The Rise of West Coast Whiskey

Mj 618_348_the rise of west coast whiskey
Courtesy of Dry Fly

When you're at your local bar or liquor store, look around: just as innovative craft beer and some of the best wines made in North America hail from the Pacific Northwest, so too has the region begun to establish itself as a space for excellent spirits. In Oregon and Washington, a growing number of distilleries are looking to do for whiskey and gin what the likes of Deschutes and Elysium have done for beer — establishing their region as one to watch, and a place of origin for spirits to be savored. 

It doesn't hurt that Oregon and Washington have plenty of farmland, making them an ideal place to grow barley, wheat, and other crops that play a key role in the creation of quality spirits. Nor is the presence of coastal terrain, and a variable climate that seems, in places, uniquely suited to the storage and aging of spirits. Some of the distilleries in operation take their inspiration from revered single-malt makers across the ocean; others look toward more obscure crafts and drinks, reviving old recipes for a new century. Some evolved out of the manufacture of other drinks; others hone their focus, zeroing in on a particular spirit and seeking to perfect it. And they're all at the center of a growing scene.

Not surprisingly, some of the earliest distilleries in Oregon and Washington arose out of efforts to make other drinks. "I was working as a winemaker for close to 25 years," said Tad Seestedt, founder of Ransom Spirits. "I started experimenting with distilling in the early 1990s, and started my distillery in 1997." Seestedt's first inspiration came when his then-girlfriend returned from a trip to France with a bottle of homemade mirabelle liqueur that her stepfather had made at home. "I thought, 'If that guy can make an eau de vie that tastes that good in his garage, then maybe I can do that, too,' " Seedstedt recalled.

Though Ransom may be best known for their whiskey and gin, Seestedt's first efforts were in a very different realm. "In the first seven years," he said, "I was focusing on making grape-based and fruit-based brandies, eau de vies, and grappas." In 2005 and 2006, Ransom's focus shifted more toward gin and whiskey: their current lineup includes The Emerald 1865, a whiskey; their Old Tom Gin, a collaboration with cocktail writer and historian Dave Wondrich; and the WhipperSnapper spirit whiskey, which tastes exactly as you might expect. It's probably worth mentioning that their Old Tom Gin and sweet vermouth can be combined as part of a terrific Martinez. 

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"Production grew exponentially once we started selling gin and whiskey," Seestedt said — though it's worth mentioning that Ransom also offers wines for sale. The distillery is now based on his farm, located outside of Sheridan, a small city in northern Oregon. Seerstedt cited his winemaking experience as being essential to their work with spirits. "Before you distill, you have to ferment something," he said. "So understanding fermentation and what happens during fermentation, and how that affects distillation, is pretty crucial."

Winemaking is one way to turn to distilling, while the experience of Rogue Ales & Spirits offers another. Probably best known for their beers, including an often-surreal array of flavorings (including beers incorporating Sriracha and doughnut flavors, though not at the same time), Rogue’s spirits offerings include whiskey, gin, rum, and vodka. Their efforts at distilling began in 2003, at a brew pub in Issaquah, Washington. "Through our experience in beer, it was the logical conclusion that craft spirits would be similar," said Rogue president Brett Joyce. "That was the inspiration, the motivation, to get us into it." 

In the years since then, Rogue's distillery has moved to a facility located near their brewery. When speaking about their facilities, Joyce also spoke emphatically about two spaces located near the distillery. "We have all of the barrels in the ocean aging room," he said. "It sits right there on the coast of Oregon, in Newport." Beside that, he said, was a cooperage facility, where the distillery’s barrels are made. That, for them, is a relatively new move. "We've just begun the barrel aging journey and process," he noted.

While several Northwestern distilleries take a broad approach, offering a host of spirits, Seattle's Westland Distillery prefers to hone in on a very specific target: they make single malt whiskeys, including one variation that’s peated and one that’s been aged in sherry wood casks. It’s a precise focus, but it’s also one that yields a very satisfying spirit. Westland is a relatively new organization: their first facility opened in 2010, and their current distillery, located in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, opened its doors three years later. They have a second facility near the coast, in Hoquiam, which includes a space for the aging of barrels. 

When master distiller Matt Hoffman talked about their work, his points of reference were largely revered Scottish distilleries — he spoke highly of Bruichladdich's exploration of varietals. Unlike many American distilleries, there isn't much interest in making bourbon or rye here; instead, the focus is on single malt whiskeys made with ingredients from their home state. Which isn’t to say that Westland doesn’t opt for some unconventional practices: Hoffman noted that "that boundary has never really been crossed," with respect to using brewer’s malts as opposed to distiller’s malts in the process. Hoffman also cited Washington’s climate as ideal for the growing of barley, and spoke of a "need to make whiskey here." It's a sentiment echoed by Westland’s president, Emerson Lamb, who spoke of "Washington's unique ability to produce great single malt whiskey." 

In the eastern part of Washington, Spokane’s Dry Fly Distilling is also working with the state's agriculture to create distinctive spirits. For them, that includes wheat-based gin and vodka, and several whiskeys, including their Washington Wheat Whiskey and a whiskey made using triticale, a grain described by co-founder Don Poffenroth as "an old Scottish grain; it’s a hybrid of wheat and rye."

Dry Fly has been making spirits since 2007. "We started making whiskey right away," Poffenroth recalled. "We didn’t sell any whiskey until it was two and a half years old, approximately. That was around 2010." Their offerings have expanded, and they've tested out a number of different varieties of whiskey. "This year will be the first year that we’ll have a five-year-old aged whiskey. We'll have two different Irish-style whiskeys. Our current whiskeys are running between two and four years old, so this will be our first five-year-old product. And then we're a year away from starting to have seven-year-old whiskey ready," Poffenroth said. "It becomes this leapfrogging game you play with aging. We keep trying to better ourselves."

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For now, craft distilling in the Pacific Northwest seems to be on the increase. In the last decade, Dry Fly’s Poppenroth has seen significant growth in Washington’s manufacture of spirits. "In 2007, we were one of two or three in the Northwest," he said. "We were the first one in the state of Washington. Today in Washington, I think there’s 80 or 90."

Ransom's Seerstadt argued that the boom in Northwestern spirits can be chalked up to a broader national trend. "It's the craft cocktail boom that has taken off and gripped the entire country," he contended. "That had been an encouragement and inspiration for people on the production end to try to start making products that correlate well with what’s happening in bars."

Whether the distilleries are establishing a Pacific foothold for single-malt whiskey, reviving archaic styles of spirits, or exulting in the borders between craft brewing and craft distilling, there's plenty of creative work happening in Washington and Oregon. Thankfully, it’s resulting in a lot of high-quality spirits as well: some that offer complex tastes that reward patient drinking, others that can be used as materials to create a terrific cocktail. And given the importance of aging when it comes to whiskey, the promise of what could come in subsequent years is enticing indeed.

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