The world of American single malts is changing fast as more and more players enter into the space while those who already exist in it try to gel around what a common definition of this whiskey type might be. It certainly is something of Wild West times to be sure for producers brave enough to enter into these waters, and it is a place Oregon’s House Spirits has comfortably found themselves in for a few years now.
House Spirits, which moved into one of the Pacific Northwest’s large distillery buildings last year, was for awhile known for their Westward Whiskey, a self styled Oregon straight whiskey. Times have changed for their entry into this category, however, and the company recently introduced Westward American Single Malt Whiskey, a more grown up version that is in full 750 ml bottles. To learn more about it and House Spirits in general, we turned to co-founder Christian Krogstad with our questions. Note this interview is edited for clarity and brevity.
The Whiskey Wash: We’re here with Christian from House Spirits. Thanks for taking some time to talk with us.
Christian Krogstad: Absolutely.
TWW: We spent a little bit of time walking around the distillery, and you’ve been showing us some of the process that goes into making your single malt. Let’s talk a little bit first about the history of House Spirits. How did it get started? When did it get started? When did you guys decide to move towards the single malt category?
Krogstad: My background goes back in beverage alcohol to 1991. I started off as a beer brewer in Portland, working for McMenamins. I went to brewing school back in Chicago during that time. Always interested in beer. Brewers also love whiskey, because whiskey is often just a form of distilled beer.
In early 2000’s I was managing the brewery at McMenamins Edgefield. There was a distillery there. Lee Medoff was the distiller there. We were friends and I spent a lot of time up at the distillery hanging out, drinking whiskey and learning about it. We hatched the plan of starting House Spirits.
Our original plan was to be a malt whiskey distillery, but I was a fan of Excel and I built up a little cash flow projections and profits loss balance sheet going forward four or five years and just realized that to do a fairly modest small whiskey distillery that we’d need around, at that point I figured $3,000,000, which we didn’t have since we were self-funding on home equity loans and personal savings and credit cards. We re-thought it a little bit.
We knew we wanted to produce malt whiskey. But we knew we needed to do something else, something for cash flow and to keep the lights on. I think that’s a model that a lot of people have talked about more recently. When we started, there was something like 30 other craft distilleries in the country. There was a handful in Oregon but none of them were dedicated whiskey distilleries. We looked around and we saw what a couple of the people were doing with rectifying vodka as a way to get the process rolling.
Our date of first sale was August 27th of 2004. That was with a vodka, which was rectified and charcoal filtered purchased neutral grain spirit. We started right away working on other things. We had a couple of stills so we started playing around with gins, with aquavits. That’s how we got started. That’s the early history. The very bootstrap, very nimble. We had one plan going in to make malt whiskey but very quickly completely shifted to rectifying and redistilling gin, macerating and redistilling for gin.
We never forgot about the whiskey. Within the first year we put up our first couple barrels of whiskey.
TWW: When did the transition to malt whiskey begin in earnest?
Krogstad: From 2004 till 2010, for seven years we produced probably 60 total full-size barrels of whiskey, so not much. Averaging 10 a year. The transition really began in 2011 when I brought in our new partners along with investors. The problem is, in the first seven years, we were growing and our sales were growing and growing and growing. You would think that would give us the funds to produce more whiskey but in fact, all those funds that were coming in for the gin were needed to produce more gin and to support the gin. That model doesn’t work that well. You need actual outside investment to get into the malt whiskey business.
In the summer of 2011 Tom Mooney, whom I had met a year and a half earlier, became my partner along with an investor group, which was pretty exciting. We now weren’t reliant on just cash flow and profits to fill barrels. We had some actual investment, so we said “let’s fill as many barrels as we physically can.” Over the next three years we were filling 100 barrels a year, which was about as much as we could physically fill in our old location.
We went along filling some whiskey barrels, but our focus was still very much on [what had become known as] Aviation gin. That was growing really fast and really had a lot of potential. In 2011 is when we first started planning for and started taking whiskey more seriously. We knew that’s where our future was, so we started looking for a new location. We wanted to add some equipment. Our whiskey production had always, up to that point, started in a friend’s brewery where we make the wash and then truck it over and ferment at our place and distill at our place. We wanted to bring that in house. For a number of reasons, we needed a new, larger space.
We found a space in 2013, and it took us about a year and a half to move in. In the fall of 2015 we started production in our new facility that we’re sitting in now. In the first 12 months there we produced more than we had in the previous 12 years at the old distillery. We filled a little over 1,000 barrels in the first year.
What’s really cemented our transition was, that in fall of 2016, we sold the Aviation Gin brand. It had been our main focus and, was by far, our largest revenue source. Now we’re able to focus 100% on the Westward American whiskey. What I set about to do in 2002 I’m finally doing. I finally have a malt whiskey distillery.
TWW: So when Westward originally launched it was more an Oregon single malt. Now you’ve recently rebranded it as an American single malt. Can you talk a little bit about that decision. And is there a difference between the two?
Krogstad: We originally labeled our whiskey as Oregon straight malt whiskey because we met the TTB definition of a straight malt whiskey. But there is increasing interest in American single malt. I think that we wanted to help define that and move that category forward. We are American. Westward is American single malt whiskey from Oregon.
TWW: Talk a little bit about the mash bill of your whiskey. What goes into it?
Krogstad: It’s 100% malted barley of course. It’s 2-row pale ale malt. We source a little bit here and there from niche suppliers but the vast majority of it is coming from Great Western Malting, which is a division of GrainCorp. It is large malting facility in Vancouver, Washington that supplies most of the craft breweries in the Northwest.
They have a number of different products available. We have really selected the one that is our most favorite, the pale ale malt, which is a little more modified than their premium 2-row malt. It’s more like a English ale malt. It’s around 2.4 or 2.5 bulova blonde, a little more biscuity, nutty, a little more flavorful than typical 2-row malt. It also offers a slightly lower yield but not enough to matter to us.
TWW: What’s the aging process?
Krogstad: We’re doing a lot of experimenting right now. Our typical aging regimen is that, for starters the aggregate spirit run is around 68% alcohol. We cut it to 62% for barrel, so entry proof is 124 proof. We are aging in unused, full-size, 53 gallon, primarily two char barrels from Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky and aging for around four to five years. Some a little bit more. Some a little bit less. Basically four to five years.
TWW: Thank you for your time. We appreciate it.
Krogstad: Most definitely.