Published February 28, 2007 in the New York Times, by Rob Willey
THE bar at the Rogue House of Spirits, a craft distillery in this coastal town about a 135-mile drive from Portland, is crowded with rose vodka and spruce-infused gin, vodka spiked with fresh wasabi and vodka that tasted like pickled ginger. There are shots of organic peppermint schnapps, some hazelnut cherry vodka that everyone thought needed work and, down at the end of the bar, in a glass jar with green sludge at the bottom, a honey-colored concoction known around the distillery as Roguermeister.
“Part of it is ignorance,” Jack Joyce, the founder of Rogue Spirits, said as he considered his odd lineup, most of which is still in the testing stage. “Remember, we’re not from the distilling business, so we don’t know how you’re supposed to do this to start with.”
Mr. Joyce is one of a small but growing number of small-scale distillers with deep ties to beer. He is also the founder of Rogue Ales, a pioneering craft brewery. When Rogue spawned a distilling operation in 2003, he became a member of the craft spirits movement, made up of tiny independent distillers making an array of unusual whiskeys, vodkas, gins and other spirits.
A number of brewers would like to follow in his path. Robert Cassell, who worked at Victory Brewing Company and Harpoon Brewery before landing at Philadelphia Distilling, a craft distillery in Philadelphia, said he has been approached by at least four breweries looking to branch into spirits.
For a brewer, the lure of distilling is easy to understand. Making beer, a fermented mash of grains, is the first step in making many spirits, particularly whiskey. (The beer is then run through a still.)
As Ty Reeder, a brewer who now runs the McMenamins Edgefield Distillery near Portland, explained, the fundamentals of brewing — understanding yeasts and fermentation technique, recognizing off flavors — are crucial skills for distilling. And as Lee Medoff, another Oregon craft distiller, noted, “I don’t know any brewer who doesn’t like whiskey.”
Lance Winters would agree. A onetime nuclear engineer, he was working in a California brewpub when he caught the distilling bug in the early 1990s, bought a 25-gallon still, and started tinkering in his garage. “I was a brewer who was in love with single malts,” he said. “As soon as I realized I was halfway to making single malts, I wanted to learn the other half.”
Mr. Winters now operates the stills at St. George Spirits, maker of Hangar One vodka, St. George Single Malt and assorted fruit brandies and liqueurs. He said he expected to see more brewers, “maxed out with what they can do with their beers,” embracing distillation. “There’s a whole other level, a creative freedom you can engage through distilling,” he said.
The experimental ethos of craft brewing — Rogue Ales is known for eccentric brews like soba ale, oyster-infused stout and Dad’s Little Helper malt liquor — has become as much a part of the craft spirits business as red tape and copper pot stills.
“Not many people have what it takes to open a distillery,” said Bill Owens, founder of the American Distilling Institute, a trade organization for craft distillers. “You’ve seen the photos of little boys with their tongues stuck to a flagpole? Well, distillers are just like that. You tell them they can’t do something and they’re going to be the first to try it.”
Mr. Medoff, who started House Spirits with Christian Krogstad, a fellow beer veteran, in Portland, in 2005, sees a connection between the exploratory impulse in craft distilling and the disregard for convention that helped define microbrewing.
“Most of the brewers here started off imitating German beers or English beers, but because you weren’t constrained by any tradition, you could take those styles and warp them to whatever you wanted,” said Mr. Medoff, a former brewery manager and distiller for the McMenamins chain of brewpubs.
Mr. Medoff believes that House Spirits is doing some warping of its own. The company is talking about an all-Oregon gin flavored with local and decidedly nontraditional ingredients like licorice fern and Oregon grape. Its current lineup includes a full-bodied Eastern European-style rye vodka; a rounded, aromatic gin loosely inspired by Dutch genever; and an aquavit.
Brewing expertise can be an advantage when it comes to choosing basic ingredients. Donald R. Outterson spent nearly 20 years as a brewer and brewery consultant, launching 52 brewpubs before settling at Woodstone Creek, an urban winery and distillery in Cincinnati, in 2003. His pet project is five-grain bourbon made in part from plump two-row barley, which he said yielded a richer tasting beer (and, thus, richer whiskey) than the more commonly used six-row barley.
“I’d like to say, ‘Gee, I’ve made something different and I’m a real craftsman,’ ” he added. “But I feel like the pizza commercial. You know, ‘Better ingredients, better pizza.’ ”
In less capable hands, however, the combination of a pot still and a craft brewer’s unfettered imagination could be a recipe for disaster. Mr. Cassell, who makes a citrusy gin called Bluecoat, said, “I see the trend following the path of the surge in microbreweries in the ’80s and ’90s, with a lot of people jumping into it without a lot of knowledge.”
Regulatory hurdles may slow them down. It is generally much easier to open a brewery than it is a distillery. And a brewer who studies the blur of big-name labels on liquor store shelves may have second thoughts about jumping into the fray.
But Mr. Joyce said craft distillers did not think that way. “You don’t go out and figure out what people will like,” he said. “You figure out what you like and try to bring something new to the table.” He added: “It’s the same with beer. You can’t analyze the market. Because if you did, you wouldn’t do it.”