House Distillers occupies a nondescript space on SE Seventh Avenue that once housed a food-photography studio and, before that, an automotive shop. Tucked within the mini-skyline of vats and rows of raw-oak barrels is a small kitchen with a bar. We’ve barely arrived when House co-owner Christian Krogstad starts pulling out jiggers, a juicer, some limes, elderflower liqueur, gin, sugar, a julep strainer, ice. He loads it all into a Boston shaker and reefs the hell out of it over his left shoulder (a six-second shake is optimal).
We get a gimlet, and then we get a sidecar made with Clear Creek Distillery pear brandy. Clear Creek is across town, and is owned by another fella, Stephen McCarthy, but good distillers know when to give a competitor his due, especially when the competitor is widely credited for starting the whole Oregon microdistilling scene. “If you’re by yourself, it’s a novelty, a curiosity,” Krogstad is saying. “Get eight distilleries in town and it’s a movement.”
With five of these eight craft distilleries located on and around SE Seventh Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard, the area is already becoming known as the Distillery District. What a lot of Portlanders may not know is how accessible the distilleries are—most open up regularly for tours, tastings, and retail. In House’s “apothecary,” for instance, you’ll find not only their liquors for sale, but also absinthe spoons, cocktail shakers, and T-shirts alongside display jars of star anise, caraway, limestone, lavender, and other materials that help make the company’s spirits.
The distillery entrepreneurship of course follows the microbrewery boom of two decades ago, when brewers started crafting beers with local grains and water, and with the do-it-yourself mind-set that has come to characterize Portland. “People recognize that microdistilleries are going the same direction as breweries did, but faster,” Krogstad says. He and other members of the Oregon Distillers Guild (the only such guild in the nation, it turns a year old this month) are betting that even if craft distillers can’t out-shout the marketing of international powerhouses like Grey Goose, they’ll command a following if they simply continue making good liquor. “It took a while for beer drinkers to realize that a locally made beer can be as good as anything made in St. Louis,” Krogstad says. “That’s where craft distillers are now.” Here’s a guide to who’s making what. —Paige Williams