By: Becky Garrison
The recent sale of Aviation Gin to Diageo in August 2020 put the Portland, Oregon, distillery scene, and gin in particular, back on the national map. Aviation’s history can be traced back to 2004 when Christian Krogstad and his wife, Christina, launched House Spirits Distillery intend-ing to make American single malt whiskey. However, as whiskey requires a significant time in-vestment, they decided to generate some revenue by redistilling a neutral grain spirit-based gin that could be brought to market relatively quickly.
They chose to deviate from the other gins on the market at the time, which they found to be juni-per heavy. They began experimenting with different botanicals and spices in a quest to manufac-ture a truly American spirit.
“When I started a beer business, I learned from my brewing experience that you really have to innovate. You can’t just do what other people are doing,” Krogstad said.
A year later, Ryan Magarian joined the team and came up with the term “New Western Dry Gin.” The first taste of Aviation’s new style of gin was not juniper, but a balanced blend of bo-tanicals that included cardamom, coriander, French lavender, anise seed, sarsaparilla, juniper and two kinds of orange peel.
These botanicals are steeped in neutral grain spirit for about 18 hours and then combined with water and distilled in a steel still for about seven hours. The resulting product is 142 proof initial-ly but cut to 84 proof for bottling.
The name Aviation came from the iconic Aviation Cocktail created in the early twentieth centu-ry. Their bottle design, Krogstad noted, is “almost reminiscent of the Chrysler building in New York City,” and brings to mind the style of the TV series “Mad Men,” circa 1960.
In 2016, owners Christian Krogstad, Thomas Mooney and Ryan Magarian sold the Aviation brand to Davos and put their money and energies toward expanding production of Westward Whiskey. (Incidentally, Westward Whiskey is also partly owned by Diageo).
Cask Finished Gin at Copperworks Distilling Company
Jason Parker, first head brewer at Pike Brewing Company and co-founder of Copperworks Dis-tilling Company in Seattle, Washington, took a somewhat similar route to Krogstad when he founded Copperworks in 2013 with fellow craft beer maker, Micah Nutt. They began distilling their small batch gin so the proceeds could keep their business afloat until their American single malt whiskey matured and could be marketed. Their gin is distilled from a base of Washington-grown malted barley with a balance of juniper and hints of coriander, citrus and other exotic bo-tanicals.
They also began experimenting with cask finished gins. Copperworks New Oak Cask Finished Gin is finished for roughly three months in charred, new American Oak barrels, the same barrels used to age Copperworks’ single malt whiskies.
Cask finishing brings forward floral, coriander and cinnamon notes and softens the juniper. Also, the presence of caramel and vanilla comes from the barrel. “The other spices really pop forward, and you get this kind of burnt character to the orange. It’s really delicious,” Parker said.
This venture led to an experimental cask finished gin series that includes limited-edition gins fin-ished in casks that previously held spirits such as Laphroaig Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Caol Ila Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
Surveying Other Gins in the Pacific Northwest
In what appears to be a trend, Freeland Spirits in Portland, Oregon, founder Jill Kuehler also be-gan distilling gin while waiting for their bourbon to mature. Named in honor of Kuehler’s grandmother, Meemaw Freeland, this women-owned distillery seeks to capture the flavor of Meemaw’s garden gin. Kuehler’s team combines traditional heat distillation with vacuum distil-lation to turn fresh Pacific Northwest grains, ingredients such as cucumber, rosemary and mint, as well as other dried botanicals, into the small-batch gin. They also produce an award-winning canned gin and tonic cocktail, and Geneva, a spirit inspired by genever that showcases Oregon-grown rye with savory botanicals.
Scratch Distillery in Edmonds, Washington, was born out of Kim Karrick’s passion for making gin– from scratch–using locally sourced organic ingredients. Scratch Gin is crafted from the dis-tillery’s organic, non-GMO, wheat-based vodka, and vapor infused in the still using a gin basket. Customers can choose from a barrel-finished, martini-style or gin-and-tonic-style gin, depending on their taste preferences. Knowing that each person has a unique palette, Karrick also developed the GINiology program. Here, participants choose from more than thirty different botanicals, spices and other flavors to create a personalized gin to take home.
AJ Temple of Temple Distilling Company in Lynwood, Washington, distills his gin using a cus-tom stainless steel and copper bain-marie style pot still. This double boiler heating method lends an even and soft heat to the botanicals. Temple Distilling’s first and flagship spirit, Chapter One London Dry Gin, was made to showcase a love for old world-style gins. Other offerings include Navy Strength gin, aged in once-used bourbon casks, and a limoncello. Since Temple discovered citrus oils play better at higher strengths, they use fresh lime peel and dried grapefruit, as well as cassia bark for added body, when making their Navy Strength gin.
Rusty Caldwell, co-owner at 503 Distilling in Oregon City, Oregon, views gin like a calling card. Every distiller tells their story by showing what they find tasteful and elegant through their choice of botanicals. “Like wine, our Circa 17 gin tells the story of terroir,” Caldwell said. “Our use of Oregon juniper, fresh-cut spruce tips, gardened rosemary and other herbs represents a taste of our environment in the Pacific Northwest.”
Distilled in Seattle, Washington, Big Gin is named after founder and third-generation distiller, Ben Capdevielle’s father, Big Jim. The juniper, sourced in Italy, Albania and Macedonia, along-side cardamom, cassia, and Tasmanian pepperberry, gives the gin a complex peppery or spicy flavor, while the angelica, coriander and bitter orange peel add citrus and savory flavor. Now owned by Hood River Distillers, Big Gin offers a London Dry gin, along with Big Gin Bourbon Barreled, Big Gin Peat Barreled and other Big Gin Single Barrel releases.
Aria Gin: Dry London Gin Infused With the Pacific Northwest Spirit
In response to this ginned up craze, Aria Portland Dry Gin, established in 2012, set out to pro-duce a top-shelf classic dry London gin. As much as co-owner Ryan Csanky loved gins like Avi-ation, he found they did not work when he would make a classic martini for his older clientele.
“Distillers would use all these innovative and creative flavors like prickly pear, spruce tips and lavender, and build a drink around them. But they don’t always plug directly into some of the classic gin cocktails that people like,” Csanky said.
Rather than push the boundaries of flavor even further than Aviation, Csanky decided to pursue another route. “We had this aha moment where we decided to take a big step back and shift our focus to doing something that is not being done. For us, that was a high-quality, independently-made alternative to the mass-produced gins.”
They experimented with traditional English botanicals, searching for the right harmony and bal-ance in crafting a classic dry London gin. “I didn’t want the gin defined by a single ingredient or a single component of the flavor profile,” Csanky said. “The art of this gin is all about how we paint the picture with the botanicals.”
Two years into product development, they realized they did not need to use nearly as much product. So they moved away from the heavy-handed, intense flavors Csanky found were present in many independent gins, in favor of flavor combinations that were bold but also delicate. Even-tually, they settled on a recipe that combines the ten-ingredients they list on the bottle: juniper, coriander, angelica root, grains of paradise, cubeb berry, orris root, lemon zest, orange zest and cassia bark.
Presently, Csanky does not plan on distilling other products. “I don’t want to make a little bit of everything and do it all kind of decently. I want to make one thing and be known for doing it well.”
Moving forward, Caldwell of 503 Distilling offers a reflection on the future of gin. “One of the things I love about gin is that within recent years distillers–and consumers–have opened their minds to appreciating gin like they would whiskey. Until recently, gin has always been given the distinction of a mixer spirit, which means that it must be neutral enough to be blended into an-other substance. However, among craft distillers, there is now the trend to treat botanicals like a brewer treats hops.”