Spirits are rapidly possessing Oregon wine country. Not apparitions of Christmas past, present, or future, but distilled spirits, which warm the soul on a cold winter’s night. With approximately 50 distilleries in the state, three have made homes in the heart of Pinot Noir country, adding yet another layer of gastronomical delight to the Yamhill Valley. All three distilleries, Branch Point, Ewing Young and Ransom, produce whiskies aimed at reflecting the vision of their makers. They share a similar mantra: locally sourced raw materials, attention to detail in the distilling process and a golden product smooth and full of character.
Branch Point: Tweaking for perfect flavor
Steven Day, a Portland neurologist, with his wife, Debra, fled the harsh Midwestern winters for Oregon’s milder climate. He found distilling the perfect mix of applied science and creative outlet. He began as a home brewer but noted, “I like whiskey more than beer, so why not?” In 2013, Day purchased the Dayton property — located near Stoller Family Estate — where he built the distillery and produced the first distillation in 2016. In October, he opened the doors to the tasting room, offering three distinct spirits: Trit Whiskey, Single Pot Still Oregon Whiskey and Oregon Wheat Whiskey. Sourcing locally grown barley, wheat and triticale, a hybrid grain of rye and wheat, Day’s focus remains regional flavor. The Branch Point brand represents the owner’s journey on an unexpected path, away from his medical job. After taking a couple classes on distilling and learning hands-on from others in the area, he “jumped in with both feet, blindfolded.” Before the initial leap, however, Day toured Scotland, learning much about the process. In the end, he says, “For me, it was about reverse engineering for the specific taste I wanted to offer. It’s a continuous process — an ongoing chemistry assignment — as you make adjustments to find the exact flavor profile you had in mind at the start of the process.” With a pair of copper distilling pots from Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky, Day’s operation is a visual cornucopia of shapes and sparkling reflections accented by bunches of barrels, in which the whiskey ages for two years. Don’t let the seemingly short period of aging fool you; this is still a smooth and flavorful whiskey. Day credits the distillation process: “This is a cleaner whiskey up front that doesn’t need as much time to age.” Reflecting on the previous five years, he realizes how much work it required. “It’s great to see something tangible that you’ve built over time,” Day explained. “And for me, I can look at those bottles of whiskey — whiskey whose flavors I really enjoy — and say ‘I made that.’”
BRANCH POINT tasting room 15800 N.E. McDougall Road, Dayton Sat. and Sun., 12 to 6 p.m.
Ewing Young: Where Oregon history meets Oregon whiskey
Up the road from Branch Point, just west of Newberg off Highway 240, you’ll find the entrepreneurial whiskey spirit alive at Ewing Young. Bev and Doug Root are building their brand and promoting Oregon statehood history with their blend of distilled spirits that will soon include their own whiskey. “Ewing Young is perhaps one of the most important pioneers in Oregon history and the first distiller in Oregon,” Bev said. “He doesn’t get the credit he deserves for pushing the territory into statehood. So, we are using his story as a vehicle to build a successful business and to really tell his story.” Young’s tale, perfect for the cinema, features a man who lived life large on the American frontier, instrumental in breaking the British domination of the area, allowing the Oregon territory to move toward statehood. He died just before the historical meeting at Champoeg that set in motion Oregon statehood. Buried on the property owned by Doug’s brother, under a massive 172-year-old oak, Young’s history captured the hearts of Bev and Doug, and they’ve set off on their journey to build a brand with whiskies whose flavors represent the all-American spirit of the pioneer. Bev discovered her love for distilling after a successful career as COO for an area business. Approaching burnout, she decided to switch to the world of distilling after learning the story of Ewing Young. Bev, who attended distilling school in Louisville, notes, “I’m coming at this from a business/marketing perspective — but the distilling process is a cool part of business.” The couple has found their distilling soulmate in nephew Tucker Mortensen, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef who’s been involved in both crafting beer and wine. “Tucker has an incredible palate — he smells and tastes things we mere mortals can’t. He’s been able to take our initial concept to the next level with respect to their blending and finishing,” she said. The original idea included following the trail Young took traveling west from Tennessee, meeting with small distillers to find the best whiskies they could blend into the initial Ewing Young product. “We rented a trailer and went on a road trip, tasting more than 200 different spirits at nearly 25 different distillers,” Bev said. Along the way, the Roots uncovered numerous coincidences, bringing them parallel to the story of Ewing Young. Thus, their slogan was born: “Metaphysics in a bottle.” From those 48 barrels they brought home, they’ve produced three whiskies: Oregon Heritage Oak Bourbon Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, and Barley and Caramel Malt Whiskey. They also offer a 100-percent Idaho Russet Potato Vodka. “We found these distillers produced a very consistent canvas on which we can paint the final picture,” Bev noted. The next step for Bev, Doug and Tucker involves producing their own distillations. To that end, they have a single column still, and she says they hope to have their first batch of whiskey barreled by January 2019, at the latest. They are still working through the process, finding both the sweet spot of the still as well as developing their talents. The single column still, which is modular in its height, allows them the opportunity to make a variety of spirits. The well on the property gives them a water source that Bev says will help produce a smoother product. “We’ve done a number of blind taste tests and have always been favorably judged. We believe we have a great story to tell — one that combines our two loves, the history of the Oregon and whiskey, into a solid value proposition. “Ultimately, it’s what’s in the bottle, and we think our Ewing Young products will win our customers’ hearts and palates,” she said.
