Monday, January 11, 2010

Hard Times Distillery

New distilleries are popping up in Oregon faster than mushrooms after a summer rain. This time three years ago there were only ten; currently the number is approaching twenty five. Most are small, variously called "boutique", "craft", "artisan" or "micro" distilleries. We had one in Corvallis for a while (Ransom), during the early years of the 201st decade, but in 2004 it relocated to the greener pastures of McMinnville.

But just down the road, in the thriving metropolis of Monroe, another one is starting up. Located in a former granary just north of the Broadley winery, Hard Times Distillery will begin producing vodka and whiskey within the next few months.

It's been a year since owners Dudley Clark and James Stegall began the process of finding a location, obtaining the required permissions and permits from federal, state and municipal authorities, purchasing all the parts and pieces and assembling them into a functioning distillery. There are still a number of items yet to come in, such as a column for the second still and barrels for aging the whiskey, but they're getting very close.

Initially the partners plan to produce their spirits from rye. A number of vodkas are made from this grain (Sobieski, Square One, Belvedere) and rye whiskey has been around even longer than bourbon. Since the end of prohibition most rye whiskies are made partially from corn and malted barley (a typical "mashbill" being 60% rye, 30% corn and 10% malted barley). At Hard Times, however, the goal is to produce a 100% rye spirit. "I'm a purist," says Dudley Clark, "and I'd like to avoid using anything else."

The trick with this, of course, will be getting the rye starch to convert into sugar. Unless you add enzymes (something Clark hopes to avoid), then the mash needs to contain a portion of malted grain (grain allowed to partly germinate, which generates natural enzymes that convert starch to sugar). Barley malt is very good for this, rye malt not as much. As of January 10th, Clark has not made a final decision.

The next step is fermentation, and rye is a notoriously difficult grain to ferment, with a tendency to "ball up" into clumps. Clark is investigating solutions to this as well.

Their target for initial production is the end of February. High proof spirit will be produced and bottled as vodka, lower proof will go into barrels, ultimately to be bottled as whiskey. Some of the latter may be bottled in as soon as four or six months, not a long time for whiskey, but the partners need to recoup some of their investment. "We're pretty close to maxed out," says Clark.

Assuming all goes well, longer range plans might include wasabi-infused vodka, and a vodka made from wine. Perhaps even gin (dare we hope for a genever style?).

In any event, I plan to be first in line for both the vodka and the whiskey, and you'll be seeing my reviews here. Stay tuned.

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