At House Spirits, Making Great Whiskey Starts with Brewing Great Beer

“Beer flavors are delicious,” says House Spirits lead distiller Miles Munroe. “They are an important part of the characteristics of our single malt [Westward] and, I think, an excellent example of the lineage from American craft brewing to American single malt whiskey creation.”

All whiskey begins with beer, but it’s rare to see a distillery so connected to the Portland craft beer scene as House Spirits Distillery. The Portland-based House Spirits began near the fermentation sciences school at Oregon State University before relocating to southeast Portland, where it has became perhaps the premier distillery in Oregon. House Spirits’ flagship product, Westward American Whiskey, shows off the distiller’s intimate connection to craft beer by showcasing the brewing process and signature malts and yeast for a superbly smooth and malty whiskey that’s aged for just two years in American Oak barrels. Westward is the tip of the spear when it comes to the relationships between House Spirits and local breweries. Collaborations with Migration Brewing, Fort George Brewery, and many others highlight the collaborative nature of the two distinct industries, as well as their similarities.

To make a whiskey, you begin with brewing a beer. Most microdistilleries source “wort,” the sweet, unfermented liquid that comes from cooked malted barley, to be fermented and distilled. The distilleries load up totes or tanks with the sweet unfermented wort from a local brewery and drive it across town to ferment in a tank at the distillery. House Spirits started off like most micro distillers by sourcing wort from the now defunct Roots Organic Brewing and, more recently, Breakside Brewery, but in 2015 the distillery began brewing its own wort and controlling the process from grain to glass. The wort is similar to any made for a beer, but is usually a simple grain bill of just one malt and no added hops. The mash temperature is low (149F degrees) to create a highly fermentable wort, which is usually fermented with a distillers yeast and not a more flavorful brewers yeast.

House Spirits products

House Spirits was founded by Lee Medoff and Christian Krogstad in 2004 in Corvallis and moved to Portland shortly after in 2005. Medoff left the distillery to found his own Bull Run Distilling in 2010 and took one of House Spirits popular brands, Medoyeff Vodka, with him. Krogstad continued to build the brand he helped start with the flagship product, Aviation Gin, leading the charge while also moving toward launching a line of whiskey.

House Spirits tasting room in SE Portland

By 2012 Aviation Gin comprised about 80% of House Spirits’ production, but in 2013 the company teamed with Southern Wine & Spirits to launch products in 35 states. Famed NFL quarterback Joe Montana made an investment in the distillery and helped catapult the company to becoming a local name brand. House Spirits opened a tasting room at the airport that same year and began working on a new production facility to accommodate increased production and space for whiskey barrels. In November 2015 House Spirits moved into its current space: a 14,000 sq. ft. production facility and tasting room with a cost of $6 million. The facility has its own 35 barrel brewhouse and 100 barrel fermentation tanks to brew whiskey washes in-house. By 2016 the company had pivoted from Aviation Gin to Westward Whiskey and sold off the gin brand to Davos Brands so it could focus on other products like whiskey and Krogstad Aquavit. Today, Westward is about 50% of House Spirits total production and will likely increase with alternate versions the company plans to launch in the future. This year House Spirits will brew a massive 25,000 barrels of beer that will become about 1,200 barrels of whiskey.

Christian Krogstad (front left) and Miles Munroe

Christian Krogstad started out as a homebrewer in the eighties and started professionally brewing in ’91 working for McMenamins Breweries at the Edgefield location and Hillsdale Pub. He even attended America’s famous brewing school, the Siebel Institute, in ’93 and co-founded a brewery called Orchard Street in Bellingham, Washington in ’95. In 2004 Krogstad decided to pursue his interests in distilling and moved to Portland after closing Orchard Street Brewery in 2004.

“I have always loved both beer and whiskey, and after 12 years in brewing I was ready for a new adventure,” says Krogstad.

House Spirits lead distiller Miles Munroe also came from the craft beer world and was attracted to distilling after becoming fascinated with single malt whiskey. “I was behind the bar of a members club in Kansas City, Missouri with a wall of single malt Scotches behind me that I tried one-by-one to familiarize myself with the profiles of the regions. I was hooked and decided it was what I needed to do eventually and with all the reading I’d done decided that I should brew first to understand fermentation at that detailed level and then make my way to distilling.”

