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DECEMBER 2007/JANUARY 2008 » BACK TO FRED'S WORLD INDEX
 
Fred's World
Third Great American Distillers Festival
One of the more interesting phenomena generated by the craft brewing movement is the appearance of craft distillers. There are now 90 or more in the United States. California, with 18, and Oregon, with 17 (five in Portland), currently lead the way. These are followed by Michigan (with 10, including one at MSU), Colorado and New York (six each).

It's quite a project to keep track of this type of growth, but Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute (distilling.com), does a good job of that. Many craft distillers seem reluctant to give out any information about themselves. At least two even decline to identify, on their Web sites, the state in which they are located! Moreover, most of the sites demand that you give your age before entering the site. If you are under 21, they don't want you to know they exist! Obviously, a child could easily become inebriated just by looking at some of their poorly executed sites. Nevertheless, craft distillers are giving new meaning to the world of spirits, with strange, brilliantly conceived and wildly esoteric liquors.

This was the third year of the Great American Distillers Festival, brainchild of Oregon's Rogue Ales owner and spirit maestro Jack Joyce, a recovering lawyer with a flair for generosity of heart and mind. Joyce takes an eclectic approach to the work of his own two restaurant distilleries (in Portland and Newport). Rob Willey quoted Joyce’s philosophy succinctly in The New York Times (February 28, 2007): "(Y)ou figure out what you like and bring that to the table.... If you analyzed it, you wouldn't do it." Rogue products include a hazelnut rum and a spruce gin. Roguespirits.com is quite informative about Joyce's efforts.

The 2007 GADF presented over 50 different liquors from 27 companies — nearly doubling that of 2006.

The 2007 GADF presented over 50 different liquors from 27 companies — nearly doubling that of 2006. There was a new venue, too. This year's gathering was held indoors in Portland’s new air-conditioned Gerding Theater, located in Northwest Portland's old but completely renovated armory. This removed the festival from the streets, where it had been held the previous two years, across from the Rogue Distillery.

The two-day festival featured seminars on rum, gin, vodka, brandy, flavored vodka and whiskey, as well as music and good pub food. There was also a mixology competition for bartenders. Representatives from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) were on hand to enlighten prospective entrepreneurs on the complexities of starting a distillery business around here.

Admission to the festival cost $10 and included three quarter-ounce samples and the possibility of additional samples at a dollar a pop. The quarter-ounce volume is just about perfect. One can readily evaluate a spirit with a single such taste. I managed 15 of them with little danger to my sobriety (equal to two or three beers). The samples were presented in small plastic cups. I hope that next year they can move forward to providing each entrant with a small souvenir sample glass, even if it means increasing the entry fee. I don't like to think about how many thousands of those plastic cups were added to my city's landfill.

My favorite (Anchor Old Potrero rye whiskey) was already gone by the time I got to the festival, so these became my new favorites:

1. Bluecoat Gin (Philadelphia, Pa.): World class, in my view. They need it in London.

2. Clear Creek’s McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey (Portland, Ore.): Owner Steve McCarthy uses a wash from Widmer Brothers with peat-malted barley from Scotland. Seven years old and aging. I can't wait for the 12-year-old stuff.

3. McMenamins Hogshead Whiskey (Troutdale, Ore.): It doesn't taste like Bourbon, but it is really great stuff in its own right.

4. Rogue Hazelnut Spice Rum (Portland, Ore.): A distinctive Oregon product. Incidentally, most of the world's hazelnuts are grown here in Oregon.

5. New Deal Hot Monkey (Portland, Ore.): Vodka made with five very hot peppers. If this stuff doesn't blow you away, you probably have a cast-iron palate.

6. Ransom Gewurztraminer Aquavitae-Grappa (Corvallis, Ore.): Even better than your grandmother's.

In the spirits world, a new trend seems to be emerging: restaurant and pub distilleries. Portland has two of these (one in town, the other close by in Troutdale). Portland's original distillery pub is Rogue in Northwest Portland, which has a small custom-built pot still. The still was fabricated at the company's headquarters in Newport, Ore., and was shipped to Portland in early 2003. This lovely electric-powered, copper-coated stainless steel beauty sits in plain view on what was once a small orchestra loft adjacent to the main bar in the pub.

That spigot is operated by David Cook, whose energies have been concentrated on the production of Rogue Rum. Cook doesn't use molasses to formulate his rum. Instead, he utilizes Hawaiian certified cane sugar, which is more refined than molasses and yields a drier, sweeter light finish. The "wash," from hot water and sugar, is fermented with champagne yeast in two 180-gallon British grundy tanks. Cook manages about one batch a month. That rum and Rogue’s current specialty, Hazelnut Rum, are featured in the new “Rum Ruum,” directly below that beautiful copper still.

Oregon law was changed earlier this year to allow direct sales of distilled products. Companies no longer have to sell a product to the OLCC and then buy it back from the OLCC for resale.

Whether or not an American brewery can also operate a distillery is usually a matter of state law. California allows it, with some stipulations. Oregon won't allow a brewery to have a distillery in the same building, but it's all right for a brewpub to have one (thanks to the McMenamin brothers’ lobbying efforts). Whatever the state, it seems that local county and municipal laws have a tremendous influence over what will or will not be appropriate for a distiller to undertake. And, as Bill Owens, has pointed out, it's a long and tedious process to get licensed. But the wide world of distillation awaits those who take the chance and do the work.

 

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