IN A CLUTTERED SOUTHEAST PORTLAND WAREHOUSE that serves as the vat-filled belly of New Deal Distillery, owner Tom Burkleaux reaches into a cardboard box and pulls out an unmarked glass bottle filled with liquid that used to be brown—that used to be beer. Now, distilled to 93 percent alcohol, this creation is clear and smells strongly of molasses. The taste is even more pungent. Sweet. Charred. “We don’t have a name for it yet,” Burkleaux says, sipping. “Beer schnapps?”
Like many makers of small-batch liquors, Burkleaux has a bit of mad scientist in him, but his intentions are serious: he plans to rescue vodka from the ghetto of overpowering mixers and reinvent it as a respectable, sippable beverage à la whiskey or tequila. And judging from his and other distillers’ experiments the reclamation of vodka seems to be in good hands. “[Before the trend of] craft beer, people had a very narrow idea of what beer could be—it’s the same way with vodka,” Burkleaux says. He pours shots of his award-winning, spice-infused Hot Monkey vodka and Mud Puddle chocolate vodka (to be released in June) side by side, then looks up confidently. “We’re not making mixers here.”
While New Deal relies on brainstorming left-of-center concoctions, Indio Spirits has infused its vodka with the sweet-tart flavor of marionberries. And then there’s Shane Thatcher of Artisan Spirits, who, while traveling in the wilds of Russia’s Volga Basin—a fourteen-hour train ride from Moscow—began to develop his own take on what Russians call “white whiskey.” He says, “My wife’s family comes from generations of beekeepers that live in that area, and they distill a honey spirit.” Back home, Thatcher began looking into trying to reproduce the spirit. The result was Apia, a vodka distilled from, not infused with, honey sourced in Estacada. Whether straight or over ice, Apia has a full-mouth, slightly sweet taste.
Around the same time he created Apia, Thatcher came up with Martin Ryan, vodka distilled with some of the Northwest’s best wines. Like Burkleaux, he realizes he’s challenging a legion of palates accustomed to drowning vodka in orange juice and soda. “We’re pushing the category a little bit, I know,” Thatcher says, “but once people try this stuff, they’re going to fall for it. Hard.” —BB