Oregonians love their whiskey. They speak passionately about their favorite Bourbon, swap tasting notes on Scotches they have recently tried and excitedly blog about the newest whiskey-based cocktail creation their favorite mixologist has devised.
And over the past several years, a new whiskey has started to make its way into conversation: Oregon whiskey.
McMenamins, Clear Creek and Ransom are three of a small handful of local craft spirit producers who have introduced whiskey lovers to a new way of looking at, tasting and talking about this brown spirit.
Portland's Clear Creek Distillery, which features grappas, eu-de-vies and brandies in their portfolio, has been in operation for over 28 years. In 1992, proprietor and distiller Steve McCarthy started making whiskey … and not just any whiskey. McCarthy has developed a spirit modeled after one of his personal favorites and a true classic.
"My wife and I traveled to Ireland to fish and hike, but we got stranded in a hotel," remembers McCarthy.
"It was pouring down rain, but the hotel had a great cellar and a terrific bar and I drank my way through their single malt collection. I got into the peaty Islay single malts which I had never had before and that was my inspiration for my whiskey," he says, speaking of single malt Islay Scotch, Lagavulin 16 year. "To me it's perfect; it's everything a whiskey should be. I came back and I thought, 'I'm going to see if I can make that' and I feel like this recent release is pretty close."
McCarthy's whiskey is aged for 3 years in 100 percent Oregon oak barrels and made from peat-malted barley brought in from Scotland, which is then fermented by Widmer Brothers into a wash or unhopped beer. McCarthy uses the wash to get all the flavor and character of the malt when it is distilled.
Last year, McCarthy's whiskey sold out in 25 minutes and there is a waiting list for the new release set to come out next month.
Even though his product is unique and distinct, McCarthy feels that Oregon does not yet have a specific style to call its own. "There is no Oregon style at all," he says. "I think we are 25 years away from having a real style. Look at Scotch and even Bourbon; they have had a long time, you have a lot of people doing it, some people have been doing it for generations, and even their stuff is all over the map."
Not everyone sees it that way. McMenamins head distiller James Whelan makes four whiskeys: Hogshead, Monkey Puzzle, White Owl and White Dog. He feels that a unique Oregon style is emerging as a blend of all the great styles of the world.
McMenamins has been producing craft whiskey out of their Edgefield location since 1998. In September of 2011 they opened their second distillery at Cornelius Pass Roadhouse in Hillsboro. While their Hogshead Whiskey has similarities to Scotch, Irish and Bourbon whiskeys, it is not modeled directly after any single one of them. Instead it is produced from 100 percent malted barley, making it similar to Scotch. However, the malted barley is not dried with peat smoke, so it lacks the smoky characteristic of most Scotches and makes the grain profile more similar to Irish whiskey. It is then aged in new, charred American white oak barrels for at least three years, giving it similarities to Bourbon.
"I absolutely believe that the model we created with Hogshead Whiskey is the definitive Oregon-style whiskey!" says Whelan.
Tad Seestedt, who is the owner and executive distiller of Ransom Spirits Distillery in Sheridan, Oregon, introduced his first whiskey in 2007. Now he makes two: the Whippersnapper, influenced by Bourbon, Irish and Dutch Corenwyn whiskeys, and the Henry DuYore's, a straight Bourbon-inspired spirit. Seestedt plans to release an Irish-modeled whiskey later this year using malted and unmalted barley, rye and oats.
Ransom is a true artesian Oregon distiller. "All of our products are true pot-distilled in a direct fire, alambic pot still. Our ferments are carried out in house, and we grow a portion of the barley that we use on our farm in Sheridan," says Seestedt, who also makes gin, brandy, grappa, vermouth and vodka.
His take on Oregon-style whiskeys? "They are a bit across the board, although some do fit into those established categories (Bourbon, Scotch, Irish, Tennessee, etc). I don't see a need for a definitive Oregon style of whiskey, but hope that we can help to define whiskey more by how it is made and what it is made from," Seestedt says.
Oregon Whiskey Tasting Notes:
Clear Creek Distillery "McCarthy's" ($55)
Smoky and peaty aromatics along with notes of vanilla, baked apple, yellow raisins, beeswax, caramel and dried yellow flowers. Warm and smooth on the palate with honeysuckle nectar, more caramel, smoke and tree fruit flavors with a long complex finish.
Ransom Spirits "The Whippersnapper" ($29) 750ml
Yellow roses, smoke, hay with slight notes of maple syrup aromas. Smooth on the palate with a little kick of heat.
Ransom Spirits "Henry DuYore's" ($35) 750ml
Vanilla, baked white cherry, coriander and banana notes on the nose. A slightly peppery flavor with savory baking spices, vanilla and baked pears. A lot of heat on the palate with a long strong finish.
McMenamins "Hogshead" Whiskey ($32) 750ml
Aromas of caramelized apples, yellow and pink roses, cinnamon, clove, hay and blood orange rind with a smooth and warm palate that finishes long with notes of honey hay and caramel.
Patrick Bruce, bartender/bar manager at Thistle (Crowned best restaurant by the Oregonian Newspaper in 2011) in McMinnville shares two of his favorite Oregon Whiskey cocktails:
11/2 oz. Whippersnapper whiskey
1 oz. Ransom dry vermouth
3/4 oz. Farigoule
Dash of simple syrup
Serve on the rocks.
"The Jackie Brown"
2 oz. Henry Du Yore's bourbon
1 oz. House Spirits coffee liqueur
1/2 oz. Heering cherry liqueur
Dash of Fee Brothers old-fashioned bitters
Stir, serve up with a cherry.
GO SEE THEM
- Clear Creek Distillery
Open for tasting Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (they ask that you call ahead)
2389 NW Wilson Street, Portland, OR 97210 / 503.248.9470
- Ransom Spirits Distillery
23101 Houser Road, Sheridan, Oregon 97378 / 503.876.5022
- McMenamins Edgefield Distillery
2126 S.W. Halsey Street, Troutdale, Ore. / 503.669.8610
- Thistle Restaurant
228 Northeast Evans Street, McMinnville, OR 97128 / 503.472.9623