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."

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