The forefathers of the United States continuously pushed westward as they explored the nation. Along the way various geographies exposed themselves, each with their own unique climate. As time went on and communities and cities formed, each one adapted their own unique culture to align with where they were located. This holds especially true for the Pacific Northwest which embraces a laid back pioneering spirit that’s surrounded by the natural beauty of the region. It’s in this area of the country that I recently found myself as I went to visit Westward Whiskey in Portland, Oregon.
I was able to spend the better part of a week with CEO and Co-Owner Tom Mooney and Head Distiller & Head Blender Miles Munroe. During my time spent with them, it became evident to me that their passion for American single malts runs deep, along with their desire to explore and push the boundaries of what consumers should be tasting in the category. Both exude a laid-back vibe that fits the stereotype of what you might envision for a Portland distillery. However, it’s not until you start peeling back their layers, that you quickly realize how knowledgeable they are in their roles. Mooney is adorned in a patagonia shirt or hoodie most days, yet is a Harvard Business school graduate who is razor sharp. Sporting long hair, a myriad of tattoos, and exuding a commanding presence, Munroe looks like he could be leading a touring rock band, yet it’s his 10 plus years as a brewer and distiller that quickly shows he’s at the top of his game in the world of American single malts.
Nestled in downtown Portland, Westward can be considered part of the growing ranks of urban distilleries in the U.S. However, Westward isn’t your typical upstart distillery. Its parent company, House Spirits Distillery, was founded by Christian Krogstad in 2004, and has been a pioneer in the American single malt category ever since. Initially the company focused more on gin than whiskey, having created the Aviation Gin brand. The company sold off the Aviation brand in 2016, and while still contract distilling Aviation Gin for its new owners, has focused significantly on growing its name in the American single malt category ever since.
Part of Portland’s Distillery Row, Westward moved into their current distillation facility in 2015. Nestled in between the I5 freeway and train tracks, and surrounded by a mix of modern glass buildings and older brick warehouses, the distillery is inconspicuous from its surroundings. That is until you start to take a closer look in the parking lot and notice that there is a small loading dock area with a few barrels sitting outside. It's a suitable location for a brand whose laid-back attitude doesn’t need pomp and circumstance to showcase their expertise at their craft.
Stepping inside the building is when you instantly recognize that it’s not just another warehouse or manufacturing space. The smells of distillation fill the air, while your eyes quickly spot mashtanks, barrels waiting to be filled, and others waiting to be emptied. The space is adorned with inspirational quotes such as “Whiskey is Liquid Sunshine” by George Bernard Shaw and “Westward I Go Free” by Henry David Thoreua. One side is currently under construction being rebuilt from scratch, and when finished will house the brand's new and improved public facing tasting room.
Focusing on grain to glass, the distillery sources their Pacific Northwest barley from Great Western Malting and goes through around 1.2 million pounds a year. This is enough to allow the distillery to output approximately 30 full sized barrels a week. Touring the distillery, Munroe takes the time to explain Westward’s philosophy of their whiskey being “Brewed like a pale ale, distilled like a scotch, and aged like a bourbon.” This aligns well with Munroe’s brewing background, and in general the background of many employees and individuals that the brand partners with due to the fact that Portland is home to over 80 breweries.
Never to stray from that laid-back PNW vibe, the distillery runs three brews a day which aligns with Munroe’s philosophy of long slow temperature fermentation. Housing the self proclaimed biggest still west of the Mississippi, the distillery will conduct runs of 3,000 gallons of beer at a time which only ends up producing 225 gallons of new make. This purposely inefficient process allows Westward to target 60-70% of the flavor to come from the spirit itself versus the barrel. And the barrels themselves embrace that same vibe, being ISC barrels that are made out of wood that spent 1.5 aging in the lumber yard before being built into barrels and being subjected to a high toast and #2 char.
The rest of the distillery is rounded out with a experimentation lab and a hand bottling line. An automated bottling line was in the process of being finished and will allow the company to retire hand bottling and package faster their custom designed bottles instead. A random picture of Joe Montana caught my eye as we passed the makeshift tasting table. It turns out that the NFL legendary QB is a silent investor in the distillery.
The distillery itself doesn’t house the aging whiskey. Instead, the barrels are trucked offsite before eventually being returned to the distillery for bottling and labeling. Located a short drive away is the company’s warehouse affectionately known as “Jenny” due to its location on Jennifer Street. The 2,800 square foot non-climate controlled environment is located in an nondescript industrial warehouse, and upon walking in you are immediately greeted with thousands of stacked barrels. Interestingly enough, the majority of the barrels are stacked on pallets vertically on top of each other. While inefficient for barrel rotation and overall sampling, the reason is due to the major fault line near the area, and that vertical stacking allows the brand to best offset any losses that may come when and if a major quake takes place.
A reminder of the laid-back nature shows through as a full drum kit is noticeably perched on the top of one such stacks of barrels. When the warehouse was first starting to be filled, there were long periods of downtime to be filled and the drums were heavily utilized. With the warehouse quickly running out of space, they’re relegated for show only, but still a nice nod to the past. The whiskey itself is “aged to taste” and is generally aged for 4.5-6 years before being blended together in approximately 18-20 barrel blends. Having the opportunity to taste the whiskey at the new make, 1, 2, and 3 year old time frames, it’s clear that there is no right time when to pull the whiskey, but that aging to taste is definitely the right route for the brand. The brand offers four ongoing expressions, Westward Whiskey American Single Malt, a Cask Strength version, along with Stout Barrel Finish and Pinot Noir Finished versions.
It’s these last two versions that proved to be most interesting and an integral part of the trip. The Stout Cask is finished for an additional year in barrels that were used to barrel age local stouts, which had started as new Westward Whiskey casks before that. The pinot noir casks are used Westward Whiskey casks that local vineyards use 3-4 times before returning them to Westward, resulting in heavily wine-soaked casks for finishing purposes. During my time spent with the Westward team, we toured their local vineyard partners outside of Portland, and it became clear that this isn’t an on-the-books-only partnership. Each organization holds great respect for the other and has taken the time to really think about the end result of each product that will result from what's being put in the barrel. It’s something you don’t see too often, and really drove home the point of that PNW pioneering spirit.
Westward Whiskey is rooted firmly in American single malt distilling, as Mooney states that the brand is part of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission that is working with the TBB to formally define American single malt whiskey. These rules are targeting to be in place by the end of the year if all goes according to plan. While the brand may have a firm foot in traditional distillation and defining the category, they have the other just as firmly planted in experimentation and pushing the boundaries of what an American single malt can taste like. Often these come in the form of their Westward Whiskey Club releases such as Westward Whiskey American Single Malt Elements: High Desert to Klamath Basin and Westward Whiskey American Two Malts Bridgeport Brewing Co. With a slew of releases already underneath their belts, the company does not plan on stopping their innovative path forward anytime soon.
Spending a number of days with Mooney and Munroe, it is clear to me that their passion for Westward and American single malts runs deep, but so does their appreciation of the Pacific Northwest and what it represents for the brand. The brand is more than just an American single malt in a nice looking bottle. It embraces a laid-back culture that prides itself on being a trailblazer, yet never taking itself too seriously in life that they’re not willing to try new things. The brand's respect for the land surrounding it and the partners it works with shined through. Not only are they putting out excellent examples of American single malts, the brand and the people who collectively help run it will have you wondering why the rest of America can’t be a little bit more like the laid-back way of the PNW culture.
Our visit was provided at no cost by Westward Whiskey. We thank them for allowing us to visit and share our unimpeded thoughts about our time on site.