I’ve spent a good amount of time in Bend, Oregon. In a former blogging life, I was sent there every year in the summer months to cover a local event, staying in the deserted local ski lodges and enjoying the crisp clean air. It’s one of my favorite places — so naturally, when I saw that there was a local craft distillery making whiskey there, I knew I needed to give it a try.
Bend, Oregon is a beautiful town on the high plains of Oregon, just on the other side of the mountains from Portland. Born and raised in the area, Brad Irwin and his wife decided in 2009 to start a distillery in the area to capture some of the local essence and bottle it so that others can get a taste of that unique character.
The distillery is a locally owned business, focused on using locally sourced ingredients and water sourced from the Cascade Mountains to produce a truly local craft distilled whiskey.
This whiskey starts as a blend of locally sourced winter wheat, rye, and malted barley. Exactly what proportion of each isn’t disclosed but, given that this is marketed as a wheat whiskey, the assumption is that the majority of the grain bill is from that wheat.
Once milled and cooked, the grains are fermented on-site in Bend and then batch distilled in their pot still. From there, the output is aged in new American white oak barrels for a period of four years, where the wild temperature swings between day and night in the high desert encourage the flavors from the barrel to be imparted into the whiskey.
There’s some things I like about this bottle, but it also hits some of my pet peeves.
The bottle itself is a cool design, slightly more portly than the average liquor bottle. It’s a square design with a thick glass base (which should look great on an under-lit bar back), rounded edges and corners, and a short neck. The bottle is capped off with a wood and cork stopper.
The label is nice — but also a little big for my taste. Especially with a craft whiskey, I usually like to see a little bit more of the whiskey shine through, since that beautiful color is part of what we’re paying for. The label is large and takes up the entire middle section of the bottle, with just a bit of whiskey peeking through around the top and bottom.
As for the art, I like the style they are going for here. The big dark mountain does a good job evoking the mountain range that dominates the Bend area, and the distillery name is printed on the label in a reflective metallic gold ink. The specific type of whiskey is metallic as well, but blue instead of gold. Looking at their other offerings, it looks like they have a specific color for each variety, which is a nice touch.
Wheat whiskey tends not to be as over-the-top-sweet as corn based spirits, and this seems to follow that trend. This dark amber colored whiskey does have a bit of brown sugar and vanilla goodness in the richer-than-usual aroma, but there’s also some crisp apple that brightens things up as well as a bit of cinnamon to give it a festive feel.
Taking a sip, the spirit is definitely much more even and smooth than a heavier bourbon. There’s an initial hit of apple and cinnamon spice, which turns a bit more towards black pepper and develops a bit of a kick as the rye content starts to shine through. Throughout, there’s that vanilla and a bit of caramel flavor from the charred oak barrel that provides a nice consistent baseline, and that deep charred aspect really comes through the more you sip, providing a richer and more chocolate-y experience.
The malted barley brings up the rear, with a finish and aftertaste like you just took a bite of some sourdough bread.
With a touch of ice, things change. Typically, the more delicate flavors are chased away and the bolder aspects toned down. However, only half of that is true here.
Sure enough, the sweeter and lighter flavors have dropped out of the running, leaving only the darker and richer aspects. There’s the caramel and vanilla from the oak barrel here, and a heavy helping of rich charred oak that gives it some depth. But that’s really it.
In fact, I almost want to say that the darker, richer aspects are accentuated here rather than toned down. Without the light crisp and sweet apple flavor to balance it out, the charred oak flavor is free to go wild. On its own (just on the rocks), this might be a problem — but I’m interested to see what happens with the cocktails.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
A muddled sugar cube with some angostura bitters turns this whiskey into an old fashioned, one of the most basic of cocktails on the menu. And I think this really works well.
Personally, I find that darker and richer tones do better in an old fashioned. It balances out better with the angostura bitters, and you can brighten it up with a splash of orange zest if things are too far out of whack. But in this case, it’s a rich and dark old fashioned like you’d expect in a dimly lit 1950’s lounge.
The biggest components of the flavor that come through are those smoky charred oak notes — but I also think the apple is making a comeback. Maybe the bitters are reinforcing it just enough to be noticeable again? Either way, I dig it. And the black pepper spice from the rye content, combined with the cinnamon aspects we saw earlier, adds some really interesting and complimentary flavors.
There are two things I’m looking for in a whiskey here: first, if the whiskey can balance out the bitterness of the ginger; second, if it brings any flavors to the party that weren’t there before.
As for the first test, there’s a bit of a hiccup. There isn’t enough sweetness in this whiskey to start with in order to balance that bitterness, so things are still a bit tangy. Add a splash of lime juice and things definitely don’t get better. But the flavors themselves go well — the darker richer notes balancing the bright cheerfulness of the ginger.
What’s really nice is the finish. There’s just enough of that black pepper spice from the rye content to add a bit of a kick on the end. It’s subtle and not very bold, but definitely there.
This is a really well put together wheat whiskey. Thanks to that long aging process, the flavors here are well saturated and bold — just without the sweetness you usually find in a bourbon. In some instances that combination works, but in others (like the mule) it can be a bit of a detriment. On the whole, though, I think this is a whiskey that really works well.
|Oregon Spirit Wheat Whiskey|
Produced By: Oregon SpiritProduction Location: Oregon, United States
Classification: Straight Whiskey
Aging: 4 Years
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $36.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
Like having a campfire in an apple orchard.