The PNW Distilled

pacific northwest distilleries

The make-local movement moves into gins, whiskeys and vodkas

written by Felisa Rogers 

A giant burnished maroon vessel looks like an elaborate samovar or perhaps the mysterious creation of a 19th century inventor. This hand-hammered alembic pot still was manufactured in France in 1978 and is now the heart of the Ransom distillery, located on a 40-acre organic farm outside of Sheridan, Oregon.

With a ruddy complexion, wool hat, and grey-blue eyes, distiller Tad Seestedt, AGE, looks like a Norwegian fisherman heading out to sea. “I was curious about distilling, especially about making brandies, because we were already doing half of the equation in the winery—fermenting,” Seestedt said, gesturing toward his still. “I had a small still built and started experimenting. The first time I did it, I was hooked. It was so magical to put wine in a kettle, boil it, and then watch the clear liquid dropping out. It’s not rocket science. It’s simple physics: boil, evaporate, condense.”

Seestedt’s experiment began in earnest in 1997, when he maxed out his credit cards and invested his life savings in Ransom Spirits, a name chosen to represent the debt he’d incurred. Ransom was ahead of the curve. At inception, it was one of a handful of craft distilleries operating in Oregon. That changed in 2008 when Oregon and Washington passed laws that loosened restrictions on craft distilling and sparked a distilling boom. Oregon is now home to sixty-nine distilleries, the majority of them micro distilleries that produce everything from vodka to vermouth. The growth of the industry in Washington has been similarly dramatic. In 2007, Dry Fly was the first distillery to open in the state since Prohibition. Today there are eighty-seven craft distilleries in Washington, with thirty applications pending.

new deal distillery
New Deal Distillery in Portland
photo by Jason Traeger

The craft distilling movement is a spirited extension of the “local, craft and slow” cultural movements in the Pacific Northwest. This region is home to early adopters of organic, farm-to-table, artisanal, and just about every other buzzword in the locavore lexicon. Seattleites introduced America to good coffee while small-scale craft breweries were bubbling up in Portland and Seattle. These days, Oregon has more craft breweries per capita than any other state, and ranks fifth in the nation for craft beer consumption. It was only a matter of time before the region’s fondness for artisanal beverages spilled over to artisanal booze.

Despite an enthusiastic consumer base, Pacific Northwest distillers have faced hurdles. Distilling has a steep learning curve and producing quality spirits requires patience from a world that demands things instantly. Everyone wants to make whiskey, but good whiskey takes time. New distillers have struggled to stay financially viable as they hone their craft and wait for their whiskeys to age and mellow.

A few Northwest distillers solve this problem by buying bourbon by the barrel from MGP/LDI, a mammoth facility in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. The whiskey is then tweaked in-house, or simply put in a fancy bottle and sold as a craft spirit. This practice frustrates the local distillers who have logged the time to produce an aged product in-house. “It’s been one of our core values since we started that we will never compromise,” said Orlin Sorensen of Woodinville Whiskey Co., a Washington distillery. “We didn’t start with a lot of money, and we found a way to do it. Frankly, we feel sourcing whiskey from industrial distilleries and bottling it under a ‘local’ brand name is fraud.”

Woodinville has been selling house-made bourbon for several years and is nearing the release date for its most aged product yet—five-year bourbon and rye.

Portland’s House Spirits Distilling and Seattle’s Sound Spirits answered the aging problem by initially focusing on vodka, gin, and other un-aged spirits. To create its flagship gin, House Spirits employed the expertise of bartender Ryan Magarian. The collaboration resulted in Aviation Gin, a success story of the craft distilling world. In 2012, Wine Enthusiast awarded Aviation a 97, a higher ranking than Bombay Sapphire or Hendrick’s. The brand is now distributed internationally, and Magarian has gone on to become a gin ambassador of sorts. In response to the surge in popularity of American gins, Magarian is cultivating a new category—“new western dry gin”—to describe gins that relegate juniper for the taste of botanicals such as lavender, coriander, and dried sweet orange peel.

