Loaded word, right? Signifies that Somethin’s Up. What follows it had better be news of the roll-yer-socks-down variety or you are instantly The Boy Who Cried Wolf. And I use it very sparingly, here, because…well, I’m a crusty old bastard and less easily impressed every day.
But “Wow” is precisely the right description for what I found when I started opening and tasting the eight little bottles from a six year-old distillery in Portland (that’s right, they DO make some harder stuff down there in Beervana) that I honestly knew very little about. The box appeared more or less out of thin air, as I hadn’t asked for the samples or gotten any notice that they were coming. And I originally set it aside, thinking it was part of the dozens of shipments I’ve gotten as submissions for my upcoming Fall Value Spirits Round-Up. After two days, I opened it, got curious, and sat down to taste with my gorgeous Domestic Partner.
Who knew it would turn out to be an actual milestone?
I adore potato vodkas; that slightly oily texture, the earthiness and faint intimations of the potatoes, the clarity and crispness – all distinctly different from grain-based Vodka. In the Eastside Distilling Portland Potato Vodka, a mild and appealing pepperiness, reminiscent of white peppercorns, announces itself immediately after that sweet, almost creamy tickle on the tip of the tongue. Grace notes of bitter lemon, tart apple, sweet herbs, and that marvelous background impression of fresh potatoes just out of the earth surface smoothly and give it a nice, easy-drinking complexity that makes this one Potato Vodka that works just fine as a sipper, served chilled from the fridge. The outright silkiness of it is amazingly pleasing and the moderate burn gives it a touch of Edge that flatters the whole thing. This is a fine, elegantly-made Vodka that immediately takes a spot in my personal American Top Ten 94 Points
From that audacious start, we went next to the remarkable Eastside Distilling “Below Deck” Silver Rum. Eastside has chosen to make their line of rums from molasses, a decision that makes me want to grab some pom-poms and turn into the World’s Homeliest Cheerleader. The molasses is absolutely and rather proudly present in the flavor profile of these rums, without totally dominating the flavor curve. In this Silver, it contributes a rich, mellow sweetness and buttery character that lies just under the prominent anise and wood and citrus notes like a warm blanket. There’s a notable and wildly attractive depth to this rum; a chewy, down-home substance that immediately sets this apart from about 98% of all the American Rums I taste. This is a fine, fine – and I would even say “ground-breaking” – take on traditional Silver Rums and already the best I’ve tasted from the Northwest. 93 Points
Eastside Distilling “Below Deck” Ginger Rum is instantly and radically different from almost every other Ginger Rum on the market and, I might add, aggressively so. This is NOT sweet. Not even by intimation. One of my biggest pet peeves is having to hunt around in a beverage to try to find the flavor of whatever infusion is named on the label. This Ginger tastes, by God, like GINGER. Fresh, hot, uncut ginger root and plenty of it. Under the ginger lurks that molasses, so the total impression is not wimpy and indistinct, like most flavored rums I taste, but powerful and assertive and intense. What this does is make this Rum a flat-out killer mixer, as in the tiny cocktail we made of this and New Amsterdam Pineapple Vodka. I am, at best, ambivalent about flavored spirits but the sweetness of the Vodka and the fresh punch of the Ginger Rum added up to a genuinely bewitching combination. As a sipper, neat, this may be tough going for newer drinkers but, for an old dog like me, this was Ginger Rum like I always dreamed it could be. 93 Points
I sometimes read down a distillery’s product list and secretly hope that I will NOT find a spiced rum. This admittedly warped impulse is joined at the hip to my ongoing distaste for those increasing numbers of pumpkin beers that show exactly how little imagination their brewers really have, in that 99% of ’em taste like a dull Pale Ale shoved into a blender with a pie slice, pureed, and then strained lightly. In Rum, the approach usually isn’t much different, using the same spice palette. For several years, the only one I would touch was Sailor Jerry’s and then only sparingly. It gives me no small pleasure to report that poor ol’ solitary Sailor Jerry now has a shipmate. Eastside Distilling “Below Deck” Spiced Rum does, yes, over-shoot by a hair the intensity of Jerry’s but the fat, sassy molasses character frames the emphatic spices nicely and makes the whole make sense. It has a tad less body than Jerry’s but more intensity and a far better finish, melting sweetly away on the palate in a shower of pretty spices that fade without a hint of an off-note. If you’re going to drink spiced Rum – and I know I’m very much in the minority on this – Eastside’s Below Deck version is one you simply cannot miss. 91 Points
The last of ED’s Rums variations is their masterpiece. Eastside Distilling “Below Deck” Coffee Rum is the best of its style I have ever tasted. By a country mile. It makes industry-standard Kahlua taste like weak Sanka and sports a richness, aggressive coffee presence, and texture like pure velvet that is nothing less than eye-popping. I took me about one half of one sip to actually emit that, “Wow!“, mentioned above and the Gorgeous DP, a White Russian fan from way back, got there only a microsecond later. I admit to having never heard of Portland Roasters, the outfit that provided the coffee, but I am damned sure going to find them the next time I’m in PDX. I also enjoy the rare White Russian, even though I usually can’t stand cocktails, but the very idea of mixing this with anything was almost horrifying. It’s so near-perfect as-is that I couldn’t see wasting it in milk and Vodka but, at the DP’s urging, I grudgingly poured about a half ounce into hers in lieu of Kahlua and, lo and behold, it didn’t need any more! This is so adamantly rich and potent that about a quarter of the amount of Kahlua we’d usually use was more than enough to give a Russian an assertive, coffee-rich backbone that totally masked the rather vivid rye-based Vodka we used. This is what I always hoped Coffee Rum would taste like and I really hope nobody at Eastside ever gets bored and decides to tweak. It would be like drawing a moustache on Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. 96 Points
Much as I enjoyed what started this tasting, what I was really all atwitter to get to was, of course, the Whiskeys. I realize there are people out there who don’t like or appreciate Whiskeys or maybe just don’t drink them for health reasons but I don’t personally any of the former and few of the latter. And I don’t understand either of them. I’ve waxed rhapsodic about Whiskey just recently, here, so I’ll spare you but Whiskey, for me, is always The Main Event and, even here, even considering that almost no distillery in the Northwest is old enough to offer any well-aged Whiskeys, Eastside did not disappoint.
