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Originally published June 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 19, 2008 at 1:38 AM

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Craft distillers have spirits riding high in Portland

You know folks in the southeastern part of this city reckon they are on to something big because the nickname game has commenced. Should the district be...

Seattle Times staff reporter

If you go

Spirits of Oregon

Where

A growing number of small craft distilleries are spread around Portland. Several are located in an industrial area in southeast Portland, known as Distillery Row, as well as by other nicknames. Clear Creek Distillery is in northwest Portland off U.S. Highway 30.

To visit microdistillers, a good starting point is House Spirits Distillery, 2025 S.E. Seventh Ave., since several other small-craft distillers are nearby.

Always make appointments for tours and tasting. Most small craft distilleries are mom-and-pop operations and don't have the staff to handle drop-ins. Clear Creek is more tourist-friendly.

Portland microdistillers

Clear Creek Distillery, 2389 N.W. Wilson St., 503-248-9470 or clearcreekdistillery.com. Tours every Saturday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. or by appointment. Features eau de vie, grappa, single malt whiskey and a line of fruit liqueurs.

House Spirits Distillery, 2025 S.E. Seventh Ave., 503-235-3174 or housespirits.com. Tours by appointment. Features Aviation Gin, Krogstad Aquavit, Medoyeff Vodka.

Ransom Spirits, same address as House Spirits Distillery. It subleases from House Spirits; 503-883-2089 or ransomspirits.com. Features muscat grappa, gewürztraminer grappa and malt-based gin.

Sub Rosa Spirits, same address as House Spirits. 503-476-2808 or subrosaspirits.com. Features saffron- and tarragon-flavored vodkas.

Integrity Spirits, 909 S.E. Yamhill St., shares facility with a restaurant, pub and, soon, a brewery. 503-517-2030 or www.integrityspirits.com. Tasting by appointment. Features vodkas (including Oregon hazelnut) and gin. Coming this summer: absinthe.

Highball Distillery, 610 S.E. 10th Ave. 503-803-3989 or highballdistillery.com. Tasting by appointment. Features organic vodka.

New Deal Distillery, 1311 S.E. Ninth Ave. See newdealdistillery.com. Tours by appointment. Features its signature New Deal Vodka, Portland 88 vodka and infused vodkas: hot pepper, basil and chocolate.

Rogue Spirits Portland, 1339 N.W. Flanders St. 503-222-5910 or roguespirits.com. Features hazelnut spice rum, dark rum, white rum. Tours by appointment. Rogue also has a distillery in Newport, Ore., where it makes vodka, gin and whiskey.

Edgefield Distillery, 2126 S.W. Halsey St., Troutdale, Ore. (near Portland). 503-669-8610 or mcmenamins.com. Features whiskey, brandies, gin and coffee liqueur.

Other Oregon distilleries

Bendistillery, Bend.

See bendistillery.com.

BU-TAY Vodka, Bend.

See bu-tay.com.

Liquid Vodka, Bend.

See liquidvodka.com

Brandy Peak Distillery, Brookings. See brandypeak.com.

Dolmen Distillery, McMinnville. See www.dolmen.arbre.us.

Hood River Distillers, Hood River. See hrdspirits.com.

Indio Spirits, Cottage Grove. See indiospirits.com.

Rogue Spirits, Newport.

See roguespirits.com.

Lodging

Make it a distillery theme weekend. Stay at The Edgefield Manor, 2126 S.W. Halsey St., Troutdale. Owned by the beer and hospitality company McMenamins, about a 15-minute drive east of Portland. There is a distillery on site and you can taste some of the spirits. 800-669-8610 or mcmenamins.com.

Bars

See what Portland's top bartenders are doing with small-craft spirits:

Teardrop Cocktail Lounge, 1015 N.W. Everett St., 503-970-8331 or teardroplounge.com.

Ten 01 at 1001 N.W. Couch St., 503-226-DINE or ten-01.com.

Coming in September: Beaker & Flask, 720 S.E. Sandy Blvd., featuring Kevin Ludwig, one of the city's top bartenders.

Change in law opens door here

WASHINGTON, TOO, MIGHT SEE A GIN AND WHISKEY BOOM thanks to the Legislature's passage in March of a law allowing distilleries to host tasting rooms and sell spirits on their premises.

The change clears major barriers and allows microdistilleries to operate almost like a winery or brewery. Previously, only the state could sell liquor, a holdover law from the end of Prohibition.

In July, Dry Fly Distilling in Spokane, the state's first distiller since Prohibition, will start offering tastings for its vodka, gin and, soon, whiskey.

A few others could soon join the field, including singer/ songwriter Danny O'Keefe, a Vashon Island resident who may build a distillery in Woodinville. Berle "Rusty" Figgins plans distilleries in Ellensburg and in Mattawa, Grant County.

Under the new law, distilleries can offer up to two ounces in tastings and sell each customer up to two liters per day. The annual distillery license fee dropped from $2,000 to $100, similar to Oregon's fee.

— Tan Vinh

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PORTLAND — You know folks in the southeastern part of this city reckon they are on to something big because the nickname game has commenced. Should the district be "Distillery Row"? "Libation Alley"? You get the picture.

The small craft distillery scene has hit Portland, reminiscent of the microbrewery boom two decades ago. Young microbrewers and winemakers are now distilling whiskey, brandy, grappa and even absinthe. And taking a page from Kentucky's iconic whiskey distillers, they are beginning to host tours and tastings. With 17 microdistilleries in Oregon, and eight more startups expected across the state by year's end, spirits aficionados haven't seen anything like this in recent memory.

