Portland, like many cities, has seen a steady rise in microbreweries and cideries appealing to bar patrons who are as interested in the craft of brewing as the taste of each pour. But breweries aren’t the only purveyors of craft alcohol. Thanks to places like Portland’s Distillery Row, a collection of eight small-batch distilleries, spirits are poised to steal some of the spotlight from their hoppy brethren.
Around 2009, multiple distilleries opened throughout the southeastern area of Portland. Small and locally run, each distillery was new to the business. “It was the Wild West. We didn’t have tourism or tasting rooms, and we had little guidance on how to do anything in such a young industry,” says Mike Heavener, president and co-founder of Distillery Row. Together, the distilleries found they could collaborate and pull resources for public familiarization, education, and events.
While you won’t find the distilleries in a neat row like the name suggests, all eight are located within a 2.5-mile stretch. (Click here to see a map.) For those not easily walkable, pedicabs provide quick transportation. There’s also a handy “passport” available for purchase online or at any Distillery Row location. The $20 passport covers the tasting fee at all locations, saving more than $30 over paying each individually—and unlike your real passport, this one doesn’t expire. In it, you can keep track of the unique liquors on offer.
Thomas & Sons Distillery, for instance, crafts multiple tea spirits—made from the fermentation of tea and sugar, then distilled in a low-pressure environment. The liqueurs might be sweet, spiced, or even smoked. Eastside Distilling produces everything from bourbon to a gluten-free potato vodka, but most unique is the marionberry whiskey, a deep red drink with fruit sourced from the Willamette Valley. Eastside uses all local and natural ingredients for its products, including the cherries in the Cherry Bomb whiskey.
Most distilleries offer tours in addition to tastings, and all participate in different events focused on introducing people to the spirits. For a hands-on experience, New Deal Distillery even offers a five-hour class on fermentation, distillation, and barrel-aging of small-batch whiskey.
If you’d rather skip the learning and go straight to the sipping, check out the “cocktail crawl” hosted by the collective the first weekend of every month. For the event, one distillery chooses a classic cocktail, and the others must create their own unique renditions of the libation. It’s a chance for each distillery to showcase its creativity and house liquors, and on top of that, a dollar of every drink sold goes to a nonprofit of the row’s choosing.
None of the distilleries have large distribution deals, which means you won’t always be able to find the spirits at your local grocery store. So if you like what you drink, purchase a bottle directly from the tasting room, where you can also get an idea or two for a cocktail you can make at home.
Visit distilleryrowpdx.com for a full list of distilleries and up-to-date event information.