No conversation about spirits in Portland—and Oregon as a whole—is complete without talking about pioneering House Spirits Distillery (https://housespirits.com). Christian Krogstad was early to the craft-distilling “game,” opening the distillery in 2004 after years as a brewer and winemaker—with a passion for cocktails and food on the side.
To this day, Krogstad and crew produce every spirit in-house, dedicated to ethically sourced ingredients. Amid a number of experiments over the years, they produce Westward American Single Malt Whiskey, Volstead Vodka, Krogstad Aquavit and their 2017 rum release, Casa Magdalena. Krogstad’s flagship brand, Aviation American Gin, was eventually sold. This gin was a product he created in 2006 with bartender Ryan Magarian, a unique and first of its kind collaboration distiller-bartender spirit when it was first released.
Demand continued to grow beyond supply as they produced for years in their Portland distillery. In November 2015, they opened a larger, $6-million distillery on PDX’s Distillery Row, making House Spirits the largest distilling operation in the Pacific Northwest. Now that their output has grown exponentially, their spirits reach even more backbars. New aspects include a grain silo that holds 75,000 pounds of malted barley (sourced from Vancouver’s Great Western Malting) and a lab where they test yeasts and work on other experiments.
A Seattle native, Krogstad was steeped in beer and wine. He attended Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago (the country’s oldest brewing school) and managed the Carlton Winemakers Studio in Carlton, OR, a green cooperative winery of independent winemakers. Initially, it was beer that drew him to Portland. He brewed at Orchard Street Brewery in Bellingham, WA; then was head brewer at McMenamins in Oregon, a Pacific Northwest legend since 1983. It was at the latter—which both brews and distills—that he started getting interested in distilling.
In his own words, Krogstad talks more about his background, the importance of the burgeoning American Single Malt Whiskey category and what advice he’d give to fellow craft distillers.
Tell us a bit about your background
I was born in Seattle and raised there. And on Orcas Island in the San Juans [Islands]. I traveled a lot in the ’80s and wound up living in a coffee shack in the woods in South Kona [Hawaii] in 1989. I was always a pretty avid cook, including some stints in Seattle restaurants and for a wilderness kayak tour company.
I had also been dabbling in homebrewing since 1985 or so but really got into it after I moved to Kona, since there was essentially no good beer available there at the time. Brewing really grew on me, and by spring of 1991 I realized that I had a vocation, so I moved to Portland, at which time was the epicenter of brewing in the USA. I knocked on doors until I was hired on at a brewery. I stayed in the brewing business for about 12 years, brewing for McMenamins and then starting up Orchard Street Brewery in Bellingham, WA.
What led you to distilling and spirits?
In the early ’00s, I was back managing the brewery at McMenamins Edgefield Brewery. They had just put in a distillery on the property and were making some good and interesting whiskey with wash made at the brewery. I spent a lot of hours at the distillery, learning the process and tasting the products. That took a lot of the mystery out of the process. Back then, there were only a handful of craft distillers in the country. I put two and two together and took the leap to start my own place.
What spirits do you consider your “strengths” or flagship spirits and why?
Malt Whiskey. Specifically, American Single Malt Whiskey, which unlike Scottish Single Malt Whisky, is much more an expression of the beer that is distilled to produce it. Our Westward American Single Malt Whiskey highlights the fragrant and delicious qualities of Pacific Northwest pale ale malt, fruity-complex flavors from fermenting cool with brewer’s yeast [“Chico” strain], and maturation in new, full-size medium-char American oak barrels.
Tell us about your distilling process:
Westward American Single Malt Whiskey is an homage to the great brewing history and tradition of the Pacific Northwest. We essentially start with beer: 100% Northwest Pale Ale Malt, single-step infusion mash, lautered, boiled to sanitize, chilled and then fermented at a cool temperature just like a craft ale. Then we double-distill in pot stills, with little reflux in order to preserve much of the original flavor, aroma and mouthfeel of the beer. This rich spirit is then aged in new white oak barrels for 4-5 years and blended in a small batch (6-8 barrels) for complexity and consistency before bottling at 45% ABV.
How does living in PDX determine the focus of your business?
We really are beer/malt focused. In addition to brewing beer for our whiskey and preserving those beer characteristics in the barrel, we also have collaborations with breweries in and around Portland, highlighting both the brewing—and now the distilling—culture of Portland.
How have you grown your brand at bars and beyond?
We strongly believe in education and transparency and we like to bring people into the distillery for this. We view it as our greatest marketing tool. We are constantly bringing bartenders and store employees into our facility to show them not just what we do, but also to educate them on broader topics of spirits and distilling.
What advice would you give to fellow distillers looking to get their spirits into bars?
I think that the thing to keep in mind is that bars have lots of great options for spirits since the Big Guys generally make really good products. So don’t knock them—or anybody else—but instead, focus on what makes you special. Our [craft distillers’] greatest competitive advantage over the multinational companies is our accessibility and often our proximity to our customers. Our greatest sales tool is our distillery. I always go out of my way to invite the trade and the public to my space.
What is exciting you most about the current climate in spirits and cocktails?
The American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (www.americansinglemaltwhiskey.org) is an industry-led organization of American craft-spirits distillers—about 70 in all right now—who produce malt whiskey. This is a fairly recent category, with the very first in class appearing less than 21 years ago (Clear Creek released their first McCarthy’s Malt Whiskey in 1996). But it is growing fast and you will want to keep your eye on the sector.