For many craft distilleries, gin is a temporary means to an end. Gin doesn’t need to be matured prior to sale, which makes it an attractive spirit for new distilleries who can mass produce the stuff and quickly get something on the market. But the folks at Aviation American Gin didn’t want to do anything else — gin is their passion, and their distillery in Portland is a great place to visit for any lover of the botanical and flavorful spirit.
While Deadpool himself, Ryan Reynolds, might be the most recognizable face behind this brand, it was actually around for nearly a decade before he got involved.
Christian Krogstad had a background in brewing, having spent 13 years in breweries and the beer business. In 2002, one of the breweries he was working at decided to invest in a small still to make whiskey out of some of their beers, and Krogstad had a resulting epiphany that distilling was the life for him. Together with business partner Ryan Magarian, they founded House Spirits Distillery in 2004 in the small town of Corvallis, Oregon. The pair quickly moved their facility to Portland in 2005, opening a facility on Distillery Row (an area that boasts the highest concentration of craft distilleries in the world).
While whiskey production was the original eventual goal of the distillery, they also needed to make money in the meantime. As with most small distilleries, they turned to making unaged spirits and one of their first products was Aviation Gin. Named for the classic gin-based cocktail that was first written about in 1916, the distillery crafted their blend of botanicals specifically to be the perfect spirit to use in the drink. Introduced in 2006, the gin quickly gained popularity and became the distillery’s flagship product and enabled them to move to an even larger facility in 2015 in Portland’s industrial district.
The following year, the brand was purchased by New York based distributor Davos Brands, but continued to be produced by House Spirits Distillery (accounting for a reported 40% of the distillery’s total production). This is where actor Reynolds entered the picture: as the story goes, he was enjoying his favorite cocktail (a negroni) at a local bar in Canada while filming the movie Deadpool and was surprised that the drink tasted better than ever. After interrogating the bartender he learned that the secret ingredient was Aviation American Gin, and as a result the actor bought a portion of the ownership stake from Davos Brands in 2018.
The brand was further sold to the British spirits giant Diageo in 2020 with Ryan Reynolds reportedly maintaining an ongoing ownership stake, but the specific size of that stake is not disclosed.
The Aviation American Gin Distillery is located in an industrial part of town, west of the river near the northern extent of the city. There aren’t really any options for public transportation in that area, meaning that your best option is to take a taxi or a rideshare to the distillery. There is some parking available on-site, but the parking lot is rather small.
Things To Do At The Distillery
The Aviation American Gin Distillery is a beautifully designed building featuring a large front room where guests can enjoy a selection of cocktails featuring their gin as the star element — including the eponymous aviation cocktail. There are plenty of tables available in addition to the bar area for groups to sit, and walk-ins are accepted.
There’s even a charcuterie vending machine in the corner of the room offering a selection of cheese and meats that can accompany the spirits on offer.
One thing to note is that, due to Oregon liquor laws at the time I went to the distillery, visitors were only allowed a limited quantity of alcohol per day. As a result, every adult of drinking age is tagged at the door with a wristband that has five rip-off tags which are removed when each drink is purchased. Bartenders serve pre-mixed drinks in set pours to ensure that they maintain compliance, but that didn’t have a huge impact on the ability to enjoy them.
In addition to the bar, a distillery tour is offered where guests can learn about the distillery’s history and their manufacturing process. The tour is informative and entertaining, with bad jokes galore, and even ends in a custom-designed escape room. The room is themed like Reynolds’ office and a large animated painting of him issues the instructions for the room. It was a fun way to end the tour, it was definitely something I hadn’t seen on a distillery tour before, and didn’t feel like too much of an imposition for those who might not be inclined to participate.
Space on tours is limited, and tickets are available for purchase in advance. I was able to snag a spot with less than a day’s notice, but I do recommend pre-booking before you go to make sure you’ll be able to get on the list.
The Distillation Process
Gin is a re-distilled spirit — flavorings are added to raw alcohol, which is then re-distilled into the crystal clear gin that we see on the shelves. As is common for large scale gin distilleries, House Spirits Distillery doesn’t actually distill their raw spirit themselves, but instead have 191 proof neutral grain spirit shipped in from other manufacturers. As such, for Aviation, their process really starts with their botanicals.
Aviation Gin is made using seven different ingredients: cardamom, coriander, French lavender, anise seed, sarsaparilla, juniper (in the cloth bag in the photo above), and two kinds of orange peel. These ingredients are blended together in just the right proportions and placed into large cloth bags roughly the size of a heavy punching bag.
According to the distillery, the distillers used to beat these bags with wooden two-by-fours to break up the juniper berries and other ingredients and express the essential oils prior to distillation. One day, their wrists and hands were getting tired from the workout and they started to ask whether it was possible to put some handles on the wooden boards to make them easier to swing. In response, someone pointed out that cricket bats would be ideal for the job — and they have been using the sports equipment ever since. For that reason, all around the distillery you’ll find cricket bats mounted to the walls in honor of the practice.
Once properly pulverized, the large cloth bags are then placed into the central tank of a three tank maceration contraption (pictured above). The two tanks on either side are filled with neutral grain spirit, which is then circulated through the central tank allowing the herbal elements to infuse into the spirit. This process takes about 48 hours to reach the right flavor profile prior to distillation.
For their distillation run, the spirit is pumped from the holding tanks into a pair of Italian manufactured copper pot stills (named Ryan and Blake after the actor-owner and his wife). These stills are heated using hot water and steam, and the distilled spirits are condensed using the two tall column-shaped condensers on either side. Distillers monitor the output, discarding the “heads” and “tails” of the distillation run and capturing only the pure “hearts” of the newly made gin.
The spirit is then pumped into a trio of holding tanks, where filtered local water is used to proof down the gin to the proper alcohol content for bottling.
While it might seem off the beaten path, in my experience it was less than a ten minute ride from the Oregon convention center and well worth the trip. The distillery itself was beautifully designed, the atmosphere was fun and exciting, and the staff was amazing. I’d absolutely recommend putting it on your list of things to do if you find yourself in Portland.