Otis is a good man. Truly. He was a fun guy, but he was also on the top of his game. He’s also a thoughtful host, earlier in the year I had selected a single cask from Westward from a sample kit and we elected to let it age a bit longer.
He went and found that cask and pulled it down so we could have a taste and make sure it was right where we wanted it.
Physically it was right where I wanted it. Tasting wise? That too!
A fun little tidbit of visiting distilleries is noting how everyone pulls bungs. The bung is that little wooden plug that stops the barrel and keeps all the liquid goodness on the inside.
When you taste through a bunch of barrels, all those bungs have to be pulled so you can get the thief in there and pull samples. I’ve taken an interest in watching how different distillers pull bungs. I don’t think there’s some deep psychology to it, but it’s interesting to see everyone’s preferences.
For instance, when at Laphroaig, we had a standard bung puller. You drill a screw end into the bung until it’s fairly buried, and then use a rising hammer motion to rip the bