Lee Medoff: Defining Oregon Whiskey

ee  Medoff  started  off  brewing beer, and he’s been distilling since 1997. He was the Oregon Distiller’s Guild’s first president at its inception in 2007, and ODG is the nation’s very first distiller’s guild. Oregon currently has over 40 micro-distilleries, and Medoff is pioneering at the forefront of the micro-distilling revolution. He wants to be the one who puts Oregon on the map for whiskey production.

What were a few of the highlights of your experience prior to staring Bull Run?

I started off as a brewer back in in the early 90s, and was really involved in the beginning of the craft brewing movement here. It was a really an exciting time. Winemaking was the next step. I was working in France with a friend who got me over there, and part of my job was, not only to make wine, but I had to distill. I was making marc, which is basically the French version of grappa. But it wasn’t until I came back to the states that I got involved with McMenamins as a distiller for their new distillery. It was a great experience because I was basically given carte blanche. I  was able to experiment and kind of do what I wanted. I got the chance to go meet a lot of the established distillers out there. I credit Hubert  Germain-Robin with being a real influence on me. His philosophy of distilling and his brandies are just spectacular. But I come from a pretty entrepreneurial family and I saw that craft distillation was emerging just like craft brewing had done 20 years prior. And so my partner at that time  (another brewer) and I decided to open our own distillery. And that’s how House Spirits was born. By the time I sold it to my partner, it was very successful.

You and Patrick Bernards founded Bull Run in the spring of 2010. How was that idea conceived?

Well, with Spirits we’d had some products that were really successful, but we had only small quantities of them. That was kind of the genesis of  this  project. That’s when I started talking to Pat, as well as some other friends of mine—partners. Part of what I realized was, too, was that one  person can’t do everything. I knew that I needed somebody that could focus on the sales and marketing aspect of it, and Pat comes with a lot of skill sets that way, a lot of innovation. And we work really well together. The whole idea was not to have a small little boutique distillery. We still wanted  to make craft-focused, quality products, but we needed to have volume, make it much larger, so you could take care of markets and focus primarily on rums and whiskeys. Really with whiskey being the main one.

What accounts for the craft distilling revolution that is happening here?

In the big scope of things, I like to pay homage to the whole pioneer spirit. The early settlers got here, there was this cornucopia, this land of plenty—but they had no market for their resources. They had to depend on themselves for everything. So I think the basis, the bedrock, for what  happens here—I think the craft brewing movement, as well as the wineries, coffee—everything came out of that sense of self reliance. There’s a real entrepreneurial spirit here in this town, and we all kind of work together. I think that’s built in to whatever the Oregon ethic is, in a way. But with that also comes a demographic of people that support local. I think that’s a huge part of the equation that doesn’t get enough acknowledgement.  No other place that has a brewing industry or a distilling industry has the same sort of loyal demographic of consumers as we do here. We’re very, very fortunate to have that. And, of course, the brewers and the winemakers came before us. They already paved the way.

Define what you think “Oregon Whiskey” should be.

The way I define Oregon Whiskey is in several ways.  One  is  by  the  ingredients.  We’re  using 100% malted barley. The reason why we do this is that’s what all the great beers are made from here in the Northwest. And so, it just seemed logical to give it that regional connection. And so, borrowing from the laws of the United States for whiskey, especially for bourbon—I’d say Oregon whiskey has to be at least 51% malted barley. That’s going to be the main flavor component. That leaves 49% other grains you can use. The other thing that’s important is the aging process. And so I would say Oregon whiskey has to be 51% malted barley, aged in new oak barrels, for a minimum of two years—two years as a straight whiskey, defined by law. And by coming out with that, you’re going to be able to define for the consumer what they’re getting.

What makes you so passionate about whiskey in particular?

Whiskey has a huge history here in the United States. Bourbon, of course, is an American original as far as a whiskey goes. I feel really attached to and really a part of the history of the United States by being a whiskey  producer. Because from  the time of the settling of the country we were having whiskey produced here. The fact that we’re here on the West Coast—there’s an  opportunity to produce something that’s unique, original, and a part of the context of our geography. We want to give it its own identity. And whiskey is of its place. It spends most of its life in a barrel in some environment. Here in Oregon, we really have four gentle seasons that we go through. And that’s going to really define the whiskey. And so being a pioneer and coming out and doing something first, along with a lot of other people, is pretty exciting. There’s no immediate gratification to it, but it’s a thrill to think that what I’m producing today—maybe ten years from now or even longer—people are going to be enjoying it.

Give us a rundown of your current line.

So from House Spirits I brought the Medoyeff vodka with me. Medoyeff is my original family name. We have our Temperance Trader Bourbon. The Temperance line is sort of our second label. And so if we run across things we’re not going to make here at all, we can bring that in. We also released our first rum—our Pacific  Rum—right before TOAST. Then we’ll be producing a longer aged, dark rum. But our major focus here is to start putting down our Oregon whiskey, the Bull Run whiskey. It will probably be two or three years before we release that. And, in fact, we’ll probably hold onto it longer. I really think the sweet spot with the recipe that I’m using is the five-year mark.

You spoke about this a  little already, but can you talk about Bull Run’s level of commitment to Portland’s local and sustainable mantra?

Being a part of this community is really important. I can’t imagine doing this anywhere else. I think we have a really supportive community here. We get so many people stopping in all of the time, curious about what’s going on. Once again, we want to keep that local identity. We try to use local ingredients and  local vendors as much as possible. And what’s nice about our whiskey is we can get all Oregon-grown malt now. It didn’t exist even four or five years ago. There’s an Oregon  cooperage for our barrels. And, of course, we’ve got one of the best water sources for all our products—Bull Run.

Talk a little bit about the new legislation (HB 4092) that went into effect this year that affects distillery licensing.

That’s one of the success stories of the Guild. What this law allows us to do is basically get a license so that at an event we can go away from our distillery, and not just pour samples for the public, but we can actually sell the bottles to them also. And that’s a huge thing for us as far as marketing goes, as well as getting really connected with the consumer.

That new legislation was tested for the first time at the 2nd  Annual  TOAST  this spring, which is the largest public tasting of craft spirits in North America, and it’s held here in Portland.

Yes, it was a two-day event with over 50 distilleries and 150 different spirits. Craft distilling is a budding industry, and we want to be the focus of it here. We have the resources to do that. We have the Guild, and we have the public that wants to be involved in this. We’ve got a lot of distilleries here and we’re organized and we’re getting things done.

With all the excitement about distilling right now, and all your work to build the new business, you must get pretty exhausted. What do you do to decompress?

(Laughs) A lot of my friends are brewers and winemakers and distillers. We like to get together and share the things that we make and cook. April is when we start off the “grilling season,” as we call it. Pretty much everybody I know has a big pit in their yard, and we’ll grill whole animals starting from now until harvest. That’s always really enjoyable.

About The Author: Jenn Dawson