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Revival spirit takes the stage at Toast


COURTESY: JASON ODONNELL - Tualatin Valley Distilling will be featuring its Morewoods Usquebaugh at Toast this weekend. Says Jason ODonnell, chief distiller: People do tend to love it or hate it.Jason O’Donnell is kicking it old-school style with his brand of whiskey.

Really, really old school — as in a recipe dating back to 1838, when people made booze with whatever they had on hand, like licorice root, anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, cardamom and saffron.

O’Donnell, co-owner and chief distiller of Tualatin Valley Distilling in Hillsboro, calls this particular concoction Morewood’s Usquebaugh (pronounced US-kuh-baw).

It’s a historic revival spirit, one of three he distills at his upstart brewery, and one that he’ll be showcasing at this year’s Toast event — the sixth annual artisan spirits festival hosted by the Oregon Distillers Guild.

Set for Saturday, Feb. 27, in the Pearl District, the event will feature 120 spirits from across the Northwest, the country and the world.

Around 40 distillers and craft producers will be offering tastings of their unique labels of whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, tequila, brandy, liqueurs, absinthe and aquavit.

For O’Donnell and fellow whiskey aficionado and business partner Corey Bowers, it’ll be the perfect opportunity to showcase their fairly unknown product that’s new to people’s palates and defies expectations for many reasons.

Co-located with Big Bottom Distilling, they started production in 2014 and released the usquebaugh last June.

“People do tend to love it or hate it,” O’Donnell says of the usquebaugh’s flavor profile. “It takes a lot of education and communication that we’ve been doing on social media, in our tasting room, at local events.”

Part of the education is their hands-on process, which includes milling the grain, brewing each mash, pitching the yeast, distilling the wash, and bottling it by hand on-site. They also age it in 5- and 6-gallon oak barrels on-site, which gives it a better surface area contact and can truncate the aging process a bit, O’Donnell explains.

“In general, people are closed off to whiskeys (aged) under four years,” he says. “We can get mature whiskey out to market faster. The age of ours is at least four months. Most of our bottles are 6 1/2 to 7 months old. ... We try to let the whiskey speak for itself.”

And it has. At last year’s Great American Spirits Festival in Portland, each of Tualatin Valley Distilling’s three products took home a medal.

Their Morewood’s Usquebaugh and Oregon Single Malt American Whiskey each won a silver, and their Fifty/Fifty American Whiskey won a gold.

At Toast, O’Donnell will offer tastings and recipe cards for three cocktails that feature the spirit.

ODONNELLO’Donnell — who still works his day job at a local technology company — didn’t come into the venture blindly. He has deep roots in the whiskey community, having run a whiskey tasting group for 16 years.

Based in Southern California, O’Donnell co-founded the club as a subgroup of the medieval re-enactment group he ran with. At their grand tasting every year, about 200 people come through, he says.

In Portland he’s part of a similar group called PDX Whiskey, which meets for tastings and to learn about quality whiskey — “whether American or Scotch, we tend toward the Scotch, but don’t discriminate,” O’Donnell says. “It’s about the education, learning about the process.”

As part of the re-enactment group, O’Donnell had been making his own clothes, building his own shields and getting his hands on deeper bits of history, including seeking out old whiskey recipes.

About 12 years ago, he stumbled onto the recipe, and started playing with it to see if it was marketable.

Now that it’s one of three spirits he produces, he’s already looking to what’s next.

He wants to fill larger barrels, and expects to start making absinthe later this year.

He’ll keep his eye on other historic recipes, perhaps more approachable ones you can read about in the books but can’t really learn until you sit down and start doing it.

Having always had a deep appreciation for history, “going back to time-tested recipes is always a great way (to learn about spirits),” he says. “It helps you lean on known entities. Knowing your past leads you into future success.”

Drink up

What: Toast, hosted by the Oregon Distillers Guild

When: 4-10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27

Where: Really Big Video event space, 539 N.W. 10th Ave.

Cost: Tickets are $45, at http://www.oregondistillerytrail.com

Tualatin Valley Distilling's three cocktails recipes featuring Moreland's Usquebaugh:

The Wanderer

Slice of fresh pineapple

Sugar cube

2 dashes Angostura bitters

1 1/2 oz Morewood’s Usquebaugh

1 to 2 oz water or soda water

1/4 oz vodka

Dash of DE CABRÓN Jack’n Cola Pimenta sauce to taste

Place sugar cube and pineapple slice in an Old Fashioned glass and saturate with bitters; add a dash of water. Muddle until dissolved. Fill with ice cubes and add Morewood’s Usquebaugh. Add a float of vodka with a dash of Jack’n Cola Pimenta sauce. Garnish with pineapple slice. Credit to Keith Allen for cocktail inspiration and structure.

Morewood’s Hibiscus Toddy

2 ounces Morewood’s Usquebaugh

Small dollop of honey

Dash lemon juice

Clove or two

1 bag Steven Smith’s Big Hibiscus tea blend 24, with hot water

Add all to mug and steep for two minutes; stir to dissolve the honey.

The Alchemist

2 ounces Morewood’s Usquebaugh

1/2 ounce saffron syrup

1/4 ounce lemon juice

Combine all and shake; serve over crushed ice with lemon peel and a dusting of ground cinnamon. Designed by Estanislado Orona of Raven & Rose.