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Craft distilleries growing in Oregon

First came the brewmasters, whose small-scale breweries and full-flavor beers were infused with the Northwest's DNA.

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — First came the brewmasters, whose small-scale breweries and full-flavor beers were infused with the Northwest's DNA.

Oregon's wine industry had a slower ascension, but the state's vintages became recognized as world-class.

The third wave has started to arrive and its offering something stronger: whiskey, gin, vodka and other spirits, made by a distillery near you.

"The quality is higher; the flavors are better," said Rob Melton, a bartender at La Capitale in Salem. "And I really like that the money I'm spending on a product is staying in my community."

Like Oregon's leading role in beer and early role in non-California wine, the Beaver State is out in front in craft distilling. Consumers, whose palates are keen for artisanal food and drink, and Oregon's breed of entrepreneurs might be the right mix.

Oregon has 48 licensed distilleries, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Most are small businesses that distill and bottle their own products. Those wanting to drink Oregon-made products have more than 400 choices.

Oregon distilleries have put a Northwest spin on standby liquors. What booze aficionados find exciting is the innovation shown by the small companies.

Melton, who goes by RobDrinkenstein on Twitter, observes that gin doesn't have to be focused on juniper. A hint of cucumber, fennel, or black pepper is fine, if not better, for cocktails.

Traditional vodkas, known for having a smooth, clean alcohol finish, have new competition. Melton describes craft distilled vodkas as complex, with subtle flavors of anise, grass, and citrus.

American whiskeys, with orange undertones, are acceptable in Oregon. In Kentucky, that might raise eyebrows.

One Oregon brandy is made with Douglas fir buds, which Melton uses in a drink he calls a Conifer Cocktail.

"How much more Oregon can it get?" Melton said.

Craft distilling remains an unfamiliar concept for many consumers. It's catching on, however, particularly in Oregon.

"We sell nationally, but it's interesting to note that we sell about as much in Oregon as we do in large markets like Chicago and New York," said Tad Seestedt of Ransom Wines and Spirits in Sheridan.

When Ransom was licensed to produced distilled spirits in 1997, Oregon had only five craft distilleries, Seestedt said. The company produces spirits, such as Old Tom gin and whiskey, as well as Oregon pinot noirs.

Oregon-made, craft-distilled spirits are priced on par, or a little higher, than prominent national brands.

For example, a standard 750-milliliter bottle of Jack Daniel's brand whiskey was recently priced at $24.95 at Oregon liquor stores. Whippersnapper Oregon Spirit Whiskey, a product made by Ransom, was priced at $25.30. Big Bottom American Straight Bourbon Whiskey, made by a company in Hillsboro, was selling for $29.95.

"We are in the formative years, the nascent years of this new industry," said Christian Krogstad, the founder of House Spirits Distillery in Portland.

Starting as a brewer at the McMenamins chain 22 year ago, Krogstad worked his way up through the alcoholic beverage business.

Krogstad operated his own brewery in Washington, worked in wineries for a few years, before starting House Spirits in 2004.

His company is now making 2,000 cases a month, with its flagship product, Aviation Gin, accounting for 80 percent of its sales.

For Krogstad, it feels like 1992 "in micro-brewing years."

"People are more thoughtful about what they are consuming and the craft cocktail movement is helping tremendously," said Patrick Bernards, president of the Oregon Distillers Guild.

Oregon is home to about 10 percent of the nation's estimated 500 craft distilleries, said Bernards, who is also the co-founder of Bull Run Distilling Company in Portland.

Several hundred employees are directly employed by Oregon craft distilleries, Bernards said. The largest of the state's craft distilleries employ about a dozen workers, he said, and the smallest start-ups may have a couple of employees.

Businesses often clash with government, but craft distilleries and Oregon liquor regulators appear to have an understanding.

In this state, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission oversees the distribution to liquor stores. Craft distilleries must work with the agency.

"They are amazing for a small distillery," said Sarah Wayt, who handles marketing for 4 Spirits Distillery, an operation based in Adair Village. "You have a central distribution warehouse, so you don't have to pay the cost of self-distributing."

Wayt recently hosted a liquor tasting at the L'Attitude Point One restaurant in Dallas. Customers sipped 4 Spirits products, such as its vodka, sold under the SlapTail and WebFoot label (designed for fans of the Beavers and Ducks).

"We would rather buy stuff from people in our own area if possible, or at least the state," said Sharon Thompson, a Dallas resident who attended the tasting. She and her husband, Don, also make it a point to visit farmers markets.

OLCC officials stopped short of saying the agency shows a preference for stocking Oregon-made products at its warehouse — but it hasn't created many obstacles for start-up distilleries.

"We make it easy. They get a listing," said Brian Flemming, director of retail services for the OLCC.

Craft distilleries are nimble enough to experiment with niche products and close enough to their customers to spot trends.

Looking for a taste of Cherry Bomb Whiskey or New Deal Hot Monkey Vodka? The chances are good that those Oregon products, and many others, are available at a local liquor store.

At South Salem Liquor Outlet, 5107 Commercial St. SE, more than 200 Oregon products can be found. The liquor store, like many in the state, has a section for Oregon spirits.

Made-in-Oregon resonates with Oregonians as well as out-of-state tourists, said Steve Brown, the liquor agent for South Salem Liquor Outlet and a liquor store in Lincoln City. Tourists often buy a few bottles for souvenirs or gifts, he said.

A few industry observers have already speculated about tourists flocking to Oregon distilleries, much like the crowds attracted to wine country.

To some degree, that's already happened. An industrial neighborhood in Portland, known as Distillery Row, draws thirsty tourists. And some craft distilleries have tasting rooms and offer on-site sales.

It's the beer-whiskey marriage

Bill Owens, founder and president of the American Distilling Institute, said Oregon likely ranks among the top five states for having the most craft distilleries. He also was a pioneer in craft brewing, opening Buffalo Bills Brewery in Hayward, Calif., in the 1980s.

"The marriage is the brewery and the distillery. You have all these brewers making what they call wort, which is the basis of beer. We call it wash," Owens said. It doesn't take long for brewers to make the leap to distilling, he said. They can get started with as little as a four-by-four foot floor space to set up a still.

Newport-based Rogue Ales might be the epitome of an Oregon brewer making a smooth transition to distilled spirits.

Dead Guy Whiskey, the best-selling product made by its Rogue Spirits division, shares the same three malts at its Dead Guy Ale. Only the hops are left out of the whiskey.

Rogue's Chipolte Spirit is an even closer cousin to its namesake ale. The unaged white whiskey is distilled directly from Chipolte Ale.

McMenamins, the Oregon company best known for its brew pubs and historic hotels, has gone from beer to wine to distilled spirits. The company's distillery at its Edgefield property has created products, such as a Three Rocks Rum and Monkey Puzzle — a rule-breaking whiskey that includes blackberry honey and hops.

As Owens sees it, Oregon's reputation for non-conformist entrepreneurs helps explains why so many distilleries have opened here. The desire to be self-employed, and follow an unconventional career path, is the seed for many start-ups.

"There's only a few states that have that spirit," Owens said.