(An Oregon Spirit Distillers Lineup | Photo courtesy of Oregon Spirit Distillers)
When Brad Irwin decided to experiment with whiskey-making in his garage 12 years ago, it was not with the intention of becoming a distiller. Having spent time working behind a bar on and off throughout his life, the Bend native had a keen interest in whiskey and fostered a deep curiosity about variations in flavor profiles.
“Bartending was always my fallback position, but in my 30s as a bartender … I wasn’t young and funny anymore, and my food service was awful,” Irwin explained lightheartedly. “But I had a lot of knowledge about different whiskeys — what’s the difference between Irish and Scotch whiskey, why does Maker’s Mark taste different than Woodford Reserve — I could give the whole spiel on it.”
Through sharing his knowledge with regular customers, Irwin became passionate about learning even more. Then, out of a pursuit of a deeper understanding of how grain flavor profiles influence whiskey, he took his hobby from work to home.
“I started home distilling — trying not to blow myself up — to have a way to compare flavor profiles. Doing it yourself is the only way to truly experience that,” Irwin said. “I spent a couple years as a hobbyist, enjoying myself in my garage while making some good spirit and an awful lot of really bad spirit, too.
“But, that’s part of it — that’s part of experimentation, of development and of growth!”
After two years in his garage, Irwin looked at his wife, Kathy, and asked the fateful question: What would it take to run our own distillery? In that moment, upon realizing that they had the three things they needed — great water, access to great grain and passion — the couple’s life changed course.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Oregon Spirit Distillers, a labor of love that began in a garage and has grown to include six products sold in 23 states.
The distiller’s very first offering was wheat whiskey, which Irwin recalls having zero doubt at the time that everyone would love. He was inspired by wheat’s place as the number-one agricultural crop in Oregon, and he had a palate for the soft, gentle flavor that defines the spirit.
“Now, nearly ten years later, we are starting to see some national success with our wheat whiskey, but it was nine-and-a-half years of pushing a rock uphill,” Irwin reflected. “And, it’s still esoteric in the whiskey world.”
Heeding the advice of friends and colleagues, Irwin expanded into bourbon, which he said is by far the most popular variety today, boasting much higher sales than the distillery’s wheat and rye whiskeys.
Six months after opening his business, while Irwin was still finding his way, an old high school friend walked through the distillery doors in what proved to be a moment of perfect serendipity. Irwin recognized Gary Bishop right away.
“He walked in and asked me where we got our grain — we were buying it out of Pendleton then — and told me he was a farmer and that I should buy from him,” Irwin recalled. “We buy more than 300 tons a year from him now.”
The amount of grain he buys from Bishop alone reflects a level of growth that has taken Oregon Spirit Distillers from a husband-and-wife operation ten years ago to a thriving business with 17 valued employees today. While it’s easy, Irwin said, to wake up every day and keep moving forward, it’s looking back that amazes him most.
“When we started, we both had full-time jobs and we were doing all of the jobs that these 17 fantastic people do today,” Irwin said, noting that it wasn’t until sometime between the fourth and fifth years in business that he and Kathy were finally both getting paid from the distillery.
After five years, the distillery outgrew its facility and moved, in 2014, to its current location in a building that at the time housed the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.
“It was a tired building, it had been a grain store, a hardware store and even a slaughterhouse at one point,” Irwin noted. “But it fit, and I was like, ‘This is the one,’ while everyone else was like, ‘This is NOT the one.’”
Not one to be deterred, Irwin set to work with Kathy and after a year of improvements, opened the new location complete with the Barrel Thief Lounge restaurant.
The restaurant eventually proved to be more of a distraction than an asset, so was converted into a tasting room just two years after opening. The tasting room, Irwin said, has proven critically important.
“Just under 50 percent of our tasting room visitors each year are from out of state,” he explained. “If you are going to sell outside of your own region, that experience creates exposure and now we have fans thanks to that.”
The Irwins knew early on that they wanted to capture a national market with their craft distilled spirits. Today, 85 percent of their sales are outside of Oregon, thanks in large part to Total Wine & More, a major wine and liquor retailer that Oregon Spirit Distillers partnered with three years ago.
“Growth is hard,” Irwin reflected, noting that Total Wine & More immediately wanted him to double his distillery’s production, a lofty request when considering that each barrel takes four full years from barrel to bottle.
Head distiller Brandy Pieper remembers the growing pains with fondness.
“It’s been so fun; it all started changing really quickly,” she said. The change was particularly exciting for Pieper, who had only recently advanced into her role as head distiller (having started her employment at Oregon Spirit Distillers mopping floors as an assistant) when the partnership came to fruition. “We were staying afloat and steadily growing, but we were not moving a whole lot. The timing was perfect.”
The passion and enthusiasm that Pieper emanates is indicative of the environment the Irwins foster among their growing team, a team that Pieper thinks of as family.
“I had so much opportunity to grow after my first year, to learn, and it was really fulfilling. Brad and Kathy step in when they see someone is really willing to make a commitment to them; I felt so cared for right from the start,” Pieper said. “I was enchanted by it, and my job became more entertaining and busier all the time.”
Ten years is a major milestone, one Irwin credits to the support he’s had from Kathy, and to the dedication of his team.
“It takes a lot of people to make really great whiskey,” he noted. “Partnerships are so important. When I was 22, I wanted to figure it all out on my own and set the world on fire. Eventually you realize you can’t do it by yourself. You have to surround yourself with people who share your passion and your values. That is what 2020 is all about.”
It’s also about making their award-winning whiskey as fast as they can, while also crafting the other spirits that round out the distiller’s portfolio — vodka, dry gin, Merrylegs Genever Gin and absinthe.
“It’s a huge leap of faith to grow the way we are,” Irwin said. But with three whiskeys that were each awarded double gold two years in a row at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition — touted as the “Olympics of spirits” competitions — and a bourbon that was named best craft distilled whiskey in the world in 2017, the future, Irwin added, reminds him of a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “‘I’m a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.’”