I've always hoped someone would produce bourbon and/or rye whiskey here in the Beaver State. Sure, there are some whiskeys made here. Best known is Clear Creek's "McCarthy's Single Malt", a three-year-old highly peated barley malt whiskey in the Islay style. House Spirits has produced a 2.67 year old unpeated malt. Then there's Rogue's "Dead Guy Whiskey", which spends a mere 30 days in the barrel and tastes like it too. But none of these are my preferred type of whiskey, and all are too young.
Yes, there are bourbons on the shelf that purport to be Oregon products. There's "Big Bottom Whiskey" and, from Bull Run Distillery (best known for its Medoyeff Vodka) we have "Temperance Trader". Neither of these are distilled in Oregon, but are whiskey purchased in bulk from distilleries in Indiana and Kentucky. And though these Oregon outfits admit they don’t make it, they charge too much for it and lay on a lot of marketing hype. For example, at the web page for Temperance Trader, we see:
Which suggests that God has forsaken Kentucky. How sad. When I think of all the souls there awaiting the Rapture that will pass them by…While our Temperance Trader Bourbon was conceived in Bourbon Country, it was born in God's Country.
And apparently the act of transferring bourbon from barrel to bottle constitutes birth. Does that mean that if I were to rebarrel some and then bottle it, I could call it “born again bourbon”?
How embarrassing.That makes Temperance Trader Bourbon an Oregon original.
So, a couple of months ago, when I spotted Stein Bourbon at a local liquor store, my initial reaction was skepticism. Looking more closely at the label, it did, however, clearly state that it was "Micro-Distilled in Joseph, Oregon". I was tempted to buy it then, but decided to do a little research first.
I visited the Stein website and followed that up with an E-Mail exchange and phone call with Austin Stein. I learned that it was in 2006 that he and his wife Heather, owners of a 150 acre farm in NE Oregon, decided they wanted to get into the distilling business. Navigating the byzantine process of getting all the federal, state and local permits took a couple of years, so it was not until 2009 they constructed their distillery building and began production.
The Steins grow rye, wheat and barley, and - as much as possible - rely on their own harvest to produce their distilled products.
First on the market was their 100% rye vodka. This goes for $30.65, and it's reported to be a good one, with rye aroma and flavor detectable to those with keen senses. However, I can't personally attest to this, because I've never spent $30+ for a vodka, and don't expect I ever will.
The Steins also began producing bourbon using a mashbill of 75% corn (purchased from another local farmer) and 25% unmalted barley (starch-to-sugar conversion being done by enzymes), as well as a rye whiskey (75% rye, 25% corn). The Steins have two, five and ten year aging programs for these.
Production is about 10-12 53 gallon barrels per month, split evenly between bourbon and rye. One barrel of each goes into the five year program, and one of each into the ten.
The whiskey is aged in 53 gallon barrels and aged in the same 6,000 square foot building that houses the still and the gift shop. Joseph is located in Oregon’s “high desert” and although it doesn’t get very hot there (100 degrees F exceeded only once, in 1919), it gets very cold (lows under -20 F not uncommon during the winter). The Steins put central heat into their building, and this, combined the already dry desert air, results in the Angels getting a very high share (perhaps appropriate given that this is, after all, God’s Country). In the first two-and-a-half years of aging, the Steins are seeing 15-20% loss.
So they’re planning a separate rickhouse, without heating.
The two year old whiskeys were released in late 2011, and it's the bourbon that I found at the liquor store on Washington Avenue in Corvallis. Both whiskeys are priced at $38.75, which - let's face it - is a lot for a two year old whiskey.
So it took me a week to talk myself into buying one. Receiving my mid-month paycheck on the 13th, I felt flush enough to buy one the following Monday.
The nose is a mix of corn and hay, and on the palate it's a bit rough around the edges, due to its (lack of) age. The high percentage of barley makes itself known, imparting a cereal element that reminds me of some Irish whiskeys.
