To Make a Great Portland Whiskey, First You Have to Make a Great Beer

Westward Oregon Stout Cask Finish
Courtesy image

Rewind through the production of a single malt whiskey—walking backward from bottle to barrel to pot still, reversing through the distillation process and back to the fermentation tanks—and what you have is essentially beer. Single malt whiskeys all rise from a starter of barley and water fermented, with an assist from yeast, into a low-alcohol “wash” that is then distilled into a barley-based spirit. Tweak this process by adding hops and skipping the distillation, and you’d have something recognizable as a lager or ale.

Why Stout-Finished Whiskeys Should Be on Your Radar & the Ones to Try

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None of this information is required to enjoy single malt whiskey, of course, but it’s helpful for understanding why the makers of Westward Whiskey in Portland, Ore.,—almost all of whom have spent time working in Oregon’s prolific brewing industry at one point or another—have managed to produce such interesting whiskeys.

“Coming out of the American craft brewing movement, we start with a really good understanding of the fermentation,” says Christian Krogstad, founder and master distiller of Westward Whiskey. “If you’ve already created a bunch of off flavors and screwed up the ferment, then the rest of your process is just trying to fix that. So our philosophy is ‘let’s make a really nice beer’ and see where we can go from there.”

Since vastly scaling up production of Westward over the past several years, Krogstad and company have gone quite a long way. Westward’s cask strength single malt won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2019. In March, the distillery’s new Oregon Stout Cask, a single malt finished in local stout beer barrels, picked up a gold medal as well. The Stout Cask expression is Westward’s first extension of its core lineup beyond its flagship single malt and signals more good things to come.

Krogstad founded House Spirits Distillery in 2004 with the aim of making an American single malt whiskey expressive of Portland’s unique culture and place. Then he promptly started doing what many distillers do to recoup startup costs and keep the lights on in the early going: making gin. The product, sold under the name “Aviation” grew into the best-selling craft gin in the United States and helped define the fledgling U.S. craft distilling industry. House Spirits sold the brand in late 2016 (yes, it’s the same Aviation Gin now partially-owned by—and continuously hyped by—Ryan Reynolds), though it still produces the liquid under contract at its Portland distillery.

The sale freed up bandwidth and capital allowing Krogstad and House Spirits to focus on its whiskey project, which after years of refinement was coming fully into its own. “We set out to make Westward the way it is based on where we are,” Krogstad says. That meant leveraging not only the region’s local water and barley, but tapping into Portland’s sprawling brewery culture and a certain enthusiasm for trailblazing and experimentation native to the Pacific Northwest.

Westward’s vast brewing expertise manifests itself—and differentiates itself—in the emphasis the Westward team places on the front end of the whiskey-making process. “We’re very careful with our fermentations, because we want that raw material, we want that grain, we want those fermentation flavors to really come through in the final product,” says Miles Munroe, Westward’s lead distiller. “Westward was engineered to be a fairly young whiskey. It’s really bright, really robust, and we feel you can get a lot of grain aspects in the final product.”

But it’s Westward’s philosophy that you can’t get all these things by starting with bad beer. Munroe and his team produce their wash to exacting standards, carefully maintaining the temperature of the fermentation to discourage the development of certain unwanted flavor compounds. They do this in closed, stainless steel fermentation tanks they thoroughly clean after every wash to ensure control over what bacteria and yeast are allowed into the mix (in contrast with some producers who elect to ferment in large, open-topped wooden vats).

These stylistic differences prove time-consuming and costly, but Krogstad and Munroe believe they’re meaningful in producing a clean wash that consistently meets their specifications—a good beer from which to build a great whiskey. “We’re approaching this in a very minimalist way,” Munroe says. “Our approach is: Instead of creating some of those off flavors accidentally and then trying to remove them during distillation, let’s just not create any of those to begin by having a better wash.”

The approach has paid off in the accolades garnered by Westward’s flagship single malt, and its new Oregon Stout Cask expression provides a glimpse of where the distillery is headed from here. Through its relationships with brewers across the Pacific Northwest, Westward was able to experiment with various used stout casks before settling on a finish that imparts notes of slightly bitter chocolate, toasted grains, and—faintly—nutty roasted coffee beans. It’s rich and round and most of all different, an homage to everything that makes Portland uniquely Portland.

And how does a uniquely Portland distillery follow up whiskey finished in Oregon stout barrels? Starting this month Westward is rolling out a deep, decadent, dark fruit- and chocolate-tinged expression that spent 19 months in used wine casks formerly housing Oregon Pinot Noir. It’s only available in the distillery store in Portland as of right now, but look for nationwide availability by the end of the year.

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