From the interstate highway that hums through the wind-scoured Columbia River Gorge, the town of Hood River’s most conspicuous building is the Full Sail brewery, with its large block letters reading “Tasting Room & Pub” and its logo of a wind-filled sheet. When it was founded twenty-two years ago, Full Sail stood at the forefront of Oregon’s, and the nation’s, microbrewing revolution. Yet its longevity fails to approach that of the weathered stone building just across the highway. There, in the Port of Hood River industrial park, the Northwest’s largest, longest-operating liquor manufacturer quietly churns away.
Hood River Distillers has been in the booze business since the summer of 1934, just twelve months after the repeal of Prohibition. Last year, Hood River produced 1.2 million cases of liquor, while the state’s second-largest producer, Bendistillery, made about twenty thousand.
Ron Dodge, Hood River’s fifty-one-year-old president and CEO, strolls alongside the clinking, clattering bottles filing endlessly down the production line. He started working here in the fall of 1980, some forty years after his grandfather, once a Portland cab driver, became a principal investor. Dodge has watched the company grow into an operation that bottles four hundred to five hundred cases per hour of what the company refers to as its value brands: HRD and Baron Rothschild vodkas, and the ubiquitous Northwest well brand Monarch. (On the line today is HRD Vodka, which costs $7.45 a bottle and is the best-selling spirit in Oregon.) The company produces its top-shelf brands on a smaller scale: Pendleton Whisky, Yazi ginger-flavored vodka, and Ullr, a new schnapps simply dubbed a “Nordic libation.”
“Basically, we’re the smallest of the big guys in the country,” Dodge says, explaining Hood River’s position as one of the last of the country’s regional distilleries.
He steps off the production floor and into the quality-control lab, where he sips a 190-proof neutral spirit from a thimble-size plastic cup. He chews a bit, then spits into a sink. From this distilled spirit, the company makes its vodkas and cordials—by blending it, charcoal-filtering it, and finally cutting it with Hood River’s famously clean tap water. The spirit itself, like many bottled here, arrived in a thirty-thousand-gallon railcar and was produced in the Midwest. That’s right: the largest licensed distillery in the Northwest no longer actually distills anything. It imports, remixes, bottles. Hood River Distillers sold off most of its stills in the late sixties and hasn’t really used one since, though this might soon change.