Ewing Young Tasting Room
18715 N.E. Highway 240, Newberg Sat. and Sun., 12 to 5 p.m.
RAMSOM: TheValley's oldest distillery
No story of spirits in the Yamhill Valley is complete without including Tad Seestedt and his Ransom Wine Co. and Distillery, the oldest of the three, beginning production in 1997. Originally from the Finger Lakes area of New York, Seestedt earned his undergraduate degree in public administration with a focus on criminal and constitutional law. He soon realized governmental work was not for him. He began taking courses in chemistry and biology with the thought of escaping office life for one of farming — growing grapes and producing wine in Oregon. While Seestedt began working in the wine industry, he was offered a French brandy by a friend — crafted by her father-in-law, an accountant in France, in his garage. “It was fantastic, a wow taste. And I thought if he can do it, maybe I could, too,” he recalled. Seestedt began experimenting with various distillations — grappa, eau de vie and brandy — but notes, “I was acutely aware experimental distillations were highly illegal, and I really didn’t want to get in trouble with the authorities.” He became one the first licensed distillers in Oregon in 1997. While he says water is an important component of any distillation, he believes the grist is the critical determination for production of fine whiskey. “The water has little to do with the final taste of the product. The things that really matter in producing whiskey are the raw materials; they are going to have the most dramatic effect on the final product,” he said. Along with the raw materials, Seestedt says the distillation of the whiskey is a critical step, along with the aging of the product. “If it’s not coming out of the still great, it’s never going to be a great whiskey. Everything after that is manipulation of what came out of the still.” Seestedt, too, uses a pot still — hand hammered, direct fire, alembic copper. These Cognac stills are surrounded by bricks. He owns two of the French imports, noting different pot shapes and necks affect taste dramatically. Blending remains the crucial final step. He says, “It’s one of the toughest things. It takes a long time to develop a sophisticated palate that allows one to develop the most depth and diversity of taste out of a barrel. There are so many variables.” The dean of distillers in the Valley adds, “The age of whiskey is not really going to tell as much as other variables that go into the production. For example, a whiskey aged in a new barrel will age as much in four years as another spirit might age for 18 years in an old barrel,” he said. A perfectionist when it comes to the distillation process, Seestedt says he’s still waiting for the perfect whiskey out of his still. As he waits, however, his spirits are certainly the measure of excellence. Under the Ransom label, he produces The Emerald – Straight American Whiskey; Rye, Barley, Wheat Whiskey; and WhipperSnapper – Oregon Spirit Whiskey. Ransom also offers its Dry Gin and Old Tom Gin.
Ransom Tasting Room 525 N.E. Third Street, McMinnville Wed. –Sun., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Bull Run in Carlton
Lee Medoff is a man on a mission. Using equal parts restrained focus and unbridled creativity, the founder and head distiller for Portland’s Bull Run Distillery has channeled his background in brewing and winemaking into creating a line of disciplined whiskeys, plus two vodkas and an aquavit for good measure. Exhibiting the smoothness characteristic to excellent Eastern European vodkas, both Bull Run styles delight, but the oak cask-finished Starka shines. “It’s whiskey-lovers’ vodka and vodka-lovers’ whiskey,” said Medoff, describing the interplay of his signature products. “People don’t realize how important barrels are to finishing spirits.” Of course, Bull Run’s whiskeys take the main spotlight. “Being a craft producer, we can really play with how we coax flavors and textures,” Medoff said. The nine-year-old American Whiskey and 10-year-old American Whiskey finished in Oregon Pinot Noir casks are accompanied by a superlative five-year-old single malt. The Straight Bourbon Whiskey also comes in a masterful barrel-strength version and a chinato barrel-finished variety. Make no mistake, these whiskeys are equally suited for sipping neat or creating artful cocktails. “The resurgence of the classic cocktail absolutely coincides with the growth of craft distilling,” said Medoff. And the products of Bull Run Distillery clearly demonstrate why. Bull Run Distillery is located in Northwest Portland but now offers a tasting room, Carlton Post, in wine country, 214 W. Main Street, Suite B. Call 503-852-3196 or visit www.bullrundistillery.com for business hours or more information.