Stuart Forster interviews master distiller Christian Krogstad of Westward Whiskey, a craft distillery based in Portland, Oregon.
Christian Krogstad founded his company as House Spirits Distillery in 2004. Its flagship products include Casa Magdalena rum, Krogstad aquavit, Volstead vodka and Westward American Single Malt whiskey.
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The Westward Whiskey distillery stands on Washington Street, near the Willamette River. It’s one of nine craft distilleries forming Portland’s Distillery Row. They open their doors to visits by members of the public.
Award-winning American whiskey
Since December 2019 Westward American Single Malt whiskey has been available in the United Kingdom. In April 2020 both the single malt and Westward Oregon Stout Cask were awarded gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
After enjoying a glass of Westward American Single Malt I chatted with Christian about craft distilling in Portland and the characteristics of the whiskey.
We also discussed his participation in the American craft brewing revolution. Notably, Christian founded the Orchard Street Brewery in Bellingham, Washington, and was the head brewer at McMenamins’ Edgefield Brewery.
Christian has Norwegian ancestry and his desire for Scandinavia’s spirit resulted in the development of Krogstad Aquavit.
My questions are emboldened and followed by transcriptions of Christian’s responses.
What’s your role at the distillery?
I am the founder. I started the House Spirits Distillery 16 years ago — a classic start-up using personal savings, home equity loans and eventually credit cards. It grew over the years and I have also taken on investors. I went from being the full owner to being a minority owner now, as investment has come in.
My role is now master distiller. Master distiller has come to be more of a marketing role than a production rule. I’m still involved in production, new product development, quality control and general troubleshooting.
It’s been over a year since I operated a still, but I remember how [Christian laughs].
Why establish a craft distillery in Oregon?
I had been working for 13 years in the craft brewing industry. For eight, nine years before that I had been a craft brewing aficionado — a craft beer fancier.
In 2002, I was managing a brewery where the owners brought in a still to make malt whiskey. That was an epiphany for me.
For a lot of people, it’s hard to imagine something until you see it. I saw that 90 per cent of making whiskey is making beer. A pretty logical next step was to start a distillery.
At that point, I was managing a brewery and involved in converting that beer to whiskey.
I had a strong entrepreneurial instinct. I realised that the same market forces that had propelled craft beer to such heights were likely to shape the craft distilling industry.
When I started in the craft brewing movement, in 1991, I think there were something like 400 to 500 craft breweries in the United States. In 1980 there were none. In the space of 10 to 11 years, it went to around 400. Now there are something like 7,000. Arguably, that’s too many. We’ve gone a little bit in the other direction.
Craft distilling in the USA
When I started House Spirits Distillery, in 2004, there were 35 craft distilleries in the country. We were very early in the movement — that would be equivalent to being a craft brewery in 1982 or something like that.
Today there are well over 2,000 craft distilleries in the country. In 2004, with only having 35, obviously the market was dominated by the large, industrial distilleries. The American consumer has discovered variety.
How does working in America’s craft distilling industry compare to involvement in craft brewing?
It was really exciting. It was very fresh. Also, I was a lot younger — 25 — so that makes a little difference. It was a lot easier to be innovative. There was so much green field then. You almost couldn’t go wrong. There was a lot of learning going on and some beer that wasn’t so good — but it got a lot better.
I think what’s changed, in the brewing industry, they feel like they need to maintain that level of innovation. Like the consumer is always looking for the next juicy IPA [India Pale Ale] or whatever. I think that’s a mistake. I think that a great, tasty beer will be a classic.
Participants in the distilling market are conscious that we see parallels with brewing — with a delay of around 20 years. It’s the same consumers who are driving it — the same consumer interest in innovation and local produce.
Craft brewing in Portland
For the first 20 years of the craft brewing movement, the breweries were founded by beer geeks. They were homebrewers or people who had studied in the UK or Germany, or somewhere, and came to love those beers and because they couldn’t buy them in the States decided to start breweries.
The craft distilling industry learnt from the craft brewing movement. There’s a lot more investment money available and more venture capital. As a broad generalisation, a lot more people view it as a business rather than a vocation, though not everyone. That’s good and bad. Maybe it’ll create more stable businesses but less passion.
Why base yourself in Portland?
In part, it’s because of the breweries. Portland was a hotspot for brewing. I’m from Seattle and moved to Portland to become a brewer.
There are something like 90 breweries in Portland right now. It’s a culinary hotspot even though it’s a city of just half-a-million people. As they would say in boxing, we punch above our weight.
We have a fantastic restaurant scene. Portland eschews corporate and chain restaurants…Portland has always been an economically depressed city, so rents are cheap.
It’s the sort of place that you can take a chance. You don’t have to have a big investment group backing you — like in New York — to start a restaurant, coffee shop, brewery or distillery.
