Portland's food-and-drink scene is pretty impressive, with places, menus and products listed on many bucket lists across the globe. But there's no denying that talk of distilled spirits has taken a backseat for years to its wine and beer.
After writing about the restaurant and bar scene for a few years, local author Karen Locke decided to explore the craft and creativity behind the booze industry in Portland. Her new book, "High-Proof PDX: A Spirited Guide to Portland's Craft Distilling Scene," is the first-ever comprehensive guide on how to navigate the city's local distillery artisanal drinks scene. Crain's Portland took some time to chat with Locke for our booze-curious and thirsty readers.
Crain's: How does one get into writing about wine, beer and booze?
Locke: For me personally, I had a journalism degree and realized how horrible I was at serving and bartending. The move to drink writing came easy in a city like Portland, with so much to write about.
For anyone else wanting to get into writing about the beverage industry, immerse yourself as much as possible. Go to events, try everything, talk to people. Even if you’ve never been published, editors will often throw you a bone if you’ve got a killer story idea. Research says we’re most creative after one drink. Never brainstorm sober.
Crain's: Tell me a bit about the genesis for the book. What made you think this was a book you wanted to write and readers would want to read?
Locke: There seemed to be enough content out there about cocktails but not nearly enough about spirits production and distillery tours in our city. I was surprised to find how little consumers knew about the booze being made here but at the same time, most people were excited about the thought of exploring it. I knew this book had to happen because just like the winemakers and brewers, the liquor producers in Oregon deserved to have their stories told, too.
Crain's: Why Portland? Why is it such a hotbed for distilleries?
Locke: Most of us have a drinking problem. Kidding.
With less growth and construction in the early to mid-2000s, distilleries could still afford space in inner Portland. Additionally, with a growing food and restaurant scene, it only made sense that the industry and consumers would be intrigued by locally made spirits to go along with their locally made everything else.
Crain's: And how does the Rose City compare nationally and internationally in this industry?
Locke: From what I’ve experienced we are creating unique spirits. I wouldn’t usually use that word but it’s true! Vinn Distillery produced the first rice whiskey in the U.S., along with the only baijiu. Thomas & Sons Distillery is producing amari and tea-based spirits. Portland distilleries like Rolling River Spirits, House Spirits Distillery, and Bull Run Distillery are producing multiple varieties of aquavit, which is much more than I’ve seen in other cities.
Crain's: Do we have some signature spirits?
Locke: Juniper grows really well in Oregon, so you’ll see a lot gin produced here.
A few distilleries like Bull Run Distillery, New Deal Distillery, House Spirits, and Stone Barn Brandyworks are helping to redefine the way we think about whiskey.
Distilleries like these are using ingredients from the area combined with a different aging climate than Kentucky, which means whiskey produced in Oregon can have different characteristics than whiskey produced elsewhere.
Crain's: What do you think PDX distilleries do better than others elsewhere in the industry?
Locke: They’ve really come together to promote the industry in our city and state. It helps that many of them are geographically close. There’s a Portland Distillery Passport book that encourages consumers to visit many of the distilleries for discounted tastings. The distilleries throw events together like cocktail crawls and Black Friday. Oregon has also had the Oregon Distillers Guild for over 10 years.
Crain's: What does the market look like for spirits? I have heard millennials are killing the beer industry, as they prefer wine. Do they like spirits? Is the future bright, or cloudy?
Locke: While consumers definitely influence the industry and I have seen an uptick in cocktail photos on Instagram, legislation will have a lot to do with the growth of Portland’s distilling industry in the next few years. I know this is not nearly as alluring as millennial drinking habits.
Our neighbors to the north, in Washington, are a great example. The people who voted for privatization of the spirits industry thinking it would mean cheaper booze and a better selection have had a rough awakening. Two years later the opposite has occurred. When you think about it, it’s really beneficial for distilleries when the state buys cases of locally made booze every month!
Additionally, once the beer industry passed the Brewpub Bill, that industry grew tremendously. I’d love to see what could happen with a distillery pub environment where people can hang out, drink cocktails, and order food.
Crain's: What are a few things you learned in researching and reporting for this book that surprised you?
Locke: How many of the distillers, owners, and tasting room employees that have full-time or other day jobs was surprising to me. They’re busy people, to say the least. Also, starting a distillery is very expensive. I figured distilling equipment couldn’t cost much more than brewing equipment. I was wrong about that.
Crain's: Describe for us some scenes outside of the greater Portland area. If we want great spirits elsewhere in Oregon, where do you recommend?
Locke: Check out Bend, Eugene, or Hood River for a little concentration of distilleries. There’s also some distilling happening outside of Portland in cities like Forest Grove, Hillsboro, and Oregon City. I’ve also got one of the most comprehensive maps of all of the distilleries on my website, if you find yourself in an area of the state and wondering about nearby distilling.
Crain's: What's your favorite cocktail and where can we get one?
Locke: Jello shots! In all seriousness, this is the toughest question I’m routinely asked. I try a lot of cocktails, and menus are constantly changing. I have some recommendations in my book for cocktail bars but I’d say if you wanted to go for a cocktail made with local spirits, head to La Moule SE Clinton Street. This summer they had the Gin & Juice made with Aria Gin. The Liquore Store bar Belmont stocks their bar with a lot of local stuff, too.
Crain's: We have to hear the hangover cures. Have you tried them, and do they work?
Locke: One of my favorite hangover cures from the book recommended by a bartender is to have sex. Hangover cures are a little bit like curing the hiccups. Everyone has advice but you won’t know if they will work for you until you’ve tried it. I’ve tried that one. No comment.
Historically, most of my hangovers have been from being dehydrated or not eating enough before drinking. For me, it’s all about acceptance, as in: “This hangover is my fault.” And food and Topo Chico.