Celebrate Portland’s independent streak with these 12 small-batch indie spirits.
Portland, Oregon might be better known for craft beer, third-wave coffee roasters, or cannabis, but the Pacific Northwest city is also home to a staggering number of small, independent distilleries that incorporate local ingredients.
Clear Creek Distillery
The O.G. of Portland distilleries, this eau de vie specialist has been going strong since 1985. Clear Creek Distillery is best known for its local take on Poire Williams made from perfectly ripe Bartlett pears grown in Hood River, some bottled with a whole pear inside as a nice visual trick. The company also makes grappa, clear brandy incorporating local Douglas Fir buds, liqueur sweet with marionberries (a regional blackberry), and limited-run spirits like Framboise, only available on-site.
INSIDER TIPEven though this is one of the largest operations, the liquor is distilled in small batches in German copper stills. Visitors can take behind-the-scenes tours on Saturdays.
Bull Run Distilling Co.
Named for the source of the water used from the Bull Run Watershed, Bull Run Distilling Co. excels at bourbons made with high rye content and single malt whiskeys incorporating malted barley from the Klamath Basin. The Pinot Noir Finished American Whiskey is a uniquely Oregon product and takes advantage of the barrels used to make the state’s best-known varietal.
INSIDER TIPStarka is an Eastern European vodka traditionally barrel-aged and buried in the ground when a child was born, only to be dug up at their wedding. Medoyeff Starka doesn’t go that far but the distiller does finish its vodka in oak for a result that looks and tastes like whiskey.
Stone Barn Brandyworks
This distiller produces small-batch brandies and liqueurs with seasonal fruit (and during periods when fruit isn’t in season, the husband and wife founders produce whiskey) like quince, cranberries, and apricots. While Stone Barn Brandyworks’ trademark is fruit, the Nocino, modeled on an Italian walnut liqueur, is made from Portland-picked green walnuts steeped in spices, which results in an elixir that tastes like Christmastime.
Some bottlings—like the recent Strawberry or Crimson Pear—are so limited they are only available at the tasting room or Portland Farmers Market.
Breaking out of the American spirits mold, Vinn Distillery, run by the multi-generational Ly family, is banking on Oregonians developing a taste for baiju (pronounced BYE-joe), practically unknown in the US despite being the world’s most consumed alcohol. It is often made from sorghum, but in this case, they use fermented brown rice to produce a clear liquor that’s fiery and a little funky.
INSIDER TIPThose who want to ease into the world of Chinese spirits might start with Vinn’s whiskey or vodka, atypically distilled from rice.
Unlike many distillers who have their hands in a little bit of everything, Aria only produces one spirt: Portland Dry Gin. Crafted in a traditional London Dry style with prominent juniper notes, this liquor is made from ten botanicals including coriander and angelica root and can be drunk straight but is designed to complement cocktails. No surprise, these drinks incorporate ingredients like drinking vinegar from local Thai restaurant empire Pok Pok, as well as products from Portland Bitters Project and Portland Soda Works.
INSIDER TIPIf you’ve never tasted a gin and tonic made with real quinine, you can pick up a bottle of tonic syrup from Seattle-based &TONIC that uses Peruvian chinchona bark to derive the amber color and natural bitter flavor.
PDX might be the only US airport to house food trucks, a movie theater, and a tasting room where drinks enthusiasts can pick up a bottle of Volstead Vodka or Westward American Single Malt Whiskey. House Spirits also produces Krogstad Aquavit, a grain-based spirit flavored with caraway that’s commonly found in Scandinavia. This version has a pronounced anise flavor, which is a hallmark of newer aquavits popping up in the Pacific Northwest.
Look for “developmental spirits,” limited editions often displayed on the counter, that are only available at the distillery or tasting rooms. One notable is Honkaku Shochu, made for Afuri, a Japanese ramen chain that has set up shop in Portland, supposedly drawn by the same Bull Run Watershed water that most of these distilleries tout.
Products like Burnside Bourbon and Portland Potato Vodka may have more mainstream name recognition since these spirits are found in most local liquor stores and Eastside Distilling even has tasting rooms in three suburban malls and an outlet center. This distillery dabbles beyond its base spirits and produces a series of holiday-themed liqueurs and recently introduced a Hot Potato Vodka infused with Secret Aardvark a (local, of course) hot sauce made from habaneros.
INSIDER TIPMarionberries are a regional blackberry that Oregonians put in everything from cider to kombucha, and not surprisingly, hard liquor. Why not taste the bounty of the Willamette Valley via Oregon Marionberry Whiskey?
Indio Spirits has a well-rounded portfolio of whiskeys, rums, vodkas, and gins in numerous styles. But maybe the most Northwest offering is the Hopka Hop Liqueur combining two different types of hops, Citra and Cascade, in grain liquor, which perfumes the alcohol with the piney, citrus notes of an IPA but with more kick. Like many Oregon distillers, founder John Ufford, honed his craft in breweries before shifting to spirits, so this liquor reminiscent of beer makes sense.
INSIDER TIPStop by a tasting room (there’s a new location downtown) to try “Barrel Room Distillery Selects” like Curacao, only available in-house.
Rolling River Spirits
Relative newcomers to the Portland booze scene, this family operation specializes in many varieties of aquavit, a traditional Scandinavian spirit that has seen a craft revival in the Pacific Northwest. Ole Bjørkevoll Aquavit is the fennel-and-dill-forward standard. There’s a version aged in oak barrels with cinnamon and allspice for the holidays. Rolling River Spirits also employs twists like adding ginger or using whiskey barrels to age the aquavit as part of its “stilar reserve” line.
If hops and wine barrels have been repurposed for distillation in Portland, you know coffee has too. Rolling River Spirits also produces Coffee Spirit using beans from local Coava Coffee Roasters.
Characterized as a neutral spirit, vodka doesn’t get much love in the liquor pantheon. But Wild Roots specializes in fruit-infused vodkas that are miles away from Stoli Razberi or Smirnoff Sour Green Apple. The base spirit is made from grain and is filtered five times through lava rock sourced from the Cascade Mountains. Flavors include fruit that that thrives in the Northwest like marionberries, pears, and red raspberries so colorful no artificial dye is needed to create the vodka’s ruby hue.
Thomas & Sons Distillery
Thomas & Sons is an offshoot of Townshend’s Tea Company that combines the two seemingly disparate pursuits by fermenting tea and sugar distilled at low temperatures to create unique spirits like Townshend’s Gin, flavored with Silver Tip Jasmine green tea, chamomile, and of course, juniper. They also make smoked, sweet, and spiced tea liqueurs, and even a Pacific Northwest Fernet, using local Douglas Fir and Willamette hops for a spin on the popular digestif.
INSIDER TIPYou can’t buy Townshend’s Kashmiri Amaro, a hybrid melding Indian chai flavors and Italian herbs, online or outside of the West Coast, so have a taste if you visit.
New Deal Distillery
With its creamy, almost fruity New Deal Vodka, New Deal Distillery in the Southeast Industrial District, is trying to convert drinkers to the concept of a sipping vodka. One of the more unusual spirits that New Deal produces is the Cascadia American Bitter Liqueur meant to evoke European herbal liqueurs like Salers Aperitif or Suze but made from botanicals from the Cascade Mountain Range rather than the Alps. The bitter flavor comes from gentian and angelica roots, softened wild lavender, and rose petals.