Portland. An independent city full of entrepreneurs who drive innovation. Or, as I like to put it: They make good stuff in small batches. From food to clothes, coffee to beer, Portland products are consistently well-received, and really only purchasable right around here. So, it’s not exactly surprising to learn about Portland’s burgeoning yet mostly local micro-distillery scene.
But, first, a little dash to the past. Alcohol was first mass produced when agriculture came around, and it hasn’t left since (“History of Beer”). Portland, though, has had quite a history with it. Though Oregon enacted Prohibition six years before the federal government, there were many speakeasies around Portland – at one point, around 100. Even after Prohibition was repealed, though, Governor Julius Meier made it illegal to sell distilled spirits anywhere but Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) stores, where prices were far higher. However, President Jimmy Carter made producing alcohol easier in 1979 by making it legal to brew homemade beer, kick-starting the micro-brewery revolution, especially visible in Portland, now the craft beer capital of North America (Coleman). By 1985, Oregon had a micro-distillery, inspired by the craft brewery movement. Now, micro-distilleries are having a huge growth boom (Coleman). Luckily, Tom Burkleaux, owner of New Deal Distillery, got in on the still’s ground floor...
The process of distillation is used for many different kinds of products, but the method used for most alcohols has a few constants. First, organic material of some kind is mixed with water to make a mash. Yeast is added, along any other flavors the distiller wants. The mash is then fermented. During fermentation, the yeast converts sugars to alcohol and CO2. Since CO2 produces an acidic taste in water, it must be vented off. However, oxygen cannot be allowed in, as it produces an off taste. Once these steps have been completed, the end result is a solution containing a quantity of alcohol, along with a variety of chemicals.
Separating these chemicals is where distillation itself comes in. The solution is heated until the ethanol boils, at 172 degrees. Then, the vaporized ethanol can be collected and condensed. Because ethanol, the desired product, is being produced, a new container is used to collect the distillate, a process called cutting. The first cut is the head, the second the heart, and the last the tail. The head has a lot of light alcohols and chemicals, while the heart is mainly ethanol. The tail consists of heavy alcohols and other chemicals (Owens & Dikty 38). The ethanol is usually distilled up to 98% at normal pressure, and then diluted.
My initial draw to distilling was my love of chemistry. My favorite part of a year of chemistry was a distilling experiment my teacher told me to test out. I was challenged to distill molasses, so she could see if there were any faults in her procedure. My attempt didn’t turn out great. I made a solution of about 30% alcohol, and it was partially methanol, or wood alcohol, a hazardous alcohol that causes blindness. I was disappointed, but also intrigued. I wanted to find someone who was doing it right.
Luckily for me, Portland is in the middle of a burgeoning distillery boom. The first Portland micro-distillery (and one of the first in the nation), Clear Creek Distillery, started in 1985 (“Clear Creek”). However, Clear Creek was on its own. There wasn’t a distillery boom yet. Clear Creek mainly makes eaux de vie, or fruit brandy, because the founder, Steve Mccarthy, wanted to use the excess fruit from his orchards. Clear Creek proved, Tom says, that running a distillery business was possible, but as it only focused on fruit drinks, it was not completely crucial. (Burkleaux). However, this decade has seen the distillery scene take off, with eleven distilleries located just in Portland, and twenty more located around the state. Because there are now so many distilleries, there is both the Oregon Distillery Guild, which has 23 members, and a specialized organization, Distillery Row, for the five distilleries within twenty blocks of each other in Southeast Portland. And, every single one of those places makes different styles of different distilled drinks, or hard drinks. The range goes from vodka to whiskey, schnapps to absinthe, just in Oregon alone.
Seeing this massive diversity of alcohol, I realized my focus wasn’t focused enough. I needed to decide on a drink and a place. So, I decided on vodka, because it seemed to have a process which I could understand, and New Deal Distillery, because it has been around for a while, and the owner, Tom Burkleaux, gave the most interviews elsewhere.
New Deal Distillery is a low beige warehouse on the southeast side of Portland. The standard sheet metal delivery door sits unpainted and uncovered, and some windows are glazed with age. There’s no large sign, no mural on the side. The message is clear: We are not messing around. The area around it is dominated by similar low warehouses. A few streets down is the Rogue Distillery, another distillery started by Rogue Ales, a popular Portland micro-brewery.
When I entered through a narrow side door, the first thing to hit me was the smell. A tangible malt hung in the air, a sweetness I’d never smelled before. The concrete floor was empty in the front, but there were stacks of empty bottles on racks, in the back, waiting to be filled. Behind a low wood and glass cabinet showcasing all the gear New Deal has made, a woman seemed slightly adrift in a sea of forms. After explaining to her what I wanted, I found a chair at the small folding table, which turned out to be the tasting area as well. The thick beams in the ceiling, cut from a single tree, were dark with age. There was a sense of workmanship in the area, with stills boiling in the back. Tom Burkleaux, the owner, bustled out of the rear, and the interview began.
