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First-time restaurateur Dawson Officer got his baptism by fire on Sunday, when the new 4 Spirits Distillery tasting room in South Corvallis held its soft opening.

He and his 15 employees were expecting a modest turnout for the unadvertised event, which was intended as something of a practice run to allow the kitchen, bar and wait staff to work out the kinks before this Saturday’s grand opening. But word got around, and instead of having a few dozen customers walk in the door, they found themselves hopping to serve a few hundred hungry and thirsty patrons.

“It was a little more than we anticipated,” a slightly shell-shocked Officer said on Wednesday. “It was quite the crowd.”

It was a new experience for Officer, who opened his craft distillery behind the Blockhouse in Adair Village in 2011. Although 4 Spirits held tastings by appointment at the old location, the new distillery is a different beast, with a full-fledged tasting room that’s open daily and a kitchen dishing up pub fare for lunch and dinner. It has seating for 49 customers inside, with outdoor tables available when the weather is nice.

While there were a few rough edges on Sunday, Officer said customer feedback “was about 92 percent positive” and his crew performed well under pressure.

“For a bunch of people who never opened a restaurant or had a bar, I think we’re doing pretty good,” he said.

Some longtime staff members are moving into new roles to meet the challenge of running a bar and restaurant. Sarah Wayt, who left the company for a time for a job with the Boulder falls Inn in Lebanon, is back as director of operations, and Shanan LeBre is moving from outside sales to bar manager. Mike Miller, formerly with American Dream Pizza, came on board as head chef and kitchen manager.

“There’s a lot of people who are stepping up,” Officer said. “It’s really great to see them getting behind us, getting behind 4 Spirits and making it a success.”

Built at a cost of $575,000, the new building is located at 3405 SW Deschutes Ave. in the Corvallis Industrial Park, next door to the Block 15 Brewery and Taproom. The 6,000-square-foot structure has four times as much space as the original distillery in Adair Village, which Officer plans to close. The addition of a new 150-gallon still brings 4 Spirits’ total to three and will allow the operation to double its production capacity.

A large interior window gives customers an unobstructed view of the stainless-steel stills and fermentation tanks in back, and the industrial look of the pre-engineered structure carries over into the front of the house with exposed steel beams, polished concrete floors and wall panels of corrugated metal.

The bar is fronted with a big sheet of rusty iron and topped with a clear-coated slab of weathered wood, both salvaged by Officer’s grandfather from an old log flume in Central Oregon. More of the reclaimed wood turns up in the form of shelving, window frames and trim, and some concrete countertops from the old distillery have been recycled for use in the tasting room.

Military touches abound, from the silhouetted soldiers of the 4 Spirits logo (which commemorates four fallen comrades from Officer’s service in Iraq with the Oregon Army National Guard) on the front door to light fixtures made from 105 mm artillery shells and wooden ammo boxes used to display branded merchandise.

Picture windows across the front of the building provide sweeping views of Marys Peak, and a roll-up garage door can be raised on warm summer days. The landscaping still is coming in, but once the grass is established, Officer plans to add lawn games to the distillery’s offerings.

The full 4 Spirits lineup of whiskey, rum and vodka takes center stage on the drink menu, with tasting flights of four half-ounce shots available for $5. The distillery’s products are also showcased in creative variations on classic cocktails, some featuring ingredients from other local artisan producers such as Vivacity Spirits Turkish Coffee Liqueur and Spiritopia Ginger.

“We take the traditional ones like a white Russian or an old-fashioned and make it really different,” Officer said.

Beer and wine are also available, but the selection is limited — intentionally so.

“We are a distillery, not a brewery — people need to remember that,” Officer said. “So we are cocktail-forward, not beer-forward.”

The food is a little different, too, in part because the distillery’s industrial zoning limits the type of exhaust hoods that can be used in the restaurant, meaning grilled meats are off-limits — which explains the steamed hamburger on the menu. Other offerings include chicken and waffle bites, a smoked chicken sandwich, a mini-pizza, stuffed tater tots and vegetarian items such as salads and a grilled plum and goat cheese sandwich.

The menu will grow over time and will change with the seasons, Officer said.

The location is a bit off the beaten track, but Officer thinks it will provide a “viable option” for local residents looking to expand their drinking and dining horizons beyond the downtown Corvallis restaurant scene. And it helps to have an established draw like the Block 15 Brewery and Taproom right across the parking lot.

“With Block 15 and us being neighbors, it creates a destination,” Officer said. “It’s different, and it’s bringing something new to southtown.”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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