Gold Rush! West Coast Distillers
Artisan-crafted spirits can noticeably boost the quality of cocktails. Here are five West Coast distillers whose bottlings are worth exploring.
America’s West has long been known for its pioneering spirit, from the gold prospectors who arrived seeking fortune to the dot-commers who helped push the digital frontiers.
The distillers of the West embody this pioneering spirit, too. Each of the five distillers profiled on the following pages have blazed trails in their own way, whether that means being among the first to distill local fruit into high-end eau-de-vie (Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek Distillery), developing a new spirit category (Ryan Magarian, with his “New Western Dry” Aviation Gin) or cutting through a tangled thicket of regulatory red tape (Kent Fleischmann and Don Poffenroth of Dry Fly Distilling), clearing the way for other would-be distillers in Washington State.
Another defining quality all five share: Each produces Western terroir-rich spirits worthy of national recognition.
(Napa Valley, CA)
Marko Karakasevic is a Master Distiller—that’s with a capital M, capital D. The designation has been passed down through the family business for 13 generations, from Europe to the St. Helena-based Charbay Distillery, which his parents, Miles and Susan, started in 1983, first making wines and brandy.
“My family has been distilling since 1751,” Karakasevic says proudly.
“The definition of Master Distiller in my family is that one must source, distill and bring to market a spirit equal to or better than something produced by your teacher—in this case, my dad.”
His spirit: Doubled & Twisted Whiskey, released in late 2009. Karakasevic, who had brewed beer since high school, used fruity, malty California IPA beer as the base, barrel-aged the spirit for a single day (to appease the legal definition of “light whiskey”), then aged it for four years in stainless-steel tanks.
“When I finally released it,” Karakasevic says, “my dad said, ‘Congratulations, you’re a Master Distiller.’ And we smoked cigars. It took me 26 years.”
Charbay is also known for its artisanal infused vodkas, like Meyer Lemon and Blood Orange, as well as brandies and more. But whiskey remains near to Karakasevic’s heart, and increasingly he’s working on “barrel programs” with customers like New York bars Ward III and Employees Only, creating bespoke small-batch whiskies.
Is there anything that he has not yet tried? “Gin,” says Karakasevic, a new father. “But I’ll leave that up to the 14th generation.”
Charbay Napa Valley Iced Tea
2 ounces Charbay Meyer Lemon Vodka
1 teaspoon Chambord
4 ounces iced tea (regular or mango flavored)
Lemon wedge, for garnish
Fill a 12-ounce Collins glass with ice. Add the vodka and Chambord, and top with the iced tea. Stir until well blended, and garnish with a lemon wedge.
Four-year-old Dry Fly Distilling, which makes vodka, gin, a delectable 100% wheat whiskey and a newly released Bourbon, was the first distiller in the state of Washington.
That accomplishment didn’t come easy to co-owners Kent Fleischmann and Don Poffenroth. The two met on a “fly-fishing boondoggle” during their former jobs as marketing executives. Celebrating the day’s catch, they broke into a bottle of “what was the world’s greatest vodka back then,” Fleischmann says. They declared the vodka “horrible,” and said—jokingly—that they could probably make a better vodka.
“Then Don, who is more scientific than I am, said, ‘We could do this,’” recalls Fleischmann.
While they continued at their marketing jobs, the pair spent the next two years studying how to produce the spirit, invested “a small fortune” into the business and made the vodka.
However, a new challenge emerged. Washington, a control state, didn’t allow producers to sell their spirit from the distillery. It was legal to open a distillery, they discovered, but not to sell their wares at the facility. Luckily, “we like challenges,” says Fleischmann, and so they set out to get the laws changed.
“We dusted off our high school government books, got a lobbyist’s help and got a bill drafted.” The Craft Distillers Bill passed unanimously, effectively creating a new industry for the state.
The vodka subsequently came to market, and in 2009, Dry Fly Vodka scored a Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco Spirits Competition and beat over 200 spirits to win Best in Show.
“That was our goal, to prove we could do better,” Fleischmann says. “And we proved that we could.”
2 ounces Dry Fly Vodka
1 lime wedge
¾ ounce simple syrup
¼ ounce blueberry liqueur
3 blueberries, for garnish
In a cocktail shaker, muddle the vodka and the lime. Add the simple syrup and ice, and shake until well blended. Pour into a chilled rocks glass and drizzle with the blueberry liqueur. Garnish with three blueberries and lime wedge.
If there’s one product for which Clear Creek is known, it’s the Williams (Bartlett) pear brandy, especially the “pear-in-the-bottle” version. Remember the ship-in-a-bottle that may have puzzled you as a kid? Similarly, there’s a simple explanation for how Clear Creek fits that fully grown pear within the slender-necked bottle.
“We actually grow the pear inside of the bottle in the orchards,” reveals Clear Creek owner Steve McCarthy, “and then fill the bottle with eau-de-vie.” Although this is common practice in Alsace, one of the European regions from which McCarthy pulls inspiration, it’s a more unusual sight to see an Oregon pear tree in summertime sprouting bottles where the still-ripening pears should be.
McCarthy has been making spirits for 26 years. His family had cultivated apple orchards for many years before that, but it was when he was traveling through Europe that he realized: Just as the French make Cognac from grapes and eaux-de-vie from any number of fruits, he could use local produce and make it into something wonderful.
