Friday, April 13, 2012

ANOTHER Distilled in Oregon Bourbon!

Some weeks ago, while visiting Big Y Liquors in Eugene, I spotted another made-in-Oregon bourbon, C. W. Irwin. No age statement on the bottle meant that it was at least four years old (twice as old as Stein), and, at $28, $10.45 less expensive. Brought a bottle home.

Nose was recognizably bourbon in character, taste was caramel corn, butterscotch and a hint of rye. On the finish there was this slightly resiny thing going that had me wondering about barrel size and how long the staves had been seasoned.

Over the next couple of weeks, subsequent samplings showed progressively less of the resin character.

Efforts to reach the distillery owner, Brad Irwin, were not successful until late Monday, March 12. I conducted a brief interview, but backyard activities that and several more weekends (French drain project), busy work week (auditors coming on March 27th), and trip out of town the weekend of March 24 (wedding anniversary) got in the way of compiling notes and posting this report.

The Irwin bourbon (distillery name is Oregon Spirit Distillers) is a four grain whiskey (58% corn, 8% rye, 17% wheat and 17% malted barley). Distilled at 140 proof and entering the barrel at 125, it's put in 30 gallon barrels for four years. There might be some set aside for longer aging (Brad would neither confirm nor deny). Bottling proof is 80.

Choice of 30 gallon barrel is based not so much on the slightly higher ratio of surface area to volume (20% compared to a 53 gallon barrel) but on the capacity of Brad's still, which produces about 26.7-26.8 gallons of 140 proof spirit per batch. Bringing this down to 125 results in 30 gallons. The other reason is that it's a one man operation, and Brad finds the smaller barrels a lot easier to manage.

Barrels come from The Barrel Mill, a Minnesota outfit that plants four trees for every one it cuts (sustainability being an important factor when dealing with us Oregonians). The whiskey barrels use wood seasoned for three years and have a #3 char.

Storage is in the 4,000 square foot distillery building, which is unheated. The distillery is located in Bend. It's a little warmer there than in Joseph (location of Stein distillery). Barrels are stored in two-level racks.

Production is about 20 30gal barrels per month.

"C. W. Irwin" is Brad's older brother. The bourbon is named after him because "his initials sound better than mine." I refrained from asking Brad if his middle name started with an s.

In addition to bourbon, Irwin produces "Oregon Spirit" vodka ($27.95), a marionberry liqueur ("Black Mariah", $33.35), and a Genever type gin ("Merrylegs", $29.95). This last is made in an "oude genever" style, using a mash of 85% malted barley and 15% wheat, and is distilled at 160 proof.

I decided to try a comparison between the Irwin bourbon and something equivalent. There being no 4/80 bourbons around priced over $20, I picked up a small bottle of Jack Daniels Black Label ($23.45/750ml in OR). Side-by-side, I wouldn't say one is better than the other, just different. Like the Jack Daniels, the Irwin's youth-imparted strong character would work well with cola or in other mixed drinks.

Compared to other Oregon whiskeys, it's way out in front, being both older than any others that I know of, and costing less than most.

I guess my final take on it is that it's a competent four year old bourbon, something I'd take on a fishing trip. Some of this on the rocks would be pretty good after a hard day of pulling in big rainbows, so I'll be taking it with me when I head down to Diamond Lake in May.

OLCC Product codes:
0753B C. W. Irwin Bourbon
6754B Oregon Spirit Vodka
0188B Black Mariah Marionberry Liqueur
0752C Merrylegs Gin

Blue Sky

Since arriving here in early 2007, we'd been hoping to find a good Chinese restaurant here in Corvallis. Most we'd tried were acceptable, but only that.

Early in February Kathy had lunch at Blue Sky and was pleased with the food and service, so we had dinner there the following Saturday.

Located at the northeast corner of the strip mall anchored by Bi Mart on Philomath Boulevard, the interior is restrained and not burdened with the over-the-top faux Chinese decor that typifies many such establishments.

We arrived at 7:40pm and were seated a couple of minutes later. We gave our orders at 7:47. Our appetizers arrived at 7:53 and were served hot. We'd ordered Crab Rangoon, which was flaky and crisp and had a good, consistently smooth filling, and a pork filled steamed bun, which was also good, being neither too gooey nor too dry.

Our entrées arrived at 8:00. Kathy had ordered a mushroom and beef dish. The vegetables in this were fresh and the beef good, though the seasoning was a little milder than she would have liked. She also would have liked more snow peas.

I've encountered a couple of reviews of Blue Sky that criticized the vegetables-to-meat ratio (as in, not enough of the latter). Perhaps they've over reacted to this; there was more than enough beef, and not enough of the tasty snow peas.

Likewise my Mongolian Beef had a good ratio of meat to onions. The beef had a very pure flavor, almost steak like, and the seasoning was spot on (at least for me).

All in all we were quite pleased with the food and service. It's not the best oriental restaurant we've visited (that was in San Francisco), but definitely the best in Corvallis, and it's probably going to be our go-to choice.

