Ask a beer enthusiast anywhere in the United States to name a brewery in Portland, Oregon, and they can probably rattle off a few.
Ask a whiskey drinker to name an American distillery outside Kentucky, and you’ll likely receive a blank stare. Westward Whiskey—an American single malt produced at House Spirits Distillery in the heart of PDX—has earned a loyal following, but few drinkers associate the brand with its home in the Northwest. The Oregon craft beer hub has garnered a national reputation for its IPAs, not its spirits. Yet it’s Portland’s beer that makes Westward possible, not only by providing distillers with quality malt and an opportunity to collaborate on limited releases, but also by infusing the distillery with a brewer’s mentality and agricultural ethic.
House Spirits produces Aviation, which is arguably the most recognizable brand of American gin’s recent renaissance, along with Volstead Vodka, Krogstad Aquavit, and Magdalena Rum. But despite the distillery’s constantly evolving roster, the team remains rooted in Craft brewing. Distillery Founder and Master Distiller Christian Krogstad began his career at McMenamins and later founded Orchard Street Brewery. Lead Distiller Miles Munroe formerly brewed at Migration Brewing, while partner and Director of Operations Andrew Tice came from Tröegs Brewing. Julianne Valley (BridgePort Brewing and Deschutes Brewery), Steve Garavatti (Von Ebert Brewing, Uinta Brewing, and Epic Brewing Company), Quin Tinling (Hopworks Urban Brewery), and Claire Longyear (Ecliptic Brewing) all add more experience to the team.
Naturally, a band of brewers can’t help but obsess over the brewing aspects of distilling. “Everyone who makes whiskey makes beer first, but we go to a lot more care and give it a lot more attention,” Krogstad says. “Winemakers say great wine begins in the vineyard. For us, great whiskey starts in the fermenter.”
The team begins with two-row barley from Great Western Malting Co. (the oldest malting company in the western United States) and Chico ale yeast, the same brewer’s yeast that powers monoliths like Sierra Nevada and homebrewers the world over. “Like minimalist cooking, if you start with excellent raw ingredients and don’t [change] them much, they come through in the final product,” Munroe says. “We want 70 to 80 percent of the flavor to come from the barley.”
Opting for a brewer’s yeast creates challenges for the distillers, but those hardships eventually create better whiskey. Unlike hardy distiller’s yeast, temperamental brewer’s yeast requires careful coaxing. The team ferments cooler and slower than other distillers, and the resulting wash is smaller and lower in alcohol than a cheaper, faster, hotter fermentation.
That investment pays off during distillation. Because the wash is so clean, the distillers only take a tiny heads cut; they don’t need much reflux or a tall column to strip harsh flavors, and the new make spirit comes off surprisingly smooth (House Spirits has sold White Dog American Whiskey in the past). The distillers also opt to blend and bottle relatively young whiskey, preserving the raw flavors of the malt and yeast.
While the ex-brewers are exacting with their process, they’re open to experimentation. They have incorporated yeast from friends, including breweries like Ex Novo Brewing Co. and even James Beard winner Ken Forkish, who offered up his sourdough yeast. These exchanges are part of a larger tradition of collaborative brewing, winemaking, and distilling in Portland. “This amazing support system here in Portland is why we all get to thrive,” Munroe says, making clear the communal spirit goes well beyond the exchange of physical goods.
This PDX-style, creative collaboration is on full display in Westward’s Stout Cask Finish, a new whiskey that began with a beer. Westward gifted a used barrel to Migration Brewing, which used it to finish its Belgian chocolate stout, Frankie. Since the brewery had no room to store the barrel after using it, the barrel was sent back to House Spirits. There, it was again used to house whiskey, which was released a year later in a super small-batch special. That same barrel went back to Migration, where it was filled with coffee porter, before it returned once more to Westward, where it now sits finishing whiskey for two years. The exchange inspired the Westward team to experiment and expand production of stout-finished whiskey.
The first iteration of the official Stout Cask Finish is aged in barrels from Fort George Brewery (oatmeal stout), Ruse Brewing (oatmeal stout), and Breakside Brewery (imperial stout). The five-barrel release, currently available in limited supply in Portland, didn’t make it out of Oregon, but the team expects to rectify that with a larger release in 2020. They currently have 35 stouted barrels aging whiskey at the distillery, with another 80 promised barrels holding stout at several partner breweries, including Fort George, Breakside, Culmination Brewing, Migration, Ex Novo, Hopworks Urban Brewery, Trap Door Brewing, Baerlic Brewing, Backwoods Brewing Company, and Bend Brewing Company. They’ve even started stouting their own barrels with collaboratively brewed stout, taking the process full circle.
Even as House Spirits rides the explosive growth of Aviation, the team has remained committed to Portland. The distillery moved in 2015 to expand production, but Krogstad chose to remain in Portland on the banks of the Willamette River, close to the geographical and spiritual heart of the Portland brewing scene. The city may not have a distilling history like Kentucky, but it’s home to distillers and brewers who imbue every bottle with hometown pride. The terroir of local barley comes through with every sip, but so does the experimental energy, the careful nurturing of raw ingredients, and the pioneer spirit. This is heartfelt whiskey worth drinking no matter where you live.