Before Covid, Kristiane Sherry visited America’s craft beer capital, Portland, Oregon, to visit Westward Whiskey where the team makes a single malt heavily influenced by their city’s brewing heritage.
“It’s all about minimalist distilling,” states Christian Krogstad. The founder and master distiller at House Spirits, the maker of Westward Whiskey in Portland, is standing in his visitor centre explaining his production philosophy. “We’re a brewery with a distillery attached.”
It initially sounds like he’s stating the obvious. Whisky is, essentially, distilled beer. But the simplicity in this mission statement says so much about the intention behind Westward single malt whiskey and makes it so distinctive.
We’re across the river from downtown Portland – arguably America’s craft beer capital. The city is defined by the Willamette River. It slices through the urban area, punctuated by huge metal bridges; Downtown to the west, small and defined with its terracotta buildings and parks. To the east you find the old industrial area with production space and warehouses, among them cool conversions. It is what Brooklyn is to Manhattan. And it’s here that you find the Westward Whiskey Distillery.
Westward Whiskey and a love of beer
Urban distilleries are having a bit of a moment. As they should: cities bring people and ideas together. Add into the recipe innovation and heritage too, and it becomes clear why distilleries in these settings offer such a strong sense of place through their products. For the Westward team, this isn’t just tapping into everything Portland has to offer. It’s taking inspiration from the surrounding Pacific Northwest, too.
Step into the distillery and it’s a bright space. Westward bottles line the walls, and there’s space for barrel-top tastings. Through the glass wall behind him you can glimpse the pair of Westward pot stills – unusual-looking things, but more on that later. Just across from the duo is the Aviation Gin still (famously actor Ryan Reynolds held a sizable stake before selling to Diageo). And the first thing you realise is how integral beer is to the production.
It starts with the malt
To hit this home, the team takes us for a trip up the road and over the Columbia River (its confluence with the Willamette is just north of the city) and into Washington State. The destination? Great Western Malting. Founded in 1934, it’s one of the oldest businesses of its kind in the US. And here again we find a group of people passionate about flavour. In addition to providing Westward with its grains, it also serves the industry with malt research and development work.
Westward use two row barley grown in the Pacific Northwest. After harvesting, it goes to Great Western Malting where it is processed ready to be turned into whiskey. But first, it has to be fermented. It’s here where you can’t ignore Westward’s beer mentality. The team uses an ale yeast as opposed to a distiller’s yeast. The fermentation is a slow one, carried out at a low temperature.
You can actually taste this beer-first ethos. At some distilleries, the wash, the ‘beer’, the low-ABV, post-fermentation liquid that heads to the stills, tastes… not quite finished, perhaps. Too acidic. The Westward wash was round, full-bodied, fresh, orchard fruit-led. It almost seems a shame to distil the results.
On to distillation, and curiouser and curiouser. We’re talking double pot distillation, but each has been custom-designed from a flavour perspective, rather than being tied to tradition in terms of what a still should look like. Whereas many others are all about maxing out reflux (where the vapour comes into contact with a cooler surface, falls back, and is essentially redistilled again), at Westward it’s about minimising it to preserve that ale character. The new-make that flows is bold, robust, and fruit-forward with loads of that grain character coming through. ‘Craft’ has so often been co-opted in whiskey, but it feels appropriate to use it here.
We leave the distillery and take a trip outside the city to the maturation site. It’s the first time I’ve seen barrels stacked upright, something done to successfully withstand earthquakes. Here, we taste some maturing spirit (as with Scotch single malt, this has a minimum three-year age statement). I am so surprised: the apple, floral, and yes, ale-heavy notes shine. It’s an exciting realisation – the future of Westward is as flavour-forward as the core range now.
Predominantly the team makes use of new, lightly charred American oak – it’s like a blank canvas that lets that beer quality shine through. But! We also sampled whiskey from stout casks, and locally expressions that make use of local wine barrels are also available (as an aside, do check out Oregon wines. Stunning). But the one to make it over to the UK is the flagship single malt.
Does the ale vibe translate, even at full maturation? Absolutely. This is a beer-lover’s whiskey. On the nose, you’ve got berries, apples, pears and perhaps maple, in with those bold, green, crisp grain notes. The palate is spicier; biscuity malt builds alongside sweet spices. Then there’s a hint of tobacco leaf on the finish. It’s a fascinating dram. And from the beer-led vision to the local malt, those custom stills and the American oak, it’s truly a taste of Oregon.
Westward Single Malt is available from Master of Malt. Click here to buy.