On a mizzled springtime morning, I pull into the three-car parking lot of an unassuming warehouse in the heart of Portland, Oregon's South-Central Eastside Industrial District. I'm greeted by noise and a bespectacled man of impressive stature. The racket of a nearby public works project fades into white din in the background, and Matt Mounts ushers me into the House Spirits tasting room.
The bottles are labeled like antique medicine bottles and each cork stopper is hand-dipped in wax. They are each a work of art, and a testament to the tireless attention to detail and aesthetic that the fine young gentlemen of House Spirits pay to their craft. I gush over the beautiful collection of small-batch, artisanal liquors: Japanese-style shochu, a rare coffee liqueur made from shade-grown, organic Guatemalan coffee, and a specialty of the house, Krogstad Aquavit. The aquavit is star anise-spicy, less fiery than the moniker "Viking fire water" would imply, but sweet-hot like cinnamon candies, leaving my lips and tongue tingling. The aged version, brown from the wood barrel, is more fiery.
I am also treated to a taste of House Spirits' newest whiskey, White Dog #25, made entirely from local Willamette Valley grains (it has just been released in March 2011). It follows White Dog #24 (made from other Pacific Northwest-sourced grains), but is maltier, with a vernal sugar reminiscent of a warm prairie, sweetgrass braids, soft leather boots, ghosts of cowboys. Because it isn't aged in wood like Irish or southern US bourbons or whiskeys, it is clear instead of brown. This is the honest whiskey of the mid-1800s, it is America, and I don't miss the wood one bit.
The distillery proper, located next door, is as overcast as the day outside. Skylights flood the room with cool light, and it's like an industrial-strength laboratory of Erlenmeyer flasks and stainless steel tanks. Yesterday was gin-making day, and large mesh sacks of juniper berries and coriander seeds are still draining on the concrete floor. One old beauty catches my eye: labeled simply "No-1," the hand-hammered, prohibition-era copper kettle sits proudly in its nest of bricks. This still is used for the small, specialty brews like the Uchi no Kami Shochu.
I am standing in the distillery, and Matt is waxing poetic and dropping science about the nuances between Turkish raki, Middle Eastern arak and Greek ouzo (plans are underway for an Oregon ouzo at House Spirits). I ask him if he ever thinks about using feral fennel from the nearby railroad tracks, and we both have a laugh. He knows his craft intimately, and his reverence for the process and history of distillation is apparent, but he keeps a sense of humor about it, and this is part of his charm. It's not long before we're old friends, showing baby pictures and swapping war stories about teething.
The spirits at House have moved through me, and I am haunted.