House Spirits distillery and tasting room is on Distillery Row in Portland, an east-bank riverside neighborhood that’s home to seven local distilleries. Modeled on a traditional apothecary shop, House Spirits tasting room is built of weathered wood where rustic shelves hold rows of old-fashioned bottles. A dollar will buy you a sample of one of six House Spirits products: vodka, gin, coffee liqueur, two varieties of aquavit, and a delightful single malt whiskey that has been aged for at least two years. Its nuanced flavor is a testament to taking the slow and steady approach.

Competition among Portland distillers reaches its apex in the gin department. Rolling River Spirits is gin-centric, and New Deal has two award-winning gins. In nearby Sheridan, Ransom distillery made a name for itself with its Old Tom gin, a revival of an older, sippable style popular during the nineteenth century. Prior to Ransom’s revival, Old Tom had become a Holy Grail for cocktail enthusiasts. Production of Old Tom had all but stopped by the 1950s, but the name still turned up dusty recipes, taunting the true spirits aficionado.

cocktail gimlets, long table distillery
photo courtesy of Long Table Distillery

To reproduce the classic product, Seestedt collaborated with TK-based spirits historian David Wondrich. The team tinkered with the recipe until they hit upon a balance that was true to Wondrich’s research. Ransom’s Old Tom is aged in oak for eight to ten months, which gives it a distinct golden hue and a mellow flavor.

Seestedt and his crew were not prepared for the gin’s broad acceptance. “We thought the gin would be a favorite with a few nerdy Brooklyn bartenders,” noted Julia Catrall, Ransom’s assistant winemaker. Within months, however, the Ransom crew was inundated with orders. They had vastly underestimated the Old Tom fan base.

“We were in no way prepared for it,” Catrall said, laughing. “We had just moved to this facility and it was just the three of us. Honestly, that summer was terrible. It felt like we spent all of our time labeling. At some point, I had the realization that I didn’t think I could be this person who just waxes and labels bottles of Old Tom gin.”

Ransom now has a crew of four who manage to keep up with international demand for Old Tom, which is now available in thirty states, as well as Asia, Australia, and Europe. Today, the distillery also produces bourbon, vermouth, grappa, two varieties of dry gin, and The Emerald 1865, a traditional Irish-style whiskey that includes organic barley from the Ransom farm and oats, a grain not found in modern mass-produced Irish whiskeys.

Ransom is not alone in its homage to history and its emphasis on local or organic ingredients. From the rain swept spires of Vancouver Island to the lichen-bright gorges of Southern Oregon, the northwestern seaboard is dotted with tiny distilleries devoted to organic ingredients and time-honored techniques.

Lisa Simpson of The Liberty Distillery said they do historical recipes “with a twist.” Located on Vancouver’s Granville Island, Liberty is producing Old Tom made with organic British Columbia wheat. Like Ransom, Liberty emphasizes the terroir of its products. Its gins are made with 100 percent organic local grains. Most American gin makers import some traditional botanicals from overseas. Liberty has created Endeavour Origins, a gin made with all local ingredients, including twenty-five foraged botanicals such as salal berries and wild juniper.

long table distillery
photo courtesy of Long Table Distillery

A half mile away, Vancouver’s Long Table Distilling uses a small copper pot still to distill gins infused with local cucumbers, as well as Marc du Soleil, a traditional marc spirit made from local organic grape pomace. Further south in Everett, Washington, Bluewater Organic Distillery makes vodka and gin in hand-hammered copper stills, while Eugene Oregon’s tiny Crescendo is producing a line of organic liqueurs, including a traditional limoncello that is less expensive than its mainstream, non-organic competitor.

“I priced myself below the non-organics to prove the point that you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to treat your body better,” said Crescendo’s manager and co-owner Kyle Akin. Akin is a former marine who credits his business success to his military training. The journey from marine to maker of organic Limoncello may seem a surprising leap, but, in a way, Crescendo exemplifies the character of Pacific Northwest distillers—a hard-working blend of traditional and progressive with just a touch of the unexpected.


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