There’s a bumper sticker commonly seen in Portland, Oregon that reads “Keep Portland Weird”. Although weird is a relative term, as one tours the many craft distilleries in Portland, it’s clear that each marches to the beat of its own drum. Portlanders aren’t concerned with what the rest of the country is doing, they’re intensely curious about exploring the boundaries of their own world and work, and they’re willing to work together in a way you just don’t see in other parts of the country.
Tom Burkleaux is kind of weird (in a good way) by any standard. A former Marine sniper, Burkleaux does computer programming during the day and then runs his distillery at night. New Deal Distillery has grown considerably over the past few years, moving locations and increasing its staff from 3 to 15. New Deal has also put their hat in the whiskey ring with their first whiskey release, New Deal Bourbon Whiskey.
To understand New Deal’s whiskey, it’s important to understand their history with vodka. New Deal Distillery really got their start making vodka, and not as a placeholder or cash crop to help fund their whiskey, but as a primary product. Producing vodka came out of Burkleaux’s love for vodka, something that genuinely shows in their products.
The distillery produced two main vodkas, New Deal Vodka and Portland 88. The former showed off the signature craft of the distillery, while the latter provided a lower cost, well polished, and filtered offering for the large population in Portland who are budget minded and manage to live by piecing together several jobs with DIY interests. Burkleaux got a fair amount of heat from other craft distillers for using commercial neutral grain spirits in the base his Portland 88 Vodka, even though he re-distilled, cut, and polished the spirit. Several years ago in the Pacific Northwest there was a major argument over requiring a craft distiller to ferment what they made, and this set the standard in Washington, but not in Oregon. Tom stuck to his guns and showed that, no matter what the source, he could make a good vodka that people liked.
In many ways Tom Burkleaux wears the label “mad scientist” in the most complimentary of ways. His stacks of experiments line the back wall of the distillery. During our visit there he pulled out bottle after bottle of different experimental spirits: “Here’s one where we used just the German smoked malt. Oh, here’s what happens when you add sugar to the corn mash (something he sells as Wildcat). This one is just strange, don’t drink it! Just smell.” It’s through these experiments that he developed New Deal’s Gin 33. Gin 33 is a complex mix of pine, honey, lemon-lime, and mint, but it’s all just an elaborate Burkleaux magic trick, as New Deal’s Gin contains one single botanical: juniper.
When you are at New Deal Distillery, you never know what Burkleaux will pull out. “Want to see something really cool?” he asks me with a sly smile and a slight twinkle in his eye. The answer is, of course, YES! and after a little fiddling, Tom produces a bottle of Red Terra Agave Vodka. Part of New Deal Distillery’s success comes out of contract distilling for smaller producers. For Red Terra, Burkleaux was approached by a prominent tequila producing family from Mexico who wanted to transform some traditionally distilled tequila into… vodka. The idea is unique, but the experience of the actual liquid is even more far fetched. Red Terra has all the classic tequila notes with soft, sweet roasted agave, vanilla, and black pepper on the nose, and even on the entry, but in the mid-palate everything turns into a clear and true vodka, with a crisp, clean finish. “Wow, that’s fucking strange!”, I exclaim, knowing how bad the words sound even as they leave my mouth. “So strange, but so good,” I correct. Red Terra is a total head fake, and simply unique. It shows how a distiller like Burkleaux can apply his sensibilities to almost any spirit category.
That leads us to New Deal Bourbon Whiskey. Like everything that Tom Burkleaux does, it’s a bit of an experiment, and like most things that Tom does, it’s a success. Instead of adding rye to the mix as most craft distillers seem to be doing, Tom went with 1/4 wheat (50% corn, 25% barley and 25% wheat), which gives the New Deal Bourbon a soft and round quality which counter balances the fact that it’s been aged in 25 gallon casks. Burkleaux’s sensibilities also shine through in the mix, as the base has been distilled to focus on the soft and clean elements of the mash bill. It’s young, just over a year, but it just works and the result is an affable, light whiskey – the kind of crossover whiskey that’ll win over vodka drinkers, not only to whiskey but to the craft world.
The biggest lesson you can learn from Tom Burkleaux at New Deal Distillery is that a craft distiller who has a style and knows how to apply it across their products has more to offer than a distillery trying to chase the market. “My sniper instructor used to say to me ‘simplicity baffles the modern man’ and I think that just about sums it up,” remarks Burkleaux.
The New Deal Distillery is located at 900 Southeast Salmon Street in Portland, Oregon. Currently their New Deal Bourbon, Wild Cat (a corn and sugar mash spirit), and Old Tom Gin (which is amazing) are only available for sale at the distillery.