House Spirits lead distiller Miles Munroe

Munroe completed the Brewing Science & Engineering program at the American Brewers Guild in 2010 and became a brewing intern at Bridgeport Brewing. He stayed in the industry with stints at Lompoc Brewing and Migration Brewing before learning that House Spirits was working on a single malt whiskey brand.

“I jumped at the chance to become involved; considering then it was either Scotland or Japan for serious single malt production,” says Munroe.

Westward Whiskey is a very malt forward whiskey, incredibly smooth, complex and beer flavor forward. While some whiskeys are lighter bodied, hotter or more charred or spiced tasting, Westward is almost malty sweet like a Scotch ale. Whiskey does not even necessarily use malted barley–it could be made from wheat, rye, or corn. Subcategories of whiskey have their own requirements–for example, bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn. Westward Whiskey is 100% malted barley.

“it has a very straight forward grain characteristic that we want featured at all times,” says Munroe. “High-quality malted barley is a very expensive raw ingredient which makes an excellent whiskey and having a very clean fermentation helps preserve those flavors and so we take care in minimizing our processes that would masks those great grain flavors.”

House Spirits uses a high-colored two-row barley base malt from Great Western Malting in the making of Westward. They mash in with the malt at a low temperature because a sweeter wort will not volatize/condense and will simply reduce the yield for the whiskey, so it has no effect on whiskey other than to reduce yield. Unusually, House also ferments the wort with “Chico” American Ale Yeast which leaves a cleaner, brighter profile than a distillers yeast might. It’s another way this whiskey is more beer-like than others. House Spirits then uses a pot still to convert the beer into whiskey. The still has a short column so that some of the harsh byproducts of the distillation are carried off and make for a smoother and more full bodied spirit.

Like beer, there is a hotside and a coldside to the production. Hotside is the cooked mash, boil kettle and warm fermentation. In a brewery the beer would then be chilled in bright tanks, packaged and kept cold, but in a distillery the second half of the process is arguably even more important: the time it spends in an oak barrel. House Spirits uses American oak barrels with a medium level of charring on the inside to age the whiskey for at least three years, while Westward is a blend of five to five and a half year barrel-aged whiskey. The medium 2-char is in contrast to many that use a heavy char, the lighter barrel char allows the the malt to shine through even more.

“A big part of our appeal to craft beer drinkers, I think, is that so many beer qualities show up front in Westward single malt. It’s also why Westward pairs perfectly with grain-forward beers,” says Munroe. “We also use a medium char for our barrels which gives a less assertive barrel character to the final spirit and let’s the grain aspects shine through. A big part of our appeal to craft beer drinkers, I think, is that so many beer qualities show up front in Westward single malt. It’s also why Westward pairs perfectly with grain-forward beers.”

With production dialed in and sales healthy, House Spirits is experimenting with other types of whiskey and variations on Westward that are even more craft beer forward.

Speaking of experimentation, “we almost always take our barrels back from brewers and use some aged Westward to ‘finish’ in the beer barrel,” says Munroe on how the distilleries upcoming Stout Cask Finish project got started. “To trade barrels back and forth and collaborate with brewers keeps us directly involved in the craft beer world and offers up some fantastic variations on cask-finished whiskies.”

There have already been a number of beers released that were aged in Westward and other barrels from House Spirits, like the Heritage Whiskey Barrel-Aged Porter from 2017 that Migration Brewing released in their limited Migrator Series (pictured above.)

“The Stout Cask Finish expression is Westward American Single Malt that has finished ageing in barrels that previously held stout beer,” says Munroe. This is a separate line of whiskey that House Spirits plans to launch in 2019, but Krogstad says we should see a few barrels of released this winter. “it will serve to feature our lineage from brewing to distilling and the inseparable union of American craft brewing and American single malt whiskey,” proclaims Munroe. “It’s damn tasty, too.”

As part of that program, Fort George has a dozen or so Westward Whiskey barrels with Cavatica Stout aging in them that will be returned to the distillery to age the Stout Cask Finish whiskey. And as a cool one-off experiment, House Spirits actually took a try at brewing Cavatica Stout on its brewhouse and has distilled it into a whiskey currently aging in barrels. No word yet on when and where we may get a taste of that but you can be sure beer and whiskey fans will be setting their Google alerts.

Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com

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