Blue Sky also offers take-out and delivery. (541) 752-7528

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Well, it's the real article! Genuine Bourbon, distilled in Oregon. Aged in the keg.

I've always hoped someone would produce bourbon and/or rye whiskey here in the Beaver State. Sure, there are some whiskeys made here. Best known is Clear Creek's "McCarthy's Single Malt", a three-year-old highly peated barley malt whiskey in the Islay style. House Spirits has produced a 2.67 year old unpeated malt. Then there's Rogue's "Dead Guy Whiskey", which spends a mere 30 days in the barrel and tastes like it too. But none of these are my preferred type of whiskey, and all are too young.

Yes, there are bourbons on the shelf that purport to be Oregon products. There's "Big Bottom Whiskey" and, from Bull Run Distillery (best known for its Medoyeff Vodka) we have "Temperance Trader".  Neither of these are distilled in Oregon, but are whiskey purchased in bulk from Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana, a mega distillery that produces no brands of its own, instead providing whiskey under contract for other companies (Seagram's Seven is made there).

So, three weeks ago, when I spotted Stein Bourbon at a local liquor store, my initial reaction was skepticism. Looking more closely at the label, it did, however, clearly state that it was "Micro-Distilled in Joseph, Oregon". I was tempted to buy it then, but decided to do a little research first.

I visited the Stein website and followed that up with an E-Mail exchange and phone call with Austin Stein. I learned that it was in 2006 that he and his wife Heather, owners of a 150 acre farm in NE Oregon, decided they wanted to get into the distilling business. Navigating the byzantine process of getting all the federal, state and local permits took a couple of years, so it was not until 2009 they constructed their distillery building and began production.

The Steins grow rye, wheat and barley, and - as much as possible - rely on their own harvest to produce their distilled products.

First on the market was their 100% rye vodka. This goes for $30.65, and it's reported to be a good one, with rye aroma and flavor detectable to those with keen senses. However, I can't personally attest to this, because I've never spent $30+ for a vodka, and don't expect I ever will. Fortunately for me, there are good rye vodkas on the market that cost a lot less.

The Steins also began producing bourbon using a mashbill of 75% corn (purchased from another local farmer) and 25% unmalted barley (starch-to-sugar conversion being done by enzymes), as well as a rye whiskey (75% rye, 25% corn). The Steins have two, five and ten year aging programs for these.

The two year old whiskeys were released in late 2011, and it's the bourbon that I found at the liquor store on Washington Avenue. Both whiskeys are priced at $38.75, which - let's face it - is a lot for a two year old whiskey.

So it took me a week to talk myself into buying one. Receiving my mid-month paycheck on the 13th, I felt flush enough to buy one the following Monday. 

The nose is a mix of corn and hay, and on the palate it's a bit rough around the edges, due to its (lack of) age. The high percentage of barley makes itself known, imparting a slight cereal element that reminds me of some Irish whiskeys.

Is it worth $39? Well, that's a personal decision, I guess. If you're someone who wants to "buy Oregon" and have the disposable income to do it, then its price is not out of line for Oregon whiskey. The McCarthy goes for $50, and it's my recollection that the House Spirits whiskey went for $45. Rogue charges $40 for the abominably bad Dead Guy.

Speaking strictly for myself, $39 for a two-year-old bourbon is too much. My frame of reference is very much a value oriented one, and there are a number of very good bourbons available that can be had for that price or lower.

The Stein bourbon is also available in "white dog" (unaged) form, as "Steinshine Corn Whiskey", for $25.80.

The Steins also produce a light rum ($21.95), made from brown sugar. Some has been diverted to barrels that previously held bourbon, and will be released as an aged rum in a couple of years.

Using a neutral spirit base (made from wheat), they also make four liqueurs, a blackberry, a raspberry, a huckleberry, and even a rhubarb (!).

The vodka, whiskeys, and rum are all 80 proof. The liqueurs are 40 proof.

I'll probably get some of the rum before summer, and I'm intrigued by the rhubarb liqueur. But as for the whiskey, I think I'll wait for the longer aged versions. I plan to be first in line when the five-year-old bourbon and rye are released in late 2014, and likewise (probably leaning on a walker) when the ten-year-old versions are released in 2019.

Odds are against anything other than the Stein vodka and bourbon being stocked at local liquor stores, but you can always order the other products. Here are the OLCC product codes:

7395E     Stein Blackberry Liqueur       $23.50
6308E     Stein Huckleberry Liqueur     $24.85
7397E     Stein Raspberry Liqueur          $23.50
6842E     Stein Rhubarb Liqueur              $23.50
0241B     Stein Rum                                          $21.95
0580B     Stein Straight Bourbon           $38.75
0581B     Stein Straight Rye Whiskey   $38.75
7408B     Stein Vodka                                     $30.65
0610B     "Steinshine" Corn Whiskey         $25.80

Stein Website

Note: the title of this article is a paraphrasing of a Rooster Cogburn line from the book "True Grit" (I don't believe it appeared in either of the movie versions). The original line is: "Well, it's the real article! Genuine, double-rectified bust head. Aged in the keg."