“For 15 years or so, the artisan distilling industry was four guys,” he says. “That’s changing for the better. Some good ones are coming along.”
The pear brandy was the first product, made using stills found in Germany.
Now, he makes 28 products, including a wide range of eaux-devie, grappas and brandy, all made with local fruit. But his “greatest product,” he says, is not the pear-in-the bottle, but McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey, inspired after sampling peaty Lagavulin 16-year-old during a trip to Scotland.
Hopscotch & Berry
Created by Kelley Swenson of June in Portland, Oregon, for Clear Creek Distillery.
1½ ounce McCarthy’s Oregon
Single Malt Whiskey
½ ounce Clear Creek Eau de
½ ounce Punt e Mes or Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 raspberry, for garnish
In a mixing glass filled with ice, combine the whiskey, eau-de-vie, vermouth and bitters. Stir until well chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a raspberry.
Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George Spirits, is an energetic and commanding presence. So it’s hard to imagine him as a spirits acolyte, learning at the feet of a master. Yet that’s the story. His mentor was Jorg Rupf (now retired), who founded St. George Spirits nearly 30 years ago. The company operates out of a former Navy hangar near San Francisco.
Although Rupf began by making fruit brandies, as his family had done in Europe, the company really made its name a decade ago when it began the Hangar One Vodka line, which was among the first to produce artisan flavored vodkas. (The brand was purchased by Proximo Spirits in 2010.) St. George has developed a reputation as an incubator of innovative new spirits, ranging from St. George Absinthe Verte to Firelit Coffee Liqueur.
Winters, a former Navy nuclear engineer who started brewing beer while in the service, describes his apprenticeship under Rupf as a “very Mr. Miyagi-Karate Kid relationship.” Rupf taught a young, impatient Winters how to select raw materials, as well as distillation craft and aging techniques.
As a brewer, Winters has a soft spot for the nutty, complex St. George Single Malt. But his latest and greatest project is launching a line of three new gins, including the Douglas fir and bay laurel-spiked Terroir, an aromatic ode to local hiking spot Mount Tam. “It’s like drinking a martini out in the woods,” he says.
Why not launch one gin, instead of three? Winters says, “We like to do things the hard way here.”
The Lucky Tiger
Courtesy of St. George’s Chris Jordan and Sascha Wen
1½ ounce Hangar One Mandarin Blossom Vodka
½ ounce Qi Black Tea Liqueur
½ ounce Hangar One Citron Buddha’s Hand Vodka
½ ounce 1883 de Philibert Routin Passion Fruit Syrup
2–3 dashes Angostura bitters
In a mixing glass filled with ice, combine vodkas, tea liqueur, passion fruit syrup and bitters. Stir well, then strain into a coupe glass.
Rolling up on its seventh anniversary, House Spirits describes itself as “the first bartender-distiller partnership in history.”
The bartender is Ryan Magarian, partner in House Spirits and cofounder of its flagship product, Aviation Gin, a “New Western Dry” gin beloved by aviation cocktail devotees. Meanwhile, the distiller is House Spirits founding partner Christian Krogstad; his name is on the Krogstad Aquavit, a robust American incarnation of the Scandinavian spirit flavored with an array of herbs and spices.
Their differing viewpoints are evident in the vernacular each uses to talk about spirits. For example, Krogstad leans toward scientific language, calmly explaining at length the efforts to create a clean, balanced botanical profile for Aviation, dialing down the juniper quotient and avoiding “flavor defects” in the finished spirit.
Meanwhile, Magarian favors more colorful turns of phrase, declaring the gin “a botanical democracy.”
Yet, both remember when “distillers were wary of bartenders,” Magarian says. As recently as a few years ago, many “cocktails were burying, rather than enhancing, spirits.”
And both agree that their distillation and drink-making aesthetics incorporate “a sense of minimalism,” Krogstad says. “Using a few good ingredients and putting them together well” as opposed to concocting needlessly complicated cocktail recipes or “overprocessed” spirits. So what's next? Among other things, a barrel-aged golden aquavit and a limited-release batch of coffee liqueur made with rum and locally roasted Guatemalan coffee beans.
Courtesy of Tim Davey, Beaker & Flask, Portland, Oregon
1 ounce Krogstad Aquavit
1 ounce Barolo Chinato
1 ounce Campari
1 orange slice, for garnish
In a pint mixing glass, add the aquavit, Barolo Chinato and Campari. Stir well, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange slice.
More Noteworthy West Coast Distillers
Here’s a short list of pioneering distillers worth a look.
Germain-Robin (CA) Though known for a wide range of spirits, its domestic brandy in particular has found fans.
Modern Spirits (CA) Devoted to an organic approach, Modern Spirits also distills under the TRU label, and produces mixologist-inspired Barkeep Bitters.
New Deal Distillers (OR) Creates locally sourced organic liquors under the Loft label.
Oola (WA) This one-year-old distillery is located within Seattle’s city limits.
Pacific Distillery (WA) Among other products, known for making historically accurate Pacifique absinthe and Voyager gin.
Sound Spirits (WA) Producer of Ebb & Flow vodka and gin; whiskey in the works.
Sub Rosa Spirits (OR) Bartenders love its culinary-inspired vodkas, in flavors like tarragon and saffron.