I first visited Eastside Distilling in September 2011 when they were called Deco Distilling and all they had to offer was rum. It was fine rum and they made some tasty cocktails, but it was a day of dudes strolling Portland’s Distillery Row and it was the 4th place we visited. Things got murky that day.
A few months later, they re-christened themselves as Eastside Distilling and have been growing since. After their Belize-style Below Deck Rums (silver, coffee, ginger and spiced), they created Portland Potato Vodka, Burnside bourbon, Cherry Bomb whiskey, Marionberry whiskey and a set of holiday liqueurs. Production and sales have increased from 400 cases a year to 6400 cases annually.
I met with Eastside’s master distiller Melissa Heim. Having previously learned her craft as rum distiller at Rogue Spirits, she came to Eastside 3 years ago and recently signed a contract extension through 2020. With all of the talk of women in whiskey these days, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Heim is the only female master distiller west of the Mississippi.
Let’s get this out of the way: Eastside Distilling sources and blends their bourbon. They are open about this. Their hand-picked stocks come from multiple sources and range in age. The result is a customized flavor profile. Okay? Great, because it’s good juice. The Burnside Oregon Oaked Bourbon is quickly becoming my favorite “finished” bourbon.
Eastside Distilling’s new facility is located in Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District, just a few blocks from their previous location. At 41,000 square feet, it is 16 times larger that the old distillery and will be the “Pacific Northwest’s Largest Distillery and Tasting Room for Crafted Spirits.” Heim gave us a full tour of the new location. It is currently mostly empty as they prepare for the next stage of their build out to add 1200 and 800-gallon column/pot convertible stills and all of the ventilation, drainage, firewalls, etc. Plans also include a more automated bottling and labeling line.
There is a large tasting room and an event space planned. Eastside will also create a “Spirits Club” similar to the club memberships many wineries in the area offer. For about $60 per year, you get 4 bottles of spirits that will not be available to general public, access to a VIP area, in-house concerts and special events and more. Considering that you couldn’t get 4 bottles of their products for $60, this seems like a very good deal. Hopefully, this price doesn’t go up much before the club launches.
Most exciting was getting a sneak peek inside the Flavor Lab. Shelves are filled with coded bottles and jars containing various flavoring and aging experiments. We got to try…. well I can’t talk about that, but some very delicious juice.
A major part of the Eastside ethos is local collaboration. They have a partnership with Portland Roasting who are direct source purveyors for the coffee with which they make their Below Deck coffee rum. Heirloom apple cider from Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider provides a great base for a variety of apple distillates. (We could smell some heating in the still during our visit.) Gilgamesh Brewing‘s Hopscotch Ale has been turned into beer schnapps. Secret Aardvark Trading Co. (maker of my favorite habanero hot sauce) uses Eastside products in their Drunken Jerk and Drunken Garlic Black Bean sauces. A possible collaboration with Steven Smith teas may be in the works as well.
While they are working locally, they are thinking globally. Or at least continentally. Having recently expanded their sales nationally, there are also plans to open tasting rooms and satellite distilleries in Austin, Tampa, and Nashville. Currently, Eastside products are available in 6 states (Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington) and Canada.
Eastside’s tasting room opens daily at noon and there’s a streetcar stop right outside. Pretty convenient. With plans to open two permanent food carts in the parking lot, Eastside is hoping to become a drinking destination.