Whiskey business

Central Oregon distilleries are in high spirits

By Megan Kehoe / The Bulletin

Published Apr 25, 2014 at 12:11AM

Most local distillers agree: It’s a good time to be in the brown spirits business.

“Whiskey isn’t just popular locally or in Oregon these days,” said Brad Irwin, founder and CEO of Oregon Spirit Distillers. “It’s popular everywhere. We’re excited to be in the whiskey market now. It’s a great place to be.”

While Central Oregon’s craft brewing industry often casts a large shadow over other forms of alcohol in the region, locally distilled whiskey is picking up steam. Two local distillers — Oregon Spirit Distillers and Bendistillery — make the spirit for commercial sale and have other whiskey-related projects in the works. Bend’s third and newest distillery, Cascade Alchemy, offers an unofficial “white whiskey” — we’ll explain in a bit — and also plans to make a true whiskey in the future.

“I think what we’ll see is that whiskey will have a lot more longevity than the flavored vodka revolution of the last 10 years,” said Alan Dietrich, CEO of Bendistillery. “For a while, everyone was trying to come up with the next fun flavored vodka, but I think that wave has finally crested and whiskey is becoming the next thing.”

Bendistillery’s Crater Lake Rye whiskey is crafted from 95 percent rye grain and features rich toffee and peppery spice notes that are hallmarks of rye whiskey. It is also non-chill filtered, which Dietrich said helps maintain the whiskey’s character and body, and then aged for nine to 12 months before being bottled.

The company decided to make a rye whiskey because it was the first style to be made in the United States, Dietrich said, and also because rye grain grows well in Central Oregon. The distillery is currently growing its own rye grain on its property, and Dietrich said that one day soon Bendistillery will offer an estate edition of the whiskey made from property-grown grain.

Dietrich said the whiskey, which was released in September, has sold so well, especially in Oregon, that the company has had trouble keeping up with demand.

“We only made a certain amount and the popularity is far and away outstripping supply,” he said. “Our supply isn’t really going to increase until about another year. We were caught by surprise how popular it is.”

Bendistillery has also teamed up with Deschutes Brewery to create an American malt whiskey using the brewery’s Black Butte Porter in the distilling process. The concoction has been aging for about a year, but it’s still a long way from hitting the market.

“We’re nothing but excited about where this is going,” said Dietrich, who hopes to work on more collaborative drinks in the future. “It’s so much fun to take two icons in their respective industries and create something entirely new.”

Oregon Spirit Distillers also offers whiskey, a bourbon called CW Irwin Straight Bourbon. Named after Brad Irwin’s brother, who lent money to the distillery at a crucial point in the company’s history, the bourbon is crafted using corn, wheat, rye and barley all grown in Oregon. It’s aged for three years in American Oak Barrels.

“Bourbon is hot right now, not just in Oregon, but all over,” Irwin said. “And that medium-aged whiskey really allows us to show off what we do best.”

Irwin said one of the trends in the whiskey market is for distillers to make the spirit using all-local products.

“You see more and more distilleries focusing on local agriculture, and making their whiskey more in tune with it,” he said.

In addition to the CW Irwin brand, Oregon Spirit Distillers also offers an adopt-a-barrel program, allowing people to sponsor a barrel of rye or wheat whiskey as it ages. For $1,000, participants will get 24 bottles of the whiskey once it’s aged, along with the barrel it aged in. The program is in its third year, and just like the whiskey market in general, it’s garnered plenty of interest.

“It was hard to sell these barrels three years ago,” Irwin said. “Now, the program’s doing phenomenal.”

In June, the distillery will bottle its first barrels from the program.

Though Cascade Alchemy is less than a year old, the distillery offers its unofficial version of a whiskey: a “white whiskey” called Barley Shine, made using the wort from Riverbend Brewing’s beer. Co-owner Ross Wordhouse said the distillery can’t technically categorize the spirit as a whiskey even though, he said, it’s what whiskey starts out as before it hits the barrels and ages. Barley Shine is made in small batches and is only available at the distillery in northeast Bend.

Cascade Alchemy also plans to make an American version of a scotch in the near future, Wordhouse said.

Whiskey can be challenging for new distilleries to make because of the time involved in the aging process, he said.

“Right now, we’re just focused on establishing ourselves with white spirits that we can immediately get into stores,” Wordhouse said. “Once we get to a place where we have a constant income, we can look at doing projects that we can sit on for three years.”

In the meantime, local distillers don’t anticipate the whiskey craze will slow down anytime soon.

“I see whiskey as being much more of a marathon than a sprint,” Dietrich said. “I think in the future, we’re going to have an entire generation drinking nothing but brown spirits.”

— Reporter; 541-383-0354, mkehoe@bendbulletin.com.