All photos by Keith Allison.
Portland, Oregon is known for a lot of things: craft beer, Portlandia, urban goat playgrounds. It’s not known as an epicenter for boutique distilling, but that hasn’t stopped it from growing an impressive and vibrant spirits distilling community (in the shadow of the urban goats, no less). Some of these places really put the micro in micro, but all of them are worth visiting for the look they give you at how varied the products and production can be in the spirits world. Distillery Row is a promoted chain of five (soon to be six) micro-distilleries and/or tasting rooms (see http://www.distilleryrowpdx.com/ for more info). On their own, they’re five bucks a pop for a tasting (which can include a rather generous number of products), but the wise and dedicated trekker can buy a “passport” for $20, which comes with a coupon for $5 off a purchase at any of the distilleries. You can also share the passport between people, in case your designated driver wants a taste but doesn’t want to ruin the whole idea behind designated drivers. Most of the distilleries are within walking distance of one another if you like to walk and plan the order accordingly, but a car wouldn’t hurt.
A clean, large (for a small place) warehouse serves as home to New Deal’s still, which they use to make an assortment of gin and vodka. I admit, neither gin nor vodka outside of a cocktail is really my thing, but like many small distillers, New Deal does things different enough that their product turned the head of even this dedicated whiskey and beer drinker. The Hot Monkey peppered vodka was the winner for me, with the surprising runner-up being their bitter chocolate vodka. I know, I know. I scoff at flavored vodka as well, but this stuff was fantastic.
Unfortunately, Vinn is only a tasting counter; the actual distillery is just outside of town, in the backyard of the parents of the brother and sister who started the label. Fortunately, what they are tasting you on is unique and pretty amazing. Baiju is a well-known liquor in China, but it’s relatively unknown outside of that community. Distilled from rice, it has a unique flavor and is a name that can be applied to a pretty wide variety of spirits, not unlike shoju. It can be a little funky at first if you are unaccustomed to the flavors: rice, malt, maybe a little soy sauce in the back, red fruits. But once you get your legs under you, Vinn’s three products are really wonderful and unique.
The most popular spot on Distillery Row, Eastside can be a bit…ehh, cheesy. Hired hands in tight t-shirts pour your samples, and the whole thing has a bit of a Hooters vibe. But the crowds are usually entertainingly rowdy and there is certainly plenty to sample, including a decent, if slightly rough around the edges, bourbon called Burnside, a couple good rums, and a couple flavored whiskies I think I won’t mention any further. The well-regarded Burnside Double Barrel Bourbon is available for purchase but unfortunately isn’t part of the tasting.
Located next door to a medical marijuana dispensary called Cannabliss, House Spirits has the highest national profile of anything on Distillery Row, thanks largely to their widely available and very accomplished Aviation Gin. They also make and pour Krogstad Aquavit and a couple of whiskies, both aged and unaged, and distilled in what amounts to a garage. After the crush of people and production of Eastside, House is a decidedly more relaxed affair with more of an eye toward indulging the occasional spirits nerd mixed in with everyone else. Get them going, and you can be there an awful long time.
The farthest afield of the Distillery Row locations, Stone Barn is hidden in between the train tracks and an office complex and offers, as you might guess from the name, a few different brandies. But they don’t stop there. Perhaps the smallest of the distilleries on the Row, Stone Barn seems the most likely to experiment. This means the weary (and by this point, probably tipsy) Distillery Row visitor is greeted not just with an assortment of brandies, but also with an ouzu, a couple fruit liqueurs, and a few different whiskies, including the Hard Eight Aged Whiskey, which is a blend of house-distilled rye, wheat, and spelt (and a bottle of which came home with me, accompanied by New Deal’s Hot Monkey).
At the time of my visit, the sixth and newest member of the Distillery Row tour, Rolling River Spirits, was not yet open. To be honest, I had pretty well hit my limit anyway and certainly gotten more than my money’s worth out of the passport. Portland may be a mecca for craft brewing, but the craft distilling going on in its midst is a lot of fun to poke around in. And it seems almost de rigueur to close out any Distillery Row tour with a visit to nearby Pok Pok restaurant. At least half the people we saw at the distilleries and tasting rooms ended up at Pok Pok, cushioning the blow of so much high proof alcohol with amazing food and Thai iced teas.