Appearing to be in his late thirties, Tom is a high energy guy. From the moment we started talking, it was also clear that he liked the process, science and art of distilling. Though he admits he started with little knowledge, nowadays, he’s simply got a sense for flavor. While we were talking, there was always a foot tapping, a hand gesturing somewhere around him. However, he’s also so informal it felt awkward to call him anything but Tom. His large frame, at least six feet tall, seemed to be in three different places at once as he darted around. He is a poster-boy for Portland, essentially. He started distilling because, in 2001, “I thought a recession was coming. And I didn’t want to pay to drink bad vodka” (Burkleaux). His solution? Start making his own. In the seven years since he and a friend started New Deal, it has released four vodkas, and several gins. There is also a constant process of innovation which drives the business, which can make some odd creations. For instance, one of the four vodkas is Hot Monkey, originally made for a friend, a burning vodka – not because of the alcohol content, but because of the five kinds of peppers infused in it (Carlsson).
However, New Deal did not shoot right out of the gate. “It took us six months to get anything good” when the distillery first started on vodka (Burkleaux). They did vodka first because it is the simplest spirit to make. It does not need to be aged, unlike whiskey, rum, and tequila. Therefore, a batch can make money right away, instead of sitting in a barrel for months or years. Also, vodka is easy to make with almost any starting ingredient, from oil refining byproducts to grain (“What is Vodka”). Granted, it won’t taste good all the time, but that doesn’t matter, because, “if you screw [sic] it up, you can just redistill it!” (Burkleaux).
But, no matter how easy alcohol is to make, it can’t happen legally unless there’s a process for getting a license. Luckily, Oregon has done a lot to cut the red tape around making, promoting and selling alcohol. Anyone with a commercial space can apply for an OLCC distillery license and a distilling permit from the Federal Tax and Trade Bureau. With those permits, “you can manufacture, import, and store distilled spirits in Oregon”(Oregon). However, it can take “up to a year for a license, which means you’re just renting an empty place” (Burkleaux). That license, however, also allows for application to have any product produced by a holder to be sold in any of the 240+ OLCC stores, and at any business allowed to serve alcohol, such as a bar, restaurant, or nightclub (Oregon). Those distribution rights are a boon to small distilleries, because it puts them on better footing against large companies.
However, not even equal standing from the OLCC can make a small distillery grow. That’s where spirits aside from vodka come in. “Where you want to be is whiskey” is a simple phrase, but it describes the micro-distillery industry very well (Burkleaux). Whiskey is the exact opposite of vodka. Vodka is mass market, even on the scale of micro-distilleries. The cost for a bottle of Portland 88, New Deal’s best selling drink, is $19.45 (Carlsson). Most of that twenty bucks is tied up in the ingredients, running the equipment and the people. Therefore, there’s not a lot of money left over for buying more stills or ageing other spirits. And that slim margin results in a lot of work. The only way to get the money required to fatten that margin is to sell more. And, that requires marketing, something Tom dislikes. The price of Aviation Gin, a drink made by another Distillery Row member, House Spirits, is $30 (Carlsson). Because that gin is ten dollars more than Portland 88, but doesn’t cost even close to ten dollars more to make, the margins are higher, resulting in more available money. Whiskeys go for even higher, because they require aging. Because of the difference in margins, House Spirits can afford to try new recipes, even if they fail.
Because of that price gap, there’s one basic idea that governs micro-distilling. “You get into debt, and you try to get back out” is Tom’s recipe for business (Burkleaux).There are very few solutions to that problem. Either distillers sell as much as they can at low margins, a risky strategy, or they get outside money, in the form of people who invest, buying part of the company to get part of the profits. But, that method has its own dangers. Tom told me about another distillery which did get outside money. The new owners promptly fired the founder in order to make high margin drinks instead of good drinks. It’s things like that which scare Tom. The industry, he says, is in transition. Either companies will take outside capital to grow, or stay his way, making spirits they want to make.
And that is at the crux of New Deal, and any founder driven business, all the way to Apple. The founders make products they want, and are ultimately happiest doing so. Tom’s face lit up when I asked him to show me around and talk about his stills. The piles of Italian made still parts formed a narrow access lane to the four bright copper towers, with spiraling reflux coils draining into huge plastic tubs sitting against a wall. The huge burnished tanks sat full of mash that was fermenting. A large wooden cage held boxes of bottles, tubes, and supplies. Burkleaux knows every single inch of his operation forward and back, and there was no doubt that he is crucial to the functioning of the place. Plus, it’s obvious that he just loves doing what he does. He makes what he makes because he can. That’s why all these places exist. These drinks are not made for everyone. They are made because the maker wanted to make them. When I asked Tom why he makes alcohol, his answer was simple: “It’s fun” (Burkleaux).
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