Nike in Beaverton
Nike’s HQ is in Beaverton [under 20 minutes’ drive from downtown Portland]. The company’s presence and the local focus on design and marketing are key factors in attracting creative and entrepreneurial talent to the area.
It’s the culture of the place. We were one of the hotbeds of third wave of coffee roasting, with Stumptown Coffee. Our wine industry is really interesting. Oregon doesn’t have large wineries but it has highly acclaimed wineries.
We don’t have a big financial services industry like New York. We don’t have a big software industry like San Francisco or an entertainment industry like LA. So people in Portland sort of have to create their own industry. It’s become a culinary industry that we’ve created. It’s a culinary tourism spot too — they go hand in hand.
What key lessons have American distillers learnt from the craft brewing industry?
When the craft brewing movement started in the 1980s it was largely modelled after classic European beers. Some people were trying to make Burton upon Trent pale ale. Some were trying to make London porter or Bavarian hefeweizen or whatever. That’s a great place to start but not very compelling because if you want Burton upon Trent pale ale you should just buy Burton upon Trent pale ale.
In the 1980s Sierra Nevada — brewing out of Chico, California — first articulated that they were making American Pale Ale. They were recognising its international progenitor was Burton-on-Trent pale ale but made with American ingredients and, more importantly, made for the American palate.
The American palate had been raised on cold, carbonated beer but now the American palate wanted something more interesting. Sierra Nevada made this pale ale that was a hundred per cent from two-row barley but used copious quantities of a native American hop variety called Cascade hops and slightly higher alcohol content and slightly more robust than a lager or traditional pale ale.
Creating for the American palate
I learnt from brewing that it’s really important to know where these styles came from but equally important to create your own mark and to advance the art.
When I started a distillery I didn’t go through the exercise of trying to copy anyone else. I love London dry gin but someone else already makes that. I didn’t want to copy it — what’s the point in that?
That’s where Aviation American Gin came from. We wanted to make something that was more suited for the American palate. For whatever reason, Americans don’t love Juniper. So we backed down on the Juniper and made it more balanced.
Aviation American Gin is available via Amazon:
A love of whiskey
I don’t know a brewer out there who doesn’t love whiskey, because whiskey is just concentrated beer [laughter]. I love single malts such as Laphroaig and Talisker but I don’t want to copy them. You’re not going to be successful just copying someone else. Here we were coming from this really vibrant craft brewing culture in Portland — very innovative and high quality — so I really wanted to take the lessons from brewing and apply them to distilling.
Some of those lessons were technical, around controlling fermentation temperature and controlling the microorganisms that were in ferment. Then also taking lessons of innovation and styling for a different palate.
What are the characteristics of Westward American Single Malt whiskey?
It is much more robust than is typical for Scottish malts, much more rich, has a heavier body and mouthfeel, and also a little bit sweeter.
That’s from a combination of factors. One is because we’ve been really careful with fermentation. We haven’t produced a bunch of off-flavours. If you stress out the yeast and have a fast or hot fermentation, the yeast tends to produce some solvent-like flavours that take quite a long time to mitigate in the barrel. In a nice, clean, gentle ferment the yeast produces some floral and fruit esters. Those fruity esters are temperamental — the longer they age in a barrel, the more you lose the fruit.
Because we haven’t produced a lot of off-flavours during our ferment. We have very little reflux in our stills. It’s almost like minimalist cooking. We take a larger cross-section of the compounds that come through, the congeners. Some of those appear to be sweetness, richness or fruitiness. Applying 21st century fermentation techniques, we were able to do that.
You also get sweetness from the barrel. We’re using new American white oak barrels. It produces a whiskey that’s rich and robust. There’s a flavour in there that’s familiar to the American whiskey drinker’s palate, brought up on bourbon, because of the barrel. The body and aroma are malt.
How would you normally drink your whiskey?
I drink it neat, particularly when it’s cold out. Alternatively, I like to put one ice cube in it and enjoy it as it cools down and dilutes a little bit — that way you get to taste as more of the nose comes out.
I don’t think that there’s a better whiskey for making a whiskey sour. The sweetness and the richness really stand up to the lemon and marries well with that whole cocktail.
Westward American Single Malt whiskey is available via Amazon:
Visiting the Westward Whiskey distillery in Portland
Interested in visiting Westward Whiskey and taking a tour? Details of tours, whiskey tasting masterclasses and cocktail-making workshops are listed on the distillery’s website.
Google map showing how to get to the Westward Whiskey in Portland, Oregon.
There’s also a Westward Whisky tasting lounge at Portland International Airport (PDX).
Thank you for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this interview with Christian Krogstad of Westward Whiskey? Maybe you’d be interested in reading this interview about organic farming and Austrian beer.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, is a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers and is available for commissions on travel, food and drink-related themes.
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A version of this post was initially published on Go Eat Do on 3 June 2020.