In many ways House Spirits Distillery been one of the more precocious of Portland’s craft distillers. As one of the early tenants of Portland’s Craft Distillery Row, House Spirits helped craft and shape the community and culture of Portland’s craft distilling scene. This was a natural outcropping of the deep roots founders Christian Krogstad and Lee Medoff had in Portland’s craft beer and wine scene.
House Spirits was also one of the early distilleries to collaborate with a bartender to help formulate one of their products. The bartender in question was Ryan Magarian, who has now grown into a successful restauranteur, and the collaboration was Aviation American Gin.
Aviation Gin was a home run for House Spirits, and that success powered forward the distillery in a very specific direction. The velocity of Aviation was enough to tear a rift between the distillery’s co-founders, and in late 2010, the pair decided to split.
Lee Medoff broke off from House Spirits to start his own distillery, Bull Run Distillery, and Christian Krogstad brought in outside investment, including former senior execs from Fiji water, the co-founder of Milagro tequila and famed San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana.
This kind of turmoil surrounding success would be an early example of how success can be as difficult and complicated in the craft distilling space as failure, a lesson that many craft distilleries would eventually learn.
With the turmoil of the past behind them, House Spirits began to really focus. With Aviation Gin fueling their growth, the attention could finally shift towards whiskey. The result of that shift was House’s Westward Single Malt Oregon Whiskey.
In Portland, many craft distillers work closely with craft breweries to have their barley malted, grains milled and mash cooked. This enables them to have a smaller footprint in the distillery and eliminates the expense of gear required to mash. In line with Portland’s locavore culture, House selected a Northwest barley, which they fermented with ale yeast, which was then distilled to make Westward.
With Aviation Gin paying the bills, and an investment group committed to growth, House Spirits had a luxury that most craft distillers simply don’t have: time. Instead of releasing their whiskey at the one year mark, House Spirits decided to hold on for a full three years of aging.
To keep their growing fan base engaged, House Spirits created a special line of spirits that could only be purchased at the distillery. House Spirits Apothecary Collection. Through this collection, House could let spill, small amounts of their whiskey, along with other unique and experimental projects, including aged aquavit, Ozu and a coffee liquor.
The program was so successful, and the small distillery had so many people visiting, that House Spirits decided to make good on the concept of an Apothecary and created an entire spirits store, The House Spirits Apothecary, complete with cocktail mixers, bartending tools, cocktail books, and of course House’s own spirit products.
Finally, in 2013, Westward Oregon Straight Whiskey was ready to go. The big problem House Spirits had, was although the whiskey was ready, they didn’t have a lot of it. House made the decision to release Westward in 375ml bottles with a hefty price tag of $55. “We didn’t want a collector to sweep up all our whiskey in one fell swoop,” explains Christian Krogstad. “We priced it a little high so that we knew we could have enough to sell to individuals who were interested in it.”
The strategy worked, and Westward remains one of the best small craft whiskies that you can actually buy. No lotteries, not long lines, it’s there, in small quantities for sale.