In 1919, as Prohibition kept the United States in shackles, Central Oregon was gaining a reputation as “Oregon’s liquor cabinet.” Our wide open spaces and close-knit communities made the job of busting bootleggers a difficult one. Because Oregon had passed a law outlawing alcohol three years prior to the national one, our underground liquor industry was already well established—complete with hidden stills, smuggling routes, and speakeasies.
Over the course of the next century, Prohibition was abolished—and with it the need for bootleggers—and somewhere along the way whiskey fell out of fashion and Central Oregon became known for craft beer. But with conditions remaining ripe—mainly quality water and a willing audience—whiskey is returning to the High Desert and finding its place back in the liquor closet.
“The alcohol industry has a huge presence here,” explains Cascade Alchemy’s Joe Hale. “Bend is making an effort to mold tourism around alcohol.”
Whiskey (or whisky, in Scotland) is a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash—namely wheat, rye, barley, or corn—and aged in wooden barrels. Made around the world, the most recognizable types include Scotch, Irish and American whiskey. In America, bourbon is king, which, by definition, needs to be made from 51 percent corn, stored in oak barrels, and have an alcohol content of no more than 160 proof.
“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” —Mark Twain
Brad Irwin is a Bend native who grew up watching Korean War doctors Hawkeye and Pierce distill alcohol on the popular television sitcom MASH. His curiosity for the process—and taste for the spirits—led him to become a moonshiner. His bootlegging days may not have included muscle cars and Appalachian backroads, but they did teach him how to perfect recipes and hone his craft. His early home distilling days came to fruition as he opened Oregon Spirits Distillers (OSD) in 2009.
Perhaps the biggest challenges of opening a distillery is looking four years ahead. Whiskey, which is OSD’s focus eleven months out of the year, ages in barrels for three and a half years before it’s ready to be sold. OSD produces about 20 barrels a month, and is enjoying approximately 25% yearly growth since it opened. Irwin is proud that his business—and passion—has allowed him to employ 19 workers, up from the four they started with seven years ago.
Last year, Irwin opened the Barrel Thief Lounge at their production facility on NE 1st Street. There, patrons can enjoy a meal alongside a cocktail made from one of their spirits—OSD also makes vodka, gin and absinthe—either inside the spacious bar or outside by one of the three fire pits.
Four distilleries currently call Bend home; Oregon Spirit Distillers, Bendistillery, BackDrop Distillery and Cascade Alchemy. In addition, Cascade Street Distillery opened last year in Sisters. It’s no coincidence distillers are making their home in Central Oregon.
“Being local is important,” explains Irwin. “Oregon is a great agriculture state. Wheat, rye, and barley all grow here. That’s why we are the epicenter of craft beer, then wine, now spirits.”
“Whiskey is liquid sunshine.” —George Bernard Shaw
The Whiskey Drinker Demographic
One important cause of the whiskey resurgence is the change in the whiskey drinker demographic. Gone is the perception of whiskey only being sampled by Washington D.C. elites or southern juke joint revelers. Today’s whiskey drinkers are skewing younger and are split equally between men and women.
Whiskey-drinking Bendites are lucky to enjoy several watering holes catering to them. If you enjoy sipping a historical whiskey cocktail while hearing about its origins, head over to the Barrel Thief for “Whiskey Wednesdays.” If pairing a cigar with your whiskey while listening to some Grateful Dead is more you style, try O’Kanes at McMenamins Old St. Francis. If you crave a large selection and an excellent meal, visit The Stihl Whiskey Bar. And, Bendistillery is returning to downtown Bend with a tasting room later this year.