Outstanding micro-distilleries are a dime a dozen in Portland, but Oregon Coast distilleries are still as rare as a whole sand dollar. That means you can get amazing spirits in a beautiful setting without the crowds.
Four small spirit producers stretch between the extreme ends of Highway 101, starting in Astoria and ending in Brookings. Everyone should drive the length of this scenic roadway at least once in their life. Why not do it in pursuit of craft rums, vodkas, gins, and liqueurs, many of which are infused with locally-sourced ingredients? To ensure you aren’t tempted to drink and drive, we recommend good places to eat and sleep, too.
Pilot House Distilling is the most versatile of the Oregon coast’s hard alcohol specialists. Their product list includes Painted Lady gin, Bar Pilot vodka, A-O whisky, Barrelman rum, Columbia absinthe, agave spirits and a coffee liqueur.
Not only does Pilot House make their own spirits at their Astoria location, their cocktails are shaken and stirred with locally-produced mixers. Sister company Grumpy Dog Shrub produces tonic water, bloody Mary mix and an old-fashioned product that’s returning to popularity: drinking vinegars.
Also known as “shrubs,” drinking vinegars were once a popular way to preserve the nutrients and sweet flavor of fresh fruit, says Pilot House owner Larry Cary. (His wife, Christina, owns Grumpy Dog.) “With the advent of refrigeration they fell out of the American psyche, but they’re still popular in Asia and the Middle East. People put them in cocktails and use them in mocktails to give them flavor.” They’re also great for salad dressings, marinades and syrups.
Here’s a recipe from Grumpy Dog Shrub Co. that blends one of Christina’s fruity shrubs with Pilot House Distilling spirits.
1 oz Cherry Vanilla Shrub
2 oz AO Whisky
1 package hot apple cider or 1 K-Cup
1 Cinnamon Stick
Heat hot apple cider, add whisky and shrub, garnish with cinnamon.
On a visit to Pilot House’s Astoria or Seaside tasting room, pair tomatillo lime drinking vinegar with Bar Pilot jalapeno lime vodka; cherry vanilla drinking vinegar with A-O whiskey and apple cider; or whatever creative combination Cary and his staff have on tap that day.
Both companies make seasonal products with local ingredients when possible. Although there are no Northwest molasses or agave producers, Cary does source corn and wheat from the region when possible. Grumpy Dog buys much of its fruit locally.
Fine dining in Astoria: BRIDGEwater Bistro
Overnight accommodations in Astoria: Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa
Cannon Beach Distillery’s cedar-shingled exterior gives it the appearance of most other buildings on its block. But what’s inside is a far cry from the salt water taffy and souvenirs so common in seaside towns.
Instead, the shelves are loaded with bottles of clear gin and rum, amber agave spirits, and – for the lucky guest who arrives at the right time – ochre whiskey.
It’s always a good idea to try what’s new at Cannon Beach Distillery, because owner Mike Selberg is almost always doing something different and interesting. “There are endless permutations you can do in distilling,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to not make something new and unique if you’re making things entirely from scratch.”
Cannon Beach Distillery offers a few regular products, including Il Keynote agave spirit, Dorymen’s Rum and Dolon Shanks amber rum. Everything else is made seasonally or only once. Peters’ Family and Lost Buoy gin are part of what Selberg calls his “Tidal Series” because they come and go, just like the tide. Whiskeys and a few other spirits in the Carronade Collection are produced according to Selberg’s whims. They’ve been known to sell out an hour after they become available.
Selberg admits this is an unusual business model, but it has everything to do with his focus on creativity and quality. “I really want people to know that we take a lot of time with this,” he says. “We take a lot of pride in what we do and in our spirits. We’re trying to do it – I don’t want to say the right way, but we really want to put as much effort into it as we can because consumers deserve high-quality products.”
Fine dining in Cannon Beach: Newman’s at 988
Overnight accommodations in Cannon Beach: Stephanie Inn
Rick Stillwagon got into the rum distilling business by accident. He’s always been a tinker, he says, and one of the things he played around with as a young man was purifying water and creating ethanol through distillation. Many years later, on the hunt for a business venture that looked like it could be profitable, he decided to look into the spirit business.
“I walked into a liquor store one day to see what I could get into that wasn’t too competitive,” he says. The vodka and whiskey shelves were full. The rum shelf, on the other hand, was fairly empty. That’s where Stillwagon (who didn’t change his name when he started the business, by the way) decided to focus.
Stillwagon Distillery in Charleston produces 10 rums under the name Devil’s Own. Most are infused, and the ingredients may or may not sound familiar to enthusiasts. There’s a fruity pineapple rum, and a spiced variety that’s rich in ginger and cinnamon. But there’s also a mocha rum that’s outstanding in coffee. Locally-grown Bandon cranberries play a starring role in their similarly named spirit.
At the request of a local restaurant, Stillwagon recently started distilling a vodka. He’s also producing a whiskey in partnership with nearby 7 Devils Brewing. Upcoming additions to the product line include nocino, a liqueur made from green walnuts, and rums infused with local berries.
“We use all real fruits and spices to do our products,” Stillwagon says. “It’s truly hand-crafted. Everything is done with the best ingredients we possibly can get to produce the best product we possibly can.”
Good grub in Coos Bay: 7 Devils Brewing Co.
Overnight Accommodations in Coos Bay: Coos Bay Manor Bed & Breakfast
Brandy Peak in Brookings has the distinction of being the oldest Oregon Coast distilleries in southern Oregon and around the state. Father-son founders R.L. and David Nowlin have been creating spirits their own way since 1993.
One of the things that made Brandy Peak unusual in the early days (before the craft spirit industry really took off) was that their tasting room had regular hours. Visitors could drop in to sample grappa, Gewurztraimer, single-barrel brandy aged in French oak, and natural and aged pear brandies made with Rogue valley fruit. If they were in the mood for something even sweeter, they could try the blackberry liqueur plain or inside a truffle from Eugene’s Euphoria Chocolate.
Brandy Peak’s distilling method remains unusual today. They use wood-fired pot stills that sit outdoors on their 57-acre property. David explains that his father spent dozens of years engineering and building equipment for the wine, spirit and canning industries. “His specialty was always distillation,” David says. “He built over 150 stills in his lifetime.”
When R.L. decided to set up his own distillery, he drew on his experience to build the equipment that fit their specific needs. “They’re wood-fired because we’re out in the woods and didn’t have any natural gas available,” David explains.
Though R.L. is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations at the business, he pitches in to help David and his wife Georgia as needed. The distillery is still open to the public most days, and they still source most of their fruit locally. Grapes come from southern Oregon and northern California, and blackberries are foraged from the surrounding community.
Fine dining in Brookings: Black Trumpet Bistro
Overnight accommodations in Brookings: Lowden’s Beachfront Bed & Breakfast
Follow the trail of Oregon Coast Distilleries: