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Oregon distillers boost spirits

Bread and Brew
by: Christopher Onstott On a recent Saturday, bicyclists dressed in tweed descended on House Spirits Distillery for a tasting. Billy

Appropriately enough, Portland's Distillery Row doesn't follow a straight line. It's a zigzag tour from Stone Barn Brandy Works in the Brooklyn neighborhood down to House Spirits, Deco Distilling and New Deal Distillery in the lower Hawthorne area and Integrity Spirits near the Morrison Bridge. They are all open for tastings, at varying times, with the exception of the new Deco Distilling, whose tasting room will open soon.

That's just one cluster in a city and state where stills are popping up everywhere. The Oregon Distillers Guild has 23 members, and claims there are 31 independent distilleries in the state - at last count, that is. The number keeps going up.

It can be hard to keep track, which is where T.O.A.S.T. comes in.

T.O.A.S.T., or The Oregon Artisan Spirit Tasting, is a one-day tasting event in downtown Portland on April 8. It's timed to coincide with the annual Craft Spirits Conference of the American Distilling Institute, which is being held in Portland for the first time this year.

Having the national distilling organization come to town is a big deal, explains Ryan Csanky, the executive director of the Oregon Distillers Guild. Portland distillers are in an 'amazing position right now,' he says.

The conference has frequently been held in Kentucky, which clearly has us beat for volume of distilling and heritage. But Portland offers diversity, with vodkas, rums, whiskeys, gins and brandies all being made in the city. Portland also has bartenders dedicated to working with local ingredients. The Distillers Guild and the Oregon Bartenders Guild work hand-in-hand, and Bartenders Guild members will be mixing up cocktails at T.O.A.S.T.

The city is behind the movement, and Mayor Sam Adams will speak at the event. Even the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, usually seen as a killjoy, is actually a boon to craft distilling, says Csanky.

In many states, he explains, liquor distribution is handled by private, for-profit companies, who typically have relationships with international liquor giants. The OLCC's distribution process provides a much more level playing field for small producers.

In addition, Oregon has rules that prevent liquor companies from giving free liquor to bars, which makes it easier for companies with small budgets to compete for shelf space.

Still, Csanky says, limited marketing budgets are the biggest hurdle for fledgling distillers.

Many still have day jobs, like Sebastian Degens, who owns Stone Barn Brandy Works with his wife Erika. Their small still produces only about 200 to 250 bottles a month of assorted potations, including ouzo, coffee liqueur, grappa, and pear and apple brandy.

Meghan Zonich, who owns Northwest Distillery with her husband Corey, says that having a still in the barn has allowed her to live on the family farm and stay home with her two young children. She makes Liquid Vodka in Warren, Oregon, and has just released a mint-flavored vodka called Lavishment (great for summer cocktails).

Cocktail Camp

For small producers like these, cooperation is crucial, and events like T.O.A.S.T. are an excellent way to reach out to consumers. In many cases, attendees have the chance to talk directly to the distiller.

Sadly, there's only so much booze you can drink in one night.

One product I'll be looking out for is Calisaya, a bittersweet, Italian-style liqueur from Cottage Grove. Another is Ransom's Old Tom Gin, a complex herbal liquor made in the style of the 19th century, which will be used in cocktails at the event. House Spirits has just released an aquavit aged in rum and whiskey barrels, which creates ripples of overlapping flavors. And I've been hearing a lot about New Deal's chocolate and coffee vodkas, but I haven't tried them yet.

If you can't make it to T.O.A.S.T., you don't have long to wait for the next party… sorry, I mean convention. Cocktail Camp, on Sunday, April 10, focuses on mixology and includes tastings of spirits, wine, beer, cocktails and punch. Seminars include one on the new trend for making cocktails with beer and one called 'Yes, You Can Entertain!'

Final word of advice: when parking is limited and booze is involved, don't drive. Take the bus.

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• T.O.A.S.T., 4-9 p.m. Friday, April 8, Tiffany Center, Second Floor, 1410 S.W. Morrison St., www.oregondistillersguild.org/TOAST-Details.html , $40, 21 and older

• Cocktail Camp, 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, April 10, Gerding Theater at the Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave., www.cocktailcamp.net/, $50, 21 and older

• Distillery Row tours, Saturdays or by appointment, see www.distilleryrowpdx.com/distillery-row-map/