Portland, Oregon is world famous for the sheer numbers of breweries in the city—more than any other city in the world. But there are also an insane amount of distilleries too. Part of the city is even called “Distillery Row.” I managed to visit 6 venues in the 2 days I was there, which is impressive because that’s a lot of hard liquor for one person to drink. Should I put that on my resume?
Anyway, out of the 6 I visited, one stood out above the rest: New Deal Distillery. That’s not to say that the others weren’t good; each has its own niche. However, New Deal Distillery excels in multiple niches.
They started out in 2004, as a vodka distillery, and have expanded into making gin, whiskey, rum and a variety of flavored vodkas and liqueurs. They were the first distillery in what is now “Distillery Row” and the second in Portland as a whole.
I never thought that the water used in making liquor had an effect because it’s all purified before it’s used, right? Why should one water with the chemical formula H20 taste any different from other water with the same chemical formula? When I was tasting all these different liquors, there was a common unidentifiable note between all of them not present in other boozes. I asked where their water comes from, figuring this was the source of the mysterious taste (or non-taste? it’s really hard to describe); apparently the water comes from Bull Run Watershed. This is the purest water source in the entire United States— unlike the Hudson river which is one of the most polluted. Without a scientific study, I guess I won’t know for sure if the water actually makes a difference. But at least I have a hypothesis.
New Deal Distillery makes 2 kinds of vodka.
Portland 88 Vodka is made for mixing. It has a clean flavor that makes it versatile for a wide range of cocktails. If you want a vodka to hide in your Cosmo and get you drunk, this should do the trick.
If you’re the kind of person who wants a vodka for sipping, they make one for you too: New Deal Vodka. It is unbelievably smooth and well-rounded, with a minimal amount of the harsh ethanol flavor. Mainly it’s on the sweeter side, and slightly mineral. It’s only been distilled two times, so it still has plenty of flavor, but the good kind. It’s hard to find a vodka that doesn’t make you wince; the only thing New Deal Vodka makes you do is crave a martini.
Both rums are agricole style, meaning they’re made with sugar cane juice rather than molasses. In fact, they’re both the same rum but one is aged for two years.
The unaged rum is mineral and dry. It has a green, slightly grassy flavor. There is a hint of ginger in both the scent and the taste. It’s fresh and would be great in a mojito or any tropical rum-based cocktail.
The aged rum has an intriguing duality. The scent is more fresh, with a faint bit of smokiness from the barrel. The taste is primarily barrel notes– some of the same you get from bourbon. It has a little bit of the minerality, like the unaged rum, but it’s mostly hidden. In spite of all the barrel brings to the table, it’s still remarkably fresh. If I were making a cocktail with this one, I would try a dark and stormy or maybe Planter’s punch.
Luckily for me, even though I was just expecting to taste while I was there, I got a special chance to see the where the distilling happens, and the gin being hand labeled.
How cool is that?
I didn’t try the Portland Dry Gin 33 straight, the one that you can see being labeled above. But, I tried it in a Negroni Blanc, another fantastic way to drink gin. (As if there’s a wrong way?) You may know this cocktail as “Negroni Bianco” or “White Negroni”. Whatever you call it, it’s frickin’ amazing, and the best one I’ve ever had it was in New Deal. It’s definitely sweeter than your classic bitter Negroni, and this one was citrusy for sure.
The citrus isn’t just from the lemon peel garnish. The only botanicals in both Portland Dry Gin 33 and New Deal Gin No. 1 are juniper berries and citrus peel. This is endearingly minimalist, because I think there are plenty of gins out there that are just terribly bogged down by an endless list of botanicals.
New Deal Gin No. 1 is lightly colored. This is not due to barrel aging as I first assumed (get it together, Kim, geez!) but rather because some of the juniper and citrus oils are allowed to remain in the gin, giving it that yellow-y, green tint. It’s almost sweet but mostly fresh, and the flavor covers the tongue for a long finish.
The most recently released whiskey at New Deal is Distiller’s Reserve Oregon Straight Wheat Whiskey. It is quite dry and medium-bodied because it was aged on char #1 barrels. It has oak and honey on the nose, but minimal sweetness on the palate.
From the Distiller’s Workshop series, the Smoked Bourbon really lives up to its name; it’s smoky all around. It’s a little reminiscent of mezcal. Surprisingly, I was told that the barrel is only a #3 char and it was aged for 2.5 years. I can only imagine how smoky it would get if it aged for 10 years. Overall, despite the prominent char flavor, it’s fresh with slight hints of citrus and minerals and maybe a little honey in the nose. Alex used the word peaty to describe it, but I’m on the fence about that.
From the same series is the New Deal Rye which is made with rye (obviously) and malted barley. Although this whiskey was aged for 2.5 years in a #4 char, it is very light-bodied and dry. The nose presents tobacco and oak. The oak is also pretty noticeable in the aftertaste as well. New Deal Rye is probably one best sipped straight.
New Deal is also coming out with another whiskey in October, which I got to taste before it’s released– very neat! This one is Straight Rye, and only 4 barrels were made. It is lightly sweet which is balanced with flavor from the barrel. A #4 char barrel was used, but it doesn’t have much smoke to it. In fact, there is a faint cherry flavor. If I had a bottle of this rye, I’d probably make an old fashioned.
Overall, I was extremely impressed with New Deal Distillery. I think it’s one to keep an eye on. They’ve already shown they’re capable of making unique liquor in a versatile range of types. This kind of promising craft has nowhere to go but up. Cheers!