Every state — from Texas and Colorado to Kentucky and Tennessee — has a whiskey scene all its own. Sure, there are similarities you’ll find in how a particular whiskey is distilled or common facets of a mash bill. But what makes the whiskey of each state distinct is its ability to highlight the best natural resources of the region.
And for Oregon it’s all about the water.
Most whiskey lovers know the importance of water quality in distilling the brown spirit. But Oregon distilleries take this idea to its furthest logical conclusion, talking about water with the same enthusiasm that they discuss their mash bills.
“I bet most distilleries here, especially in the Portland area, would say the quality of water we have access to for use in blending is the best in the world,” says Jason Ericson, Head Distiller of Eastside Distilling.
“The profile of the water has an enormous impact on the flavor of any spirit,” adds Alan Dietrich, CEO of Crater Lake Spirits. “And the water in Central Oregon, where we’re located, is spectacular for mellowing alcohol.”
Another feature of the state’s (rapidly increasing) whiskey output is (for those who make use of it) the renowned Oregon oak.
“Oregon oak, called Quercus garryana or Gary oak, is distinct to the Northwest,” explains Joe O’Sullivan, Head Distiller at Clear Creek Distillery. “To me, that is the terroir.”
Oregon oak only grows in a small sliver of the Pacific Northwest, so the casks are quite rare. And they’re not exactly easily made, either.
“Due to the tight-grain of this particular oak, it needs to be hand-cleaved in the old-world style coopers used for the finest French oak casks,” Ericson says. “It’s difficult to work with and only one cooperage here in Oregon — Oregon Barrel Works — uses Oregon oak for barrels.”
While Oregon’s climate also plays a part in what the final products taste like, the state’s weather varies so widely — from coastal rainforest to high desert — that the effects aren’t universal. What does seem to be a part of every Oregon whiskey is an almost-parody-level commitment to craft and staying local.
“Kentucky is certainly the motherland of where [bourbon] whiskey was birthed,” says Jill Kuehler, founder of one of the only women-owned and operated distilleries in the country, Freeland Spirits. “So it’s been cool to see the birth of all these craft distilleries over the last several years. It’s exciting to see the Oregon-grown concept come along.”
This month, I sat down with some of the best whiskeys Oregon has to offer. Check out my favorites below.
McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt
Average Price: $50
“When we made the McCarthy’s single malt it wasn’t really to make something like Scotch,” O’Sullivan says. “But Steve McCarthy wanted to make something that was big, bold, and in line with the single malts he had when he was in Ireland and Scotland.”
So McCarthy produced this whiskey nearly 40 years ago, with the intention of highlighting that signature Scotch smokiness, while also featuring Oregon oak.
“At this moment, Oregon oak is actually kind of trendy,” O’Sullivan says. “It’s also incredibly hard to use and often overpowers spirits. You need that rich, heavy peat flavor to balance out the heavy, sawdusty oak.”
This Holstein pot-distilled single malt is 100 percent peat malted barley from Scotland and aged solely in Oregon oak for three years.
Upon the first whiff, I was hit with peaty smoke like that of Scotch and wondered to myself, “Is this indeed Scotch?” In tune with the nose, the taste picks up honey that’s been set aflame and combined with smoky vanilla beans. The finish delivers quick, fleeting heat, but retains the subtle-sweet profile.
This is not your traditional single malt. I’m not usually into smokey libations, but this one struck a home run with my palate. This whiskey would pair nicely with BBQ (my Texas side is showing).
Black Butte Whiskey
Average Price: $85
This five-year-old malt whiskey is a partnership with the renowned, Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery. Crater Lake Spirits, the makers of Black Butte Whiskey, sought to collab with the brewery to produce a whiskey that reminds you of Deschutes’ iconic Black Butte Porter beer.
The harmonious blend of cocoa and Porter fused with oaky notes teases your senses from nose to palate. The first sip gives you a velvety mouthfeel infused with hints of delicious dark chocolate and bold dark-roast coffee. The welcome dose of heat permeates the finish of what I found to be a highly enjoyable experience.
I love a good distillery and brewery partnership — especially when the outcome is this tasty.
Burnside Oregon Oaked Rye
Average Price: $43
Portland-based Eastside Distilling — the creators of Burnside — don’t distill any of the components of their blends onsite.
“We curate the best whiskey, rye, and bourbon that we can find from Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and even Montana,” Ericson says. “And create blends that we finish in Oregon oak casks — a process that’s specific to our company.”
Essentially, the distillery has taken “bourbons and ryes from back East with storied histories and merged them with old wine tradition in the form of Oregon oak barrels to create a new expression of familiar whiskeys.” Sounds interesting, right?
This rye packs an alluring amalgamation of scents ranging from honeysuckle to the peel of citrusy orange. The creamy palate has the right amount of spice, in which subtle sweet flavors of chocolate and brown sugar shine through in a balanced way. The flavorful sip crescendos at the finish for a nice, long burn.
I’m a fan of this rye sipped chilled or in a spice drizzled Manhattan.
Freeland Spirits Bourbon Whiskey
Average Price: $45
Distilled in Indiana, but finishes, proofed, and bottled at Portland’s Freeland Spirits distillery, this high rye bourbon is finished in Oregon-based Elk Cove Vineyards’ pinot noir barrels.
“A lot of what we do at Freeland is about partnerships with other brands to highlight other makers in Oregon,” Kuehler says. “The owners of Elk Cove are friends of ours. So, we wanted to highlight them and also add a unique finish to the bourbon.”
The butterscotch and vanilla scent packs a serious punch without being too overwhelming. Caramel and warm berries deliver a flavorsome sip while adding a few drops of water reveals a buttery richness towards the end. The lingering finish encourages you to go back for more.
This whiskey shows that good, quality bourbon isn’t confined to Kentucky.
Oregon Spirit Distillers Straight American Wheat Whiskey
Average Price: $45
Based in Bend, Oregon, Oregon Spirit Distillers launched in 2009. This wheat whiskey consists of Oregon-grown winter wheat, rye, and malted barley. It is aged in new American white oak barrels for four years.
Brown sugar and wheat toast charm their way from nose to palate. Bright, medium body with a creamy mouthfeel that’s made complete with ripe, crisp apple drizzled with warm caramel. Subtle spicy heat at the apex of the sipping experience with a short, yet sweet finish.
If this whiskey was made into a soap, I’d bathe in it. It’s just that good!
Oregon Spirit Distillers Straight American Bourbon
Average Price: $45
This whiskey is crafted by the same producers of the wheat spirit listed above, but this one is a four-grain bourbon made with corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley. It is matured for four years in new American white oak barrels.
Hints of honeycomb and oak greet your senses before indulging in the first sip. Buttered sweet corn and warm, toasted bread makes for an unlikely pairing for the palate but is truly enjoyable. Slight heat on the finish is made perfect with fruity candy and cinnamon flavor notes.
Though I enjoyed this one neat, I’m game to try this in a spirit-forward cocktail such as a Brown Derby.
Westward American Single Malt Pinot Noir Cask
Average Price: $90
This whiskey pays homage to Oregon’s iconic Willamette Valley wine country. The original Westward American Single Malt is finished for up to two years in French oak wine casks from select winemakers of the region.
The fragrance notes are a trifecta of sweet brown sugar, mouth-watering stone fruit, and chocolate. Berries and baking spices such as nutmeg and brown sugar (as smelled at the outset) really set the tone for the rest of the sipping experience. The finish is delectably sweet and flirts with your palate to go in for more.
For all you whiskey lovers hypnotized by sexy bottles, this one is for you. The best part is the juice inside the bottle though.