Oregon's Whiskey Rebellion

This month, Food & Wine magazine takes note of the burgeoning whiskey distillery industry in Oregon - calling our local product "America's Best New Whiskeys". And it's no accident.

Sometime in the late 18th century, a band of small-batch distillers fled to the Kentucky countryside, where corn was abundant and a new liquor tax—which had just spurred a bloody rebellion—was rarely enforced. They shipped their whiskey in charred oak barrels, which imparted an amber coloring and a pleasant, sweet-smoky flavor. Recognizing a good thing, they made some more and, with a stroke of marketing ingenuity, stamped the barrels with the whiskey's region of origin: "Old Bourbon."

Two hundred years later, Kentucky bourbon is still the king of American whiskey. But another band of small-batch distillers has settled in Portland, Oregon, where the ingredients for fine whiskey—grain, water, wood—are plentiful and the laws are friendly to moonshiners who want to turn an honest buck. Right now, in garages and warehouses around the city, plans for another Whiskey Rebellion are being hatched. This time the barrels will be labeled "Oregon Whiskey," and if all goes well, what's inside them will rival the best that Kentucky and Tennessee have to offer.

Other than water, grain, wood, and friendly laws - what else contributes to this distilling revolution? A robust and innovative beer brewing community:

But [Lee Medoff and Christian Krogstad, founders of Portland's House Spirits] aren't at the distillery. Instead, I find them down the street at the Roots Organic Brewing Company, where Krogstad is bent over a 350-gallon stainless steel kettle, stirring a batch of "mash"—a steamy mixture of malted barley and hot water—with a wooden canoe paddle. It smells like a hippie soup kitchen in here, but Krogstad assures me it's the essential first step in the whiskey-making process. "Whiskey is essentially distilled beer," Krogstad says. "That's an oversimplification, but basically, it's true." And since Portland is home to dozens of microbreweries, current (and future) whiskey distillers will have plenty of the raw ingredients at hand. Like most Oregon distillers, Medoff and Krogstad started their careers making beer during the microbrew boom of the '80s and '90s. "We were around at the beginning of the craft-brewing revolution," Medoff says. "And now it's happening all over again with spirits."

There's one final only-in-Oregon ingredient in Oregon whiskey: The weather.

As soon as Medoff tasted his batch of proto-whiskey, he knew he'd created something special. "Kentucky and Tennessee only have two seasons: hot and cold. In Oregon we have four," he says. "I learned that the slower temperature change here in Oregon results in less extraction of the barrel flavors, so you get less of that smoky sweetness that bourbon has. I realized that with all-local ingredients, we could make something truly unique, truly Oregonian."

Read the rest of this fascinating look at what's next in Oregon.


  • Frank Carper (unverified)

    You see, this post just proves that Blue Oregon absolutely, positively pro-Jeff Merkley!

  • mike (unverified)

    Where would one find all this good Oregon whiskey?

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    Posted by: Frank Carper | Oct 6, 2007 5:43:05 PM

    You see, this post just proves that Blue Oregon absolutely, positively pro-Jeff Merkley!


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    Posted by: Frank Carper | Oct 6, 2007 5:43:05 PM You see, this post just proves that Blue Oregon absolutely, positively pro-Jeff Merkley!

    LOL... touché

  • HB (unverified)

    And since a post like this can't be entirely non-political, let's remember that one of Oregon's best distillers, Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek, is also a major supporter of Democrats. If you are going to start sampling these particular fruits of Oregon's unique climate, it would make sense to start with their remarkable single malt.

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    I think what we are is secretly pro-Roots, which has cropped up in two posts in the past few days (this one and the one announcing Sam's announcement). And although I'm a beer guy, and although Roots is my fave brewery, I did NOT post either item.

    Oh yeah, the liquor in this town is pretty good, too...

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    I actually had some of the McCarthy whiskey on Friday and must say I was suitably impressed. We were also drinking Basil Hayden, and the McCarthy stood up very well even side by side. Not as smooth as the Basil, but that's not too surprising given the 8 year age of the Basil versus only 3 for the McCarthy. However, the depth of flavor held its own very well. The local stuff had a ton of interesting flavors going on. If you're looking to pick up something a little bit different, I highly recommend giving the McCarthy a try. Oh, and I was able to find it at my local liquor store in among the rest of the top shelf bourbons.

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    My brother has for several years told me how crummy the spirits from Edgefield are, but I guess I'm going to have to run over to my local McM's (Murray Crossing in Beaverton) and do a little research. I'll report back here when my vision returns.

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    I think what we are is secretly pro-Roots

    Secretly? Openly!

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