My aversion to infused Whiskey is fairly well established, by now. Yeah, yeah, call me a purist. You’d be wrong but go ahead. It’s not a purist thing, at all. I don’t give a rat’s ass for the “grand traditions of American Whiskey”. I just don’t like tarted-up versions when the real thing is avaliable. But, even here, Eastside gave me some genuine Food (Okay, Booze) For Thought.
The only one of the Eastside line-up about which I am at all ambivalent is Eastside “Cherry Bomb” Cherry Whiskey. Even at that, I like this stuff quite a bit but I didn’t think that what the promotional booklet called “a blast of real Oregon cherries and aged whiskey” showed a terribly authentic representation of the sort of real cherry freshness or flavor that comes from the type of fat, succulent Oregon cherries that I eat to excess, every year. It’s viscous and intense, yes, and should be both but the combination of the barrel-aged Whiskey and cherries somehow added up to something that just didn’t do it, for me. And, at that, this is still one of the two or three best cherry Whiskeys I’ve ever tasted. In fairness, I don’t think anybody has ever made a completely convincing cherry Whiskey and I have some doubt that anyone ever will. Cherry juice is a notoriously difficult thing to keep in any sort of fresh state and the idea of it tasting, infused in anything, like eating a ripe Bing is just not gonna happen. For those who do drink and enjoy Cherry Whiskeys or Vodkas or cordials, this is probably going to be your new Cherry Thang of choice. For me…well. I’m still looking. 90+ Points
Eastside “Burnside” Bourbon is, at four years old, the most muscular and put-together tyke you will ever encounter. By now, I and the thousands of other NW Whiskey fans have tasted a small lake full of under-age Whiskey, for the simple reason that 99% of all NW distilleries haven’t been open long enough to have anything else. So, we have this broad, unspoken agreement to compare them to their regional brethren and Wait. Patiently. (Okay, not very patiently at all.) Despite this obvious short-coming, Whiskey in the PNW is quite a bit more than alive and well, here in 2014, and this is one of the four or five best of the lot. Burnside is…elegant. I would trade a small, unimportant body part to find out what this stuff is like in 10 or 18 years. At just four, this is s full-bore “serious” Whiskey, complete with complexity and gorgeous barrel presence and a caramel, cereal, coconut, and mild tree fruit personality that is just bewitching. I defy any Bourbon lover to sit with a glass of this and not be both entertained and completely satisfied. It;s smooth and utterly crowd-pleasing and shows a lingering, civilized burn that flatters everything that comes just before it. This is Complete and authentic American Bourbon that requires no apologies or rationalizing or anything, really, but an appreciation of good Whiskey…and a glass. 95 Points
For me to say what I’m about to say about Eastside Distilling Marionberry Whiskey is tantamount to hearing the Pope admit to a fondness for soft-core porn. I cannot, however, not say it: Eastside Marionberry may just be THE best infused liquor of any kind that I have ever tasted. This stuff is as close to perfect as infused spirits get. I honestly opened the bottle expecting to shrug and get on to the next thing but this…this elixir stopped me cold. What you taste in this is real, juicy, semi-sweet Northwest marionberries (okay, blackberries) but not in the nicely assertive manner of the ginger in their Ginger Rum. This is subtle and slow-evolving and the flavor dawns on you. It develops, like a Kodak of a beautiful sunrise, as it glides, in all its vivid majesty, across your tongue. The balance between the base spirit and the berry infusion is seamless and perfect. The two beautifully complement each other, seeming to draw out what’s best about each set of flavors and nicely framing them, instead of duking it out. I retasted this stuff five times, growing more impressed each time. For those who prefer flavored Whiskey and all the sipping/mixing possibilities it represents, this is one you absolutely MUST try. I’ve seldom been so completely impressed by anything from a distillery this young and never by a flavored Whiskey but this is simply undeniable. Bravo to Eastside Distilling for all of this ridiculously impressive roster of imaginative and judicious spirits and for the obvious taste and skill that has gone into them all. 97 Points
For those who live outside Oregon, these may be a bit hard to find. Okay, honestly, I’m not even seeing them in a whole lot of places on shelves here in Seattle but they seem to have made a big impression on bartenders, as most of the locations listed on the website are restaurants, where I really never drink spirits. Outside of the two-state area, you’ll probably have to rely on finding an online retailer and, trust me, if you love beautifully-crafted American artisan spirits, you want to. Eastside Distilling is a Serious contender for the title of Best Distillery in the Northwest and is only going to get better as those barrels come of age.