It’s Saturday night. I’m sitting in the Ram’s Head Bar on the third floor of the Timberline Lodge, sipping a Pendleton Midnight Whiskey while a bluegrass violinist works through a moody variation of a song I knew as a child. The lodge is a three story wood and iron structure on the southern slope of Mt. Hood, around 8000 feet in elevation.
Its important to know that this is an active volcano I am sitting on, a cousin of the Mt Saint Helens that blew 30% of its peak in 1980. There is no danger at the moment, but I sit with a feeling of the temporary in everything around me despite the history and structural soundness of the cathedral ceiling. The bar itself lives on second floor of an open octagonal room with a large, similarly octagonal fireplace in the center. Some of the largest wooden beams I’ve ever seen support the structure and frame windows that light up with the last of the late evening light.
I’ve been working my way through Oregon whiskeys for three days now. Whiskeys from Rogue and Bull Run are on the menu tonight, but Pendleton, the brand, and its cultural link with the outdoors and the trailblazers who built this part of the world is what catches my attention at the moment.
I move back downstairs by the fire. It’s a cold July night outside - will get down to the 30’s where I am and snow at higher elevations before morning. My wife is sitting on a couch by the fire looking through a book of baby names. This is why we are here after all. Only two months until our first child is born. As I roll this dram between my fingers, habitually wiping condensation off the side of the glass as light reflects the fire off dissolving ice, I feel the steady waves of nervous excitement and threat of immediacy. This is coming fast.
I arrived in Portland at 10PM on a Thursday night, hungry from the sub-par airport food of the international terminal at SFO. Nothing open this late, leaving only a buffalo meat stick and trail mix for dinner.
Thirty minutes in a silent Uber ride and I’m downstairs in the Hotel deLuxe lobby. When you think about whiskey as much as, say, someone who writes for a whiskey blog, brown liquid in an ornate bottle stands out like a red dress in sea of black suits. Portland is a two fisted whiskey drinking town. The collection at your average hotel bar in this town exceeds perhaps the offering of a good many bars in most cities I’ve visited. And I like hotel bars. But tonight it’s late and my wife is waiting for me upstairs.
The next morning is unusually chilly and cloudy for July, with a slight mist that comes and goes in the time it takes to take out and put back a rain jacket. I walk out early with a schedule and half dozen stops in mind. But first a good breakfast. Take in a garden and a little tea before crossing the bridge to the first distiller of a six distillery tour.
Hotel deLuxe is in the NW section of town, leaving much of the city I had planned to visit no more than a 25 min walk away. Time is critical between stops for thinking and letting the tongue cool. In walking, the city streets become context rather than distances between tastings. It is the land and its people that tell the better story, whether generations of farm land or city sidewalks.
The distillery scene feels new though built in an old industrial section of town. Batches are personal and won’t scale to Kentucky distribution levels for years if ever - one distillery, for example, was currently completely out of whiskey and another down to the last bottle. This is what small batch really looks like. Small batch also means creative and unique offerings – a value I admire and seek out.
I get the feeling that distillers are the underdogs in this town. The eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains west all the way to the Pacific is awash in a sea of hoppy, craft breweries – and loyalties to a city, neighborhood, or even bar brew is on par with that of the local team. Flip any west coast hipster upside down and shake vigorously and at least one well-worn, branded bottle opener will hit the sidewalk.
Oregoncraftbeer.org shows a hearty 96 beer producers in the greater Portland area. It takes two weeks to produce a good beer. It takes years for a good whiskey.
It’s the look in the eyes of a distiller of a particularly tasty white dog that catches my attention. This is his baby. He’s sitting on barrels that take years to mature. He will not know the full outcome for another year. Until then he waits on science and nature to mature his whiskey while selling a unique white dog and watching his colleagues sell their completed products again and again. Whiskey demands patience.
In my other life as a marketer I once attended a conference in New York on innovation. In every session I asked the same question: how do you know if what you are doing is the right thing? Every speaker asked took a second to consider their answer, stepped back, and looked down as their neurons searched personal archives for the exact moment in which someone flipped the right tarot card or opened a convincing fortune cookie. But as though reading from a script they said, with some surprise, that they could not know, you just had to try. The outcome is simply impossible to know.
