Distillers share a wealth of local spirit

2011-06-15T09:15:00Z Distillers share a wealth of local spiritBy BENNETT HALL, Corvallis Gazette-Times Corvallis Gazette Times

Starting a new business can be a lonely undertaking. But building a new industry? That's a team sport.

That's the lesson Dawson Officer learned when he set out to launch his new venture, 4 Spirits Distillery. The 31-year-old Iraq War vet had a business degree, a desire to be his own boss and a yen to make his own liquor, but he really didn't know how to go about it. So he started asking people who did.

"I had lots of help from lots of people," Officer said. "In the Oregon distillery world, everybody helps everybody else."

Although better known for its Pinot noirs and microbrews, Oregon is emerging as a trailblazer in the craft distillery movement. With 44 licensed distilleries turning out everything from brandy and grappa to whiskey and gin, there's plenty of expertise out there, and Officer found plenty of people willing to share their knowledge.

4 Spirits - named in honor of fallen comrades from Officer's tour of duty as an Oregon Army National Guardsman in Iraq - became the newest member of that club when it delivered its first 32 cases of SlapTail and WebFoot vodkas on June 1 to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission for distribution.

Officer has set up shop in a cavernous concrete vault in Adair Village, about five miles north of Corvallis. It's part of an old Air Force installation built on the site of Camp Adair, where the Army trained thousands of soldiers for service in World War II. The 4 Spirits tasting room is decorated with historic photos from that era as well as shots from Officer's own days in the military.

Eventually he hopes to make whiskey, but that's a complicated process that requires years of aging before the liquor is ready for sale. So for now he's concentrating on his vodka, an 80-proof decoction that's charcoal-filtered for a smooth taste.

"It distills very, very slowly, and it filters very, very slowly," he said. "To do a batch of 50 cases, it'll take about a week."

That's the essence of craft distilling: small batches made by hand to produce a distinctive product with a personal touch.

Officer is proud of his vodka, which he describes as "martini grade," but he readily admits he might never have reached this point without the assistance of others in the industry - even potential competitors.

One of his mentors was Lee Medoff, a veteran of McMenamins Edgefield Distillery who started House Spirits in Corvallis in 2004. Buoyed by the success of his premium Russian-style Medoyeff Vodka, Medoff moved his business to Portland, where it scored another hit with Aviation Gin and became one of the cornerstones of the city's trendy Distillery Row. Last year he left House Spirits to launch a new venture, Bull Run Distillery, which has taken over production of Medoyeff Vodka and plans to add rum and whiskey to the lineup.

Officer also got advice from James Stegall and Dudley Clark of Hard Times Distillery, which uncorked its first batches of Sugar Momma Vodka in October.

Like Officer, the two ultimately want to make whiskey but started with vodka because it was the shortest route to a marketable product.

"We use a cane sugar and molasses base," said Stegall, whose distillery is housed in a former grain warehouse in Monroe. "It's like we're making a superlight rum, in a way, but we distill it like vodka."

And also like Officer, he and his partner found no shortage of willing collaborators to help them get started in the business, from equipment manufacturers to ingredient suppliers to other distillers.

"We really had to learn a lot," Stegall said. "And as we've learned more, people then have been approaching us."

And, as Officer's experience demonstrates, Stegall doesn't mind dispensing advice - even to another vodka-maker going into business just a few miles up the road from his distillery. The way he sees it, they're all in this together.

"There's a big push in Oregon to develop craft spirits, which I think is awesome," he said, pointing to the American Distilling Institute's decision to hold its annual craft distilling conference in Portland this year as a sign that the state's reputation is growing.

"It's like an all boats rise to the top kind of thing - it helps everybody."

Another big reason for the success of Oregon's small distillers is the way they've been embraced by the state's restaurateurs, who see homegrown spirits as an extension of the local food movement.

Cloud Davidson, owner of the Cloud 9 Restaurant and Downward Dog bar in downtown Corvallis, is a case in point. He prizes the high quality he finds with the area's craft-style brewers, winemakers and distillers, and he's proud to serve their wares to his customers.

"I pretty much try to carry it all," Davidson said. "There's so much great stuff in the Willamette Valley - I just try to stick to that."

He's already begun stocking 4 Spirits SlapTail Vodka (although not WebFoot, which could be a tough sell in Beaver country). He's happy to be able to help Officer get his new brand in front of the drinking public, not only because it fits his "all local, all the time" philosophy, but also because he's returning a favor.

When Davidson was launching Cloud 9 several years ago, Officer was working for U.S. Bank, where he helped arrange a business loan for the restaurant.

"It's a natural combination for all of us to work together to get this off the ground," he said.

Contact Bennett Hall at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

Copyright 2015 Corvallis Gazette Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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