Editor’s Note: This whiskey was provided to us as a review sample by Crater Lake Spirits. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy link towards the bottom of this review our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.
“Living at its best” is the tourism slogan for the central Oregon city of Bend. It is home to 22 breweries and four distilleries–remarkable for a city of only 108,000 residents. The undisputed heavyweight of the Bend brewing scene is Deschutes Brewery, founded in 1988. Since then, it has grown to be an industry leader in craft beer. While many craft breweries were trying to create a name for themselves with pale ales, lagers, IPAs, or ambers, Deschutes created a porter beer that quickly became a nationwide favorite. With its rich vanilla, chocolate, and cream notes, Black Butte Porter exploded in popularity. The question you may be asking is: what does this have to do with whiskey?
Deschutes Black Butte Porter caught the eye of Jim Bendis, the man instrumental in helping to change Oregon law around craft distilling. “He looked around and asked why ‘is no one distilling in Bend?’” said James Padillo, National Sales Manager for Crater Lake Spirits, “so he changed that.” He worked on changing the law and worked on what to distill. Why not start with a product from your own back yard, Deschutes Black Butte Porter?
Porters, as it turns out, have a grain mash containing a high amount of sugar for yeast to ferment into alcohol. Combined with the rich flavors of the beer, that makes porter is a particularly appealing style of beer to distill. Which is exactly what Mr. Bendis did. He bought a keg of porter and distilled it to create a personal barrel of whiskey. Legend tells the whiskey he made was bad, but the idea was good. A couple decades or so later and Bendis’ former distillery, Bend Distilling, now Crater Lake Spirits, released Black Butte Whiskey.
I was fortunate enough to have an interview with James Padillo of Crater Lake. He walked me through what exactly makes this whiskey unique, and rather iconic for the city of Bend, Oregon. As it happens Deschutes and Crater Lake were able to come together in the creation of this whiskey. Beer is in all reality a bad base for a whiskey: hops are extremely bitter, there are sugars which can’t be broken down in beer, and the low proof point of beer make using traditionally brewed beer a bad base for whiskey. To make an effective distillate for whiskey you need an alcohol content above 12%. So, Deschutes worked with Bendis and Crater Lake Spirits to create a non-hopped version of their porter to which they double pitch the yeast to bump the alcohol content up to 12-14%.
Deschutes sets it up, and Crater Lake does the rest. Running through their small combo still, which Padillo describes as a “Frankenstein’s monster still; it’s not good at anything, but it can do everything,” they create a 60 proof or 30% alcohol wash. After that, it goes through their larger main still to bump the proof up to 140, or 60% ABV. Once barreled it enjoys the intense climate of Bend, with hot summers and snowy winters. Pedillo believes they lose over 15% to the angels share in just five years. “This is why our whiskey tastes older than it is. You get the oak flavor of an 8- or 9-year whiskey, despite not being that old.”
“We were basically just impatient, which is why our first release was a three-year,” says Padillo. “We did a distillery only release that first year (2017) and sold out in 29 minutes. Which got us thinking, we should really ramp this up!” Flash forward to today, and they’ve gained some patience and the whiskey has a five-year age statement, but the fanfare has not diminished. They still have a distillery and brewery releases every December before the whiskey is shipped to 34 states across the country. “The lion’s share remains in Oregon” says Padillo, which is good news for those in the Beaver state as only 1,000 cases of this whiskey are produced each year, which translates to right around 6,000 bottles nationwide.
The good times don’t just end with the whiskey. Deschutes receives the used Black Butte Whiskey barrels to age a specialty imperial Black Butte Porter they call Black Butte³ (Cubed), a very limited release. Crater Lake and Deschutes make quite the team in the Central Oregon wilderness as they continue to innovate off each other. Padillo says this isn’t the end of innovation with Crater Lake Spirits. They are planning on higher age statements, a barrel proof expression of the Black Butte Whiskey, and even experimenting with juniper (which grows wild in Bend) to create some smoked malts in the near future (though he gave me no timeline, saying “we don’t rush products here”).
As we ended the call, Mr. Padillo had one recommendation for me. “Drink your first glass, but grab a Black Butte porter to use as a chaser with your second glass. If you weren’t sure about the porter influence initially, you’ll really experience the full flavor of the whiskey when paired with the beer.”
Tasting Notes: Black Butte Whiskey
Vital Stats: 100% malted barley. Distilled by Crater Lake Spirits, 47% ABV, five-year age statement. Whiskey is aged in virgin oak cask with a level 4 char. MSRP is $74.99.
Color: Rich amber with medium legs which grip the glass evenly.
Nose: Opens nicely. Very approachable, with warm vanilla and chocolate notes. The porter aroma is very present in the nostrils. It lingers with warm sugar spice and a subtle hint of that level four char.
Taste: Sweet, chocolatey and creamy. Vanilla, wheat bread, brown sugar are all present across the tongue. The mouthfeel is even if a little thin–it’s not watery, but doesn’t cling to my teeth or feel oily. The porter profile is unmistakable, as Padillo forecasted. This is a unique whiskey, most of the notes we expect to find in whiskey aren’t very present here. There is almost no leather, char, baking spices or caramel. The after taste is a delightful whisper reminding you there is another sip in the glass.
This is what any distillery looking to make a beer-based whiskey should emulate. Beer based whiskies are their own category to me. You’re taking a fully formed product and trying to turn it into something wholly different. What makes Black Butte Whiskey different is the collaboration with Deschutes. They aren’t using kegs of a random retail IPA or amber ale, they worked with Deschutes who brewed a specific variant of their flagship porter to only be used as a base for this whiskey.
That, to me, makes all the difference. It’s a specialty whiskey, fun and flavorful on every sip. For a beer-based whiskey it’s very good.
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Charles Steele is a Portland area attorney, born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. His legal education affords him an analytical approach to understanding whiskey and other aged spirits. Traditionally a legal writer, freelancing for The Whiskey Wash will prove a unique opportunity to flex his writing skills. Although he...