So when someone takes a leap in libations, innovation isn’t the resulting liquid pouring slowly into a glass, ice dancing in the waves uncontrolled like the fruit in a cereal ad. It is the moment in which the positives outweighed the negatives, when the necessity was finally given life: build a distillery. It takes courage, and this is part of the terrior.
I walk in and place my bag by the bar on the floor. It’s noon and I’m the first customer at House Spirits Distillery, right off the railroad track in the industrial part of Portland. A woman in her mid-twenties is behind the bar, setting out bottles and glasses. Behind her and a layer of glass is the workings of a distillery in action - part factory, part copper and oak.
In a scene from a Spaghetti Western she places a glass in front of me. I ask for whiskey. She starts with vodka. I have to take it slow today. Five more places to follow after this and it’s only just noon. But I take a sip anyway. It’s sweet and clean. Vodka with actual flavor. I must be in the right place.
We try the complete set, all delicious, including the local special, aquavit. Westward, their Irish style single malt is last. The bottle is small - only 375 milliliters, and not cheap for the size. But it’s delicious. The taste is full on barley and flavorful with that sweet, rounded richness you get in a good whiskey. And to make things even better, she brings out a bottle from their favorite barrel. I understand the science behind it, but the minor difference between one location in a building or the wood taking on a slightly higher sugar content or extra char turning identical twins into cousins is still nothing short of amazing.
I work slowly now, taking in each sip as I reset my palate between tastes. I notice the color as it moves up and down in my glass. I smell the sweet and the evaporating alcohol. A couple enters the bar, instantly shifting the mood and movement of the place. I have other places to move onto. I leave the bar to them and buy a bottle to take home.
By 1pm I’m walking into Eastside Distillery, maybe a mile from the last stop. Two women are at the bar discussing their sex lives, a string of tasting glasses the size of Nyquil medicine cups line the bar. In their hands are about three fingers of bourbon around large, round ice cubes. They break from a story about a recent conquest with a strange man in an open marriage to talk about lunch just as the weight of the tasting and size of their glasses comes into focus for them. I take their place at the bar, a simple wooden top with Eastside's primary offerings on display. I try six whiskeys, wish I could try a manhattan from the Cherry flavored, and buy a bottle of my preferred: Burnside 4-year. This is not a bottle that will change the world. This is a bottle that is ultimately drinkable for nearly any occasion. This is distinctively bourbon in every way with a flavor and feel that is wholly American and wholly not Kentucky.
A few hours later, wandering through the afternoon buzz, sun shining and bag heavy from a few purchases made along the way, I take a straight shop to the last stop: Vinn Distillery.
Vinn Distillery is owned by a family who made their way to the US from Vietnam in the 1970s. In a barn in the backyard the father began distilling Chinese baiju using an ancient family recipe, first in crock pots. Today they produce four spirits, including whiskey - and all from rice. The woman I meet at the tasting room, the daughter of the man who first brought his family recipe to the US, believes Vinn to be one of four whiskeys in the US with a 100% rice mash bill.
What I notice first is the unusually strong red color. Many whiskeys carry a bit of red, but this is a gorgeous, deep shade. The nose is not far from the baiju, giving way at the end to a richer finish from the newly charred barrels. Vanilla and oak give way to rice, each in turn. It's delicious and wholly unique to my pallet. I pick up a bottle and head back to the hotel.
By morning it's cold again. We make our way to the car for a slow drive along the Columbia River Gorge to Mt Hood. My wife naps through the later half of the drive, giving me precious time to think as trees and rivers pass by, the temperature steadily dropping as we gain elevation. I pull into a parking lot by a large river bed. The river is down to a stream today, but the remnants of an earlier flow leaves a wide swath of grey cut directly through the trees. The ground is rugged and rocky, soft volcanic soil dragged down by the melting snow and deposited here for the time being. I crouch low to listen to the water and watch as it flows over and around each boulder, feeling the cold wind from higher elevations and the smell of trees around me. This is the quiet of John Muir, the stillness of a trappist monk. In eight weeks I’ll be a father, a new life flowing into this world. Touching the icy water wakes the nerves in my fingers, bringing me back to the present. I stand and walk to the car where my wife, just waking up, smiles as I open the door. Together we drive on to the Timberline Lodge and its Ram's Head Bar to trade this uisce beatha for that of another.