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Distillers build on entrepreneurial spirit

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Lien Ly, co-owner of Vinn Distillery, pours samples of Mijiu Fire - a Chinese wine made from black rice - at a recent public tasting.Twelve years ago, Tom Burkleaux knew he wanted to make his own alcohol.

The 46-year-old computer programmer wasn’t interested in homebrewing or home winemaking — he wanted to make the hard stuff, like vodka, gin and whiskey.

The only problem was, Oregon law doesn’t allow home distillation. Federal and state laws are a byzantine license and permitting process that can take years.

Undeterred, Burkleaux — a Reed College graduate who grew up in Portland and lives in Southeast — set out to open his own mini-distillery, a 120-square-foot space in the industrial no man's land just north of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, now known as the lower Eastside Industrial District.

After a three-year wait to get up and running, New Deal Distillery opened in 2004.

Others followed, and now Portland's Distillery Row has become a hotspot for both locals and faraway visitors.

“Back then, there was no industry,” Burkleaux says of his old-timer status. “We weren’t thinking about making money. Now, there’s two or three people in here a day who come in and look around, want to open a distillery.”

Rice-based, gluten-free

Just across the street from New Deal is Vinn Distillery, which became the fifth tasting room to open on the row last June.

Vinn makes the first rice vodka produced and bottled in the United States. They also are the only U.S. makers of "baijiu," the national drink of China, which comes from a family recipe stretching back eight generations.

"We'd been making moonshine in our backyard," says Michelle Ly, the family spokesperson. "It's one of the highest selling categories in the world but no one knows about it here."

In 2009, while he was contemplating retirement from the family's restaurant business, Ly and her siblings' father instead decided to take a gamble on spirits.

After a licensing process that took four and a half years, they opened a distillery in Wilsonville, where they lived. Only problem was, they had to agree to not serve alcohol on the premises because there were two day cares across the street.

The idea of a tasting room didn't occur to them until they were contacted by New Deal's Burkleaux, who encouraged them to join the row.

They happily moved in, in large part because they wanted to take advantage of a new state law that allows distillers to sell their bottles at trade shows and other events — only if they have a tasting room.

They've been grateful for the support of the other distillers, "overwhelmed with the exposure," Ly says.

An added bonus to Vinn's products: since they are rice-based, they are gluten-free.

It wasn't by design. When they first rolled out the product, Ly says, people started buying it because they wanted a gluten-free beverage. "I'm like, 'What the heck is gluten-free?' " she recalls thinking.

The state’s craft spirits industry got another avenue for exposure last year with the legislature’s approval of House Bill 4092, which allows Oregon distillers to sell their spirits directly to consumers at trade shows, farmers markets and other special events.

“Every bottle sold means that consumers who attend these events and express interest in a distillers product may purchase the product right there and then when they are most interested,” says guild president Martin, of Martin Ryan Distilling Co.

“It also means additional revenue for the distillery and for the state of Oregon,” he adds. “Everybody wins.”

Their own stamp

Distilling is part science, part art.

Vodka is the simplest spirit to make, since any liquid can be used

In making vodka, the first step is fermentation, which at New Deal begins by taking organic grains and encouraging them to sprout, an enzymatic process that turns starches into sugars that can be used by yeast.

The yeast consumes sugars in a slurry known as the mash, releasing heat, carbon dioxide and alcohol.

It keeps going until there is no more sugar or it reaches about 12 percent of alcohol by volume, creating a sort of grain wine. That's transformed into a high-proof spirit by distillation.

When heated, the alcohol turns to vapor before the water does. The vapor is sent up a column and condenses when it hits the cold side, collecting nearly pure alcohol.

From there, it's run through a custom-made filtration system as many as six times to remove any impurities and achieve the best flavor balance. Tasting, bottling and distribution is next.

At New Deal one recent morning, the sharp aroma of ginger lingered throughout the space.

A fresh batch of ginger liqueur was in production, which meant the half-dozen employees had recently finished hand-chopping and mashing batches and batches of fresh, whole ginger root.

The ginger had been filtered through strainer baskets topped with industrial-size coffee filters, and was settling in large buckets on the side of the room.

After a few weeks, Burkleaux will add some organic cane sugar and a hint of agave nectar. People seem to love it. “We keep selling out of it; it’s popular in the tasting rooms,” he says.

Other local craft distillers take pride in putting their own stamp on dozens of types of vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, brandy, absinthe, cordials, liqueurs, and even ouzo and grappa.

Indio Spirits, for example, in Southwest Portland, makes a marionberry vodka, lemongrass-lime vodka, blood orange vodka and wasabi vodka, in addition to other products.

Stonebarn Brandyworks, which is part of the row on Southeast 19th Street, makes pear, apple and plum brandies, as well as coffee, apricot and golden quince-flavored liqueurs that quickly sell out.

As the craft distillers improve upon their products and produce more variety, New Deal’s Burkleaux thinks the best is yet to come in the industry.

He sees a lot of unique and strong flavors and hybrid distillations like malted barley and cane sugar bubbling up. It'll be a learning curve for both distributors and consumers, who want to box a beverage into one category.

"It'll take a while for people to understand, 'Oh, this is something different,' " he says. "We used to drink four boring beers when we were young, and now there are 100 stouts."