Friday, February 24, 2017

Eugene's Newest Distillery

"Buy local" is a pervasive ethic here in Oregon. There are a lot of good reasons to do it, but to fully achieve the goal, a product must not only be made and sold locally, but must be produced from local raw materials as well.

Those who have read Distilled in Oregon know that many Oregon "distillers" in fact source their whiskey from Midwest Grain Products in Indiana and their neutral spirits (used for producing vodka and gin) from any number of large Midwest ethanol producers (e.g., Archer Daniels Midland). You don't need all of your fingers to count the number of Oregon distilleries which produce everything they bottle from local ingredients. Even those who subscribe to the buy local principle have had to make exceptions. With no local source of peat-smoked barley malt, Clear Creek must import it from Scotland to produce McCarthy's Single Malt whiskey, and any distiller who wants to make rum has to bring in raw material from out-of-state, because sugar cane does not grow in the Pacific Northwest.

Thinking Tree Spirits (DSP-OR-20036) is a welcome addition to the short list of producers striving to achieve the goal of all locally-sourced materials. The grain used to make their vodka, gin and whiskey comes from Camas Country Mill and although the molasses they use for their rum must necessarily originate in a warmer climate, they purchase it from a local supplier, GloryBee Foods

The distillery is the creation of three partners, Kaylon McAllister and Emily and Bryan Jensen. McAllister and the Jensens were introduced to each other by a mutual friend in early 2014, and having a common interest in distilling, soon formed a partnership. They spent the balance of the year developing a business plan and most of 2015 doing community surveys. They acquired a number of local investors, many of whom contributed time and equipment. In early 2016 they set about renovating a 100-year-old building, and opened their doors to the public late in the year.

Located at 88 Jackson Street, in the shadow of Ninkasi Brewing, the building features an attractive tasting room the centerpiece of which being the "Thinking Tree" itself, a sculpture created by a local artist. The bar stools are interesting, having cast-iron seats modeled on 19th century farm equipment. The building also manifests another example of the partners' commitment to sustainability - the tasting room is kept warm by recycling the heat generated by the stills.

Most of the building's floor space is devoted to fermenting, distilling and barrel storage. There is a large pot still which appears have about a two hundred gallon capacity (I forgot to ask) as well as a column still (required to produce neutral spirit). The pot still is unusual in being equipped with a "doubler" (aka "thumper" because of the sound they make), a device which performs a simple second distillation (most of the big stills used by Kentucky Bourbon producers are equipped with these).
Kaylon McAllister with the Thinking Tree stills.
The production room includes a sturdy rack for the barrels used to age bourbon and rum. Barrels are of 30 and 52 gallon capacity.
Barrel storage at Thinking Tree. The small still is a Prohibition era unit, which McAllister acquired from an older relative.
At present, the only spirit available from Thinking Tree is "Mainstage" vodka, whose $32 price is right in line with other all-Oregon vodkas such as Stein's. Future products include a vapor-infused gin ("Genius"), a rum, and a bourbon (to be aged three years). A grape brandy is also reported to be in the works, but neither McAllister nor Emily Jensen mentioned this to me.

Thinking Tree Spirits appears to off to a good start, and I'm hoping it will be a successful enterprise, one that encourages other Oregon distillers to emulate their commitment to authenticity and sustainability.