Ready to raise a glass this season? Whether it’s a hostess gift, tasting adventure with your pals or a cocktail party that guests will be talking about all month, Oregon’s craft distillers are ready for you with their latest batches of innovation. Case in point: The brand-new Freeland Spirits in Portland is women-owned and operated with a true Oregon grain-to-glass focus. They are planning to source grains for their bourbon from Carman Ranch in Wallowa County by fourth-generation rancher Cory Carman. The whiskey is finished in pinot noir barrels from Elk Cove Vineyards in Gaston for a Pacific Northwest terroir.
We sat down with Karen Locke, a local spirits connoisseur and Portland author of High-Proof PDX, to ask for her top picks of bold and flavorful Oregon-made whiskey, vodka and liqueurs she might want to sit around a fire with. We can say cheers to that.
Let’s get right to it. Quick, easy and festive cocktails to make for a party?
Townshend’s Distillery has tea-based liqueurs locked in, as the only distillery in the United States that I know of using tea so predominantly. Their Bluebird Alpine screams winter in Oregon — its sweet notes with spice make it superb in cocktails. You can also find killer recipes such as the Timberland Cider Cocktail, which you can make in your slow cooker while you wait for party guests to arrive.
What’s your go-to liqueur for hot toddies?
I love putting Portland’s JVR Spirits Krupnik liqueur in hot toddy drinks. The deep honey flavor from this traditionally Polish and Lithuanian spirit adds notes of unsweetened, natural honey instead of the overly sweet honey from the [plastic-squeeze] honey bear.
How can we bring a little citrus into the colder months?
Winter citrus is a thing in Oregon, yeah? Crescendo Spirits out of Eugene makes a great Pompelmocello, an Italian-style grapefruit liqueur sourced from organic farms in the United States and abroad (try adding a shot to your favorite IPA). In addition to fruit brandy, Portland’s Stone Barn Brandyworks makes a honey-scented quince liqueur that is released each fall and is great in winter cocktails. The fruit is hand-sourced from a farm in Wilsonville as well as trees from local neighborhood backyards. Blend the quince liqueur with rye whiskey and cardamom simple syrup for the fruity yet festive ‘Quincidence cocktail.
Any new liqueurs on your horizon you’re excited about?
Portland’s New Deal Distillery has a new batch release of Nocino, which I haven’t tried yet but I’m intrigued because [founder Tom Burkleaux] harvested some of the green walnuts from a tree in my yard! [Another worthy Nocino comes from Stone Barn Brandyworks — a great fruitcake-like spirit that makes a nice substitute for vermouth in a Manhattan.]
There are so many great Oregon whiskeys coming out right now. What’s new and wintry this year?
Wanderback Whiskey of Hood River has two batches out: Batch No. 1 and Batch No. 2. are my favorites, with notes of fruitcake, gingerbread, Mexican chocolate, sugar cone and orange marmalade. Perfect for the holidays, I’d say! Full disclosure: My company, High-Proof Creative has worked with Wanderback Whiskey. Before I worked with them though, I loved their whiskey.
How about a gift for the serious whiskey lover?
Bend-based Oregon Spirit Distillers is one of the few distillers in the state to “bottle in bond,” which basically it means barreled and stored in bonded warehouses under the U.S. government supervision for no less than four years, is over 100 proof, and made by one distiller from one distillery. Their Bottled in Bond bourbon whiskey is a bit pricey, but makes the perfect gift.
What are your go-to vodkas that are super versatile for enjoying this season?
Portland’s Bull Run Distillery‘s Medoyeff vodka is classic. The “texture” of the spirit in your mouth is more enjoyable than most vodkas (mineral-rich mouth-feel), rather than that that light-weight booze taste that you want to swallow immediately. I love Corvallis-based Vivacity Fine Spirits’ vodka and their Turkish coffee liqueur, too.
“Ouragon” vodka by Oregon Grain Growers Brand Distillery in Pendleton is not only versatile, it shakes things up a bit with hard red winter wheat (a unique grain from the area it’s produced). It’s good enough to sip, but you can also add it to cocktails — especially cranberry cocktails, which will bring out the earthy but sweet notes.
Oregon City’s Trail Distilling makes a vodka you could sip on its own. I know what you’re thinking, but once you try really smooth vodka, it’ll change your mind. I tried this one for the first time in the tasting room, and it’s been on my mind since. Sippable vodka makes even better cocktails.
Say you’re entertaining a hard-to-please guest. Where can you take them to knock their socks off?
It’s safe to say that Rolling River Spirits in Portland produces more styles of aquavit than any other distillery in the United States. Their Bjørkevoll’s Holiday Aquavit is festive as possible — a local twist on a Scandinavian classic, in blends of caraway, cinnamon, cardamom and allspice.
Check it out:
You can find these spirits in distillery tasting rooms, or search availability of Oregon spirits through the Oregon Liquor Control Commission’s handy search site before heading to your local liquor store. Or visit the distillery’s website to see how you can purchase spirits online and have it shipped to your state. In Portland, find eight of the city’s top distillery tasting rooms within walking or biking distance of each other in the area called Distillery Row. Always remember to drink responsibly, and use a designated driver, rideshare or public transit if you’ll be imbibing.