Sure, boutique distilleries also dot the landscapes in Michigan and Northern California, but only in Oregon do most artisan distilleries concentrate around a city. Collectively, the distillers help shape the bar and culinary scene in Portland. The Rose City is now seeing a renaissance of classic cocktails, and some high-end restaurants are trying experimental pairings of food with spirits.

"The distillery scene here is where the wine industry in California was in the 1960s," said Steve McCarthy, owner of Clear Creek Distillery, one of the nation's first microdistilleries. "We are rewriting all the rules. The artisan distilleries are making up a whole new industry."

Breaking in with brandy

McCarthy earned a cult following after making small batches of eau de vie, or fruit brandy, in 1985.

Now, four-star restaurants Le Cirque in New York City and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago carry his brandy. The hip Pegu Club in New York invented a cocktail in homage to it. Local celebrity chefs Tom Douglas and Thierry Rautureau both rave about it.

In 1987, McCarthy sold his hunting-rifle part supply company to focus on his dream: making a world-class brandy. The Mercer Island native now lives a few blocks from his distillery in northwest Portland.

Clear Creek is Oregon's most impressive distillery, a must-stop for anyone who wants to see how a world-class distillery operates. On our recent visit, McCarthy, 65, gave a tour of where his brandies, grappas, liqueurs and whiskeys are made.

He stood next to a pallet of brandy set to be shipped to France, petting it like it was man's best friend. "The French invented eau de vie. For a French distributor to say that my stuff is good enough to go into France and compete with their stuff is a very nice recognition."

He also distills cherry, apple and even Douglas fir brandy, made from green buds plucked near Mount Hood. But his pear brandy, about $40 a bottle, is the big draw.

It takes 30 pounds of pears to make one 750-ml bottle. McCarthy trucks in Bartletts from his orchards in the Hood River Valley. The ripe pears get crushed, then fermented for a month in one of six 2,300-gallon tanks. The fermented mash then heats up in his copper stills.

How does it taste? Crisp, with an intense clarity of fresh-fruit characteristics. It doesn't taste medicinal or get run over by the high alcohol content. In the United States, only St. George Spirits and Germain-Robin in California belong in the same pantheon. It's as good as or better than many of the respected eaux de vie I've tasted in France.

Craft distilleries

Outside of Kentucky, Oregon hosts one of the nation's most exciting craft distillery scenes. Family-owned Brandy Peak Distillery in Brookings makes spirits the old-fashioned way, from a wood-fired still. Beer empire McMenamins runs a distillery next to Edgefield Hotel in Troutdale, east of Portland. In southeast Portland, House Spirits Distillery can craft a barrel of whiskey tailored to your taste. Nearby, Integrity Spirits makes an absinthe.

Two factors put the state at the forefront. Like wineries, distillers in Oregon can sell their spirits on their premises and offer tastings — unlike most states.

Also, an artisanal culture was already here. Think winemakers who make the famed pinot noir in Willamette Valley, and all the city's microbrewers. These days, those winemakers and brewers or their apprentices, along with bartenders and farmers, distill spirits with a Northwest flavor, even aging whiskey in Oregon oak.

Among the spirits being crafted here: pinot noir brandy, gewürztraminer grappa, Eastern-style gin, hazelnut spiced rum, or vodka infused with hot pepper, saffron, tarragon, chocolate or basil.

Distillery district

Many distill out of warehouses in an industrialized part of southeast Portland. Also on this corridor will be a few breweries, wineries and the much-anticipated September debut of a restaurant featuring Kevin Ludwig and Lance J. Mayhew, two of the city's best bartenders. Talks have begun about creating tour signs and a catchy nickname for this area.

Most distilleries in Portland offer tours and tastings, but expectations should be tempered, since most are startups and their operations are modest.

Often now, tasting means cozying up to a makeshift bar or a barrel that doubles as a tasting table. It's actually charming and more personal. Although many plan to build more formal tasting rooms by year's end, this informal setting falls more in line with the mom-and-pop profile of the small craft distilleries.

House Spirits Distillery is one of the big kids on this block. Its Aviation Gin was served at a James Beard award dinner and carried in many bars in New York City and San Francisco, the epicenters for classic and contemporary cocktails.

Aviation Gin breaks from traditional London Dry-style gin (think Tanqueray or Beefeater). It has less emphasis on juniper berries, and possesses a spicy nose, with hints of lavender and coriander and a smooth finish, similar to a Dutch genever gin.

Sophisticated spirits

Artisan spirits in Portland are so sophisticated that advocates such as Oregon Distillers Guild President Lee Medoff, who also co-owns House Spirits Distillery, are convinced spirits can pair with food just as wines do. Some of the city's top restaurants agree. Simpatica Dining Hall, Park Kitchen and Paley's Place all occasionally feature tasting menus with cocktails and spirits.

That's a sore point with traditionalists such as Clear Creek's McCarthy who believe the alcohol content is too high to pair with food. That it's a topic of discussion in restaurant kitchens and bars shows how big the distillery scene has grown in a city billed as "the capital of microbrewery."

In the Pearl District, bartenders Daniel Shoemaker at Teardrop Cocktail Lounge and Kelley Swenson of Ten 01 both create innovative cocktails with local spirits and almost draw as much attention in foodie circles as the city's top chefs. Their rise can be partly attributed to the craft distillery scene, which has raised awareness among the young crowd.

The craft distillery scene "is just about to explode," said Shoemaker, who owns Teardrop. He doesn't want to miss out. He plans to open a distillery to make peach liquor and apricot brandy for his bar.

Seattle Times staffer Tan Vinh is a regular contributor to NWWeekend. Contact him: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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