Thursday, July 7, 2011

Spirited Away Part I: Starting at Home

So a while back it occurred to me that in my summer travels I will be in the vicinity of each and every other West Toast staffer. That got me thinking - why not do a series of articles where I venture out with my colleagues for fun, sun, and quality beverages? Thus the Spirited Away tour was born - 3 states, 6 trips, and a summer full of adventure!

To kick off my summer of spirited fun, I decided to take a trip just down the road to the newest distillery in Oregon. Located in Adair Village, OR, 4 Spirits Distillery opened just this year by offering Slaptail and Webfoot Vodkas. I attended their first public tasting on June 10 at Deb's Mixers in Corvallis. An avid wine lover, I usually relegate vodka to a sidebar in mixed drinks when I grow tired of pinot noir (and that is a rare occasion). Generally I find it harsh, and drown it with cranberry, orange, name it. But you know me, I am a sucker for local business, and I just had to try it out.

I was taken at the first sip. The vodka was unbelievably smooth, with soft hints of vanilla mid-palette. What I was most impressed with was the finish however - instead of the harsh burn I associate with the vodka's I've had in the past, this one stayed open in flavor, bringing the smoothness all the way through. Here it was - a vodka that made me give vodka a chance. I was thoroughly impressed. My friend Chris was equally excited, and picked up some bottles to have at the bar at Block 15 (note well locals - ask for Slaptail when you get your drinks there!).

I was also impressed with the conversations I had with Owner and Craft Distiller, Dawson Officer, and Director of Sales and Marketing, Sarah Wayt. I admitted that I knew little about the making of Vodka, being such a dedicated wine snob (or snob-ish I suppose). Officer treated me to a bit of a tutorial about why distilleries start with Vodka - fascinating. For those of you like me who know nothing (and I mean nothing) about the making of spirits, know that most distilleries start with vodka since there is no need to age it. It takes only 7-8 days start to finish to produce a batch, so if a distillery wants to get product out vodka is the way to go. Officer told us that there will be rum in the works in the future, and then on to whiskey. When chatting with Wayt she suggested that Chris and I come out to see the operation.

If you look back at the picture above, that was what greeted us as we pulled up to the distillery - a large industrial door, emblazoned with the 4 Spirits logo, greeting people in to the giant concrete building. Officer and Wayt also greeted us, and welcomed us into the tasting room and distillery space. It is probably a good point in the story to give you some history. The distillery is housed in an old building at Camp Adair, a decommissioned Air Force base. When I researched the base history I found that Camp Adair (nicknamed Swamp Adair) was home to the 91st, 96th, 70th, and 104th infantry divisions during World War II. At one point nearly 50,000 soldiers and their families were housed there at a time when Corvallis was a town of only 14,000. The building where the distillery is housed served to generate power for a massive radio communications operation. The history is given great credence as one enters. We were treated to walls covered with old photos showing the people who lived in the camp, mixed in with modern snapshots of Officer's own tour in Iraq.

That is the other part of the story of 4 Spirits. Not only does the space and place serve as testament to those who served so long ago, but it also as reminder and memorial to the veterans of our modern conflicts. Officer served in the Oregon National Guard 2 Battalion, 162 Infantry Brigade. The very logo we looked at as we entered the building is a composite of four soldiers with whom he served - and who lost their lives serving in Baghdad in 2004. Officer explained that he wanted to remind people that there are still soldiers fighting and dying in foreign conflicts, and that this should not be forgotten. Standing among these photos, under the hauntingly beautiful logo, in a building meant for supporting war efforts, there was no way to escape thought of those who are still out there serving - and those who are no longer for any reason.

Pictured left to right: still, filtering tank, filter, water tank, proofing tank, bottling machine

Just past the tasting room space we could see the place where the magic happens. Wayt and Officer took us behind the counter and talked us through the process of making vodka. I found the description to be demystifying and fascinating. Take a look at the photo above to see what I am talking about. First, undistilled product is placed into a 55 gallon still. Falsely believing that vodka is only made from potatoes, I was surprised to learn that one can make vodka out of pretty much anything - potato, rice, grains - even by distilling wine or beer. Officer uses ethanol to start, putting it into the still where it evaporates upward into the copper pipes, and trickles down through copper mesh. Some of it is caught during this process and pulled out, but some runs back down into the still to start the process again. Officer explained that it can be difficult to tell how many times a spirit is distilled for that very reason. During this time the distiller pulls out certain parts of the distilled product to remove undesirable flavors or impurities.

Second, the distilled alcohol is placed into a large tank and run continually through a filter. Vodka can be filtered in many different ways - at 4 Spirits they use charcoal. After that it is placed into the proofing tank, where it is kept at 20 degrees Celsius and water is added until it reaches 40%. Once proofed, the vodka goes to the bottling machine (affectionately dubbed R2D2). The filled bottles go to labeling where labels are put on by hand (either Slaptail or Webfoot - both are the same brew), and boxed up for distribution.

It was wonderful for me to not only be walked through the process, but to get to see it in action as well. A hands-on learner, it was such a treat to watch the vodka cycling through the filter, touch the bottling machine, and see the labels on the spool. Officer also let us in on one of the distillery's secrets - an ingenious move that adds both style and function to the space. If you want to know the secret to the 4 Spirits' sauce, all you need to do is visit and ask!

Officer shared that there are plans in the works to start making rum in the near future. Because rum needs to ferment during production, and requires some amount of aging, we won't be seeing 4 Spirits rum anytime soon, but I am most certainly excited. I hope to get a sneak peek for us in the future. Until then I will have to simply drink Slaptail (Corvallis here - must be a beaver) at one of the many local places that have picked it up (it is being featured in the drink 'slap happy' at Downward Dog).

Officer and Wayt welcome us to the tasting room

The tasting room is currently not open to the public, but you can follow 4 Spirits on Facebook and they will let you know when it is! I highly recommend a trip out there to see the space, meet the wonderful people, and, of course, drink the vodka. I celebrated a wonderful day full of kind people, interesting knowledge, compelling history, and excellent spirits, with my very first vodka martini, served to me extra dirty with two olives by Seth at Block 15. Of course I 'tailed it up!

Special thanks to Dawson and Sarah for their hospitality and excellent teaching. I am excited to see 4 Spirits grow in the future, and highly recommend you give Slaptail (or Webfoot) a try!


Post a Comment