquid in stemless Riedel glasses and said, "Taste these. You tell me whether or not you think the Clear Creek is better." All three tasters agreed: the Clear Creek was smoother, with a richer nose and more flavor.

"The high quality of the local distilled products is simply a reflection of the high quality of life in Oregon," he said.

 

Defining the Future

With an average two-year process to get a federal distilling license, high cost equipment and the likelihood of losing money for at least a few years, we probably won't see dozens of microdistillers popping up around the state the way we did with microbrewers in the '80s and early '90s. "These are people who understand that if you're going to put a product out there, it has to be excellent," West said. But currently at least three more local distillers are working through the process of getting licensed.

We can expect the microdistilling scene to continue growing and if the current quality of products is any indicator, Oregon may once again become the frontrunner in the newest trend in booze. "The beer industry got saturated pretty fast," said Christian Krogstad, who owns House Spirits in partnership with Lee Medoff. "A lot of people got into it and you had a lot of people making one style of beer, those hoppy sweet ales. But distilling is pretty open. No one style has become associated with Oregon distilled spirits yet. We're on the cutting edge, creating the style and the market."

 

TASTE TEST

I discovered an unexpected benefit to writing about spirits: Everybody wants you to taste their products before you write about them. So for a week, boxes filled with bottles of vodka, gin, rum and brandy rolled through the doors of Eugene Weekly.

To get a varied array of opinions, I held a semi-formal tasting over the weekend. This was not a gathering of hoity-toity tasting snobs, but a group of 20- and 30-somethings who drink everything from PBR and three-buck-Chuck to Sangiovese hauled back from Italy and some of the finest whiskies money can buy.

The tasters didn't know the brands they were trying until the end, and wrote their observations and comments on numbered sheets. As they made their way out the door, they got to take two of their favorite bottles along with them. Here's what they wrote about the ones they chose:

Jake Baker, booze aficionado

Hood River's Pendleton 10-Year Whisky: Extra smooth with the taste and texture of vanilla. Balanced and clean with a light, rich aftertaste.

Melissa Bearns, associate editor

Clear Creek's Loganberry Brandy: Has a deep juicy color and smells like a sunny summer day. The taste is sweet, an intensely wonderful explosion of berry that lingers and fades incrementally. "Right now I don't want to taste anything else because the taste in my mouth is so good," commented Molly.

Bend Distillery's Cascade Mountain Gin: Has a very clean, bright flavor with prominent aroma of juniper. Smooth going down with a lingering aftertaste. Love this gin!

Jennifer Donahue, sales

Edgefield Distillery's Hogshead Whisky: A little young but with a robust, leathery flavor and a smooth finish.

Jef Stout, classified manager

House Spirits Gin (on the market in mid-March): Incredibly unique, with a spicy, sweet anise flavor and a hint of high-quality root beer flavor.

Brandy Creek Blackberry Liqueur: Sweet, slightly peppery and innocent. A nice balance between sweet and tart.

Molly Templeton, calendar editor and food editor

House Spirits' Medoyeff Vodka: It's got a bite, but is smooth and disappears quickly. I want to mix drinks with this one. (Later, I found this makes a fantastic vodka gimlet.)

Clear Creek's Eau de Vie de Poire: Smells sweet, like extremely strong pear cider. Doesn't burn like the others, and the pear flavor is much richer.

 

Oregon's youngest distillers are right here in Cottage Grove.

by Melissa Bearns

By their early 20s, brother and sister Jeff and Megan Meyers had almost $100,000 in credit card debt between them. They weren't buying clothes or cars or any of the cool things people usually want at that age. They were sinking their money into remodeling a 500-square-foot shop in their parents' back yard and buying the equipment they needed to turn Jeff's senior project at Cottage Grove High School into a real business.

Jeff and Megan Meyers.

It all started with Bloody Mary mix. Jeff was 17, and for his cross-disciplinary senior project at Cottage Grove High School he chose to start a small business making the mixer. His parents had been self-employed his whole life and he knew that was what he wanted to do too. So he chose a project he could actually turn into a real business. And his family members were the guinea pigs.

"Oh my god, you should try some of the early batches," Jeff said, his gray-green eyes twinkling beneath the band of his backwards baseball cap.

He and Megan still have the booklets where they wrote down those early recipes — 5 pounds of this, 2 pounds of that and a dash of something else. They'd test them on their parents and their friends, and when the tasters reached a consensus, they made that recipe a keeper and started making it in bulk.

The Etiqueta Privada line of spirits and mixers.

They got the necessary permits from the FDA and the Oregon Health Department, bottled the stuff and started going liquor store to liquor store trying to sell it. The first person who bought their products was a woman named Kitty, who at the time owned and managed the Cottage Grove Liquor Store.

That was 10 years ago. Now Jeff is 28 and Megan is 30. They own hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bottling, filtering and distilling equipment and make three different kinds of vodka, create and bottle products for dozens of other companies and have expanded their little backyard project into a big-time business.

Sitting in the meeting room of their 36,000-square-foot production building, Jeff does most of the talking. Megan, her wavy, chestnut hair pulled back into a pony tail, sits quietly, chiming in occasionally to fill in bits of the story as her brother speaks.

On the table in front of them they've laid out a rainbow of bottles: green sweet and sour mix, lime-colored mojito mix, crimson strawberry daiquiri mix, their second-to-bottom-shelf vodka, Octane, with blue flames on the label, and even their environmentally friendly firestarter/lighter fluid. But the bottle that jumps out at you, maybe just because of the name, is their high-end vodka, the clear, tall, graceful bottle marked boldly with the name: Lubrication. "People ask us where we come up with these ideas," Jeff said, grinning. "Meg and I talk about this stuff 24/7. And it's not all sexual by the way."

Their company, Side Pocket Foods, has finally started to make some money and they've been in the black since last year. "But then we go back into debt because every time we get some money, we buy equipment," Jeff said. "Clients will come visit this place and they look at us, and they can't understand how we can be so young and have all this incredibly expensive equipment. Well look at the cars, look at the houses. All our money has gone into this. We're hoping this will be the year that the houses and the cars will come through for us."

Ironically, even though they distill spirits, Jeff is a professed beer drinker. "Well, even if we don't have as good of a year as we're hoping, at least PBR is always on sale," he said.

 

 

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