Is it worth $39? Well, that's a personal decision, I guess. If you're someone who wants to "buy Oregon" and have the disposable income to do it, then its price is not out of line for Oregon whiskey. The McCarthy goes for $50, and it's my recollection that the House Spirits whiskey went for $45. Rogue charges $40 for the abominably bad Dead Guy.
Speaking strictly for myself, $39 for a two-year-old bourbon is too much. My frame of reference is very much a value oriented one, and, as we all know, there are a number of very good bourbons available that can be had for that price or lower.
The Stein bourbon is also available in "white dog" (unaged) form, as "Steinshine Corn Whiskey", for $25.80.
The Steins also produce a light rum ($21.95), made from brown sugar. Some has been diverted to barrels that previously held bourbon, and will be released in a couple of years.
The vodka, whiskeys, and rum are all 80 proof.
I'll probably get some of the rum before summer. But as for the whiskey, I think I'll wait for the longer aged versions. I plan to be first in line when the five-year-old bourbon and rye are released in late 2014, and likewise (probably leaning on a walker) when the ten-year-old versions are released in 2019.
Several weeks later, while visiting Big Y Liquors in Eugene, I spotted another made-in-Oregon bourbon, C. W. Irwin. No age statement on the bottle meant that it was at least four years old (twice as old as Stein), and, at $28, $10.45 less expensive. So I brought a bottle home.
Nose was recognizably bourbon in character, taste was caramel corn, butterscotch and a hint of rye. On the finish there was this slightly resiny thing going that had me wondering about barrel size and how long the staves had been seasoned.
Over the next couple of weeks, subsequent samplings showed progressively less of the resin character.
Efforts to reach the distillery owner, Brad Irwin, were not successful until late Monday, March 12. I conducted a brief interview, but backyard activities on most of the following weekends (French drain project), busy work week (auditors coming on March 27th), and trip out of town the weekend of March 24 (wedding anniversary) got in the way of compiling notes and posting this report.
The Irwin bourbon (distillery name is Oregon Spirit Distillers) is a four grain whiskey (58% corn, 8% rye, 17% wheat and 17% malted barley). Distilled at 140 proof and entering the barrel at 125, it's put in 30 gallon barrels for four years. There might be some set aside for longer aging (Brad would neither confirm nor deny). Bottling proof is 80.
Choice of 30 gallon barrel is based not so much on the slightly higher ratio of surface area to volume (20% compared to a 53 gallon barrel) but on the capacity of Brad's still, which produces about 26.7-26.8 gallons of 140 proof spirit per batch. Bringing this down to 125 results in 30 gallons. The other reason is that it's a one man operation, and Brad finds the smaller barrels a lot easier to manage.
Barrels come from The Barrel Mill, a Minnesota outfit that plants four trees for every one it cuts (sustainability being an important factor when dealing with us Oregonians). The whiskey barrels use wood seasoned for three years and have a #3 char.
Storage is in the 4,000 square foot distillery building, which is unheated. The distillery is located in Bend. It's a little warmer there than in Joseph (location of Stein distillery). Barrels are stored in two-level racks.
Production is about 20 30gal barrels per month.
"C. W. Irwin" is Brad's older brother. The bourbon is named after him because "his initials sound better than mine." I refrained from asking Brad if his middle name started with an S.
I decided to try a comparison between the Irwin bourbon and something equivalent. There being no 4/80 bourbons around priced over $20, I picked up a small bottle of Jack Daniels Black Label ($23.45/750ml in OR)(I do believe this is the first JD I’ve bought since before it dropped to 80 proof). Side-by-side, I wouldn't say one is better than the other, just different. Like the Jack Daniels, the Irwin's youth-imparted strong character would work well with cola or in other mixed drinks.
Compared to other Oregon whiskeys, it's way out in front, being both older than any others that I know of, and costing less than most.
I guess my final take on it is that it's a competent four year old bourbon, something I'd take on a fishing trip. Some of this on the rocks would be pretty good after a hard day of pulling in big rainbows, so I'll be taking it with me when I head down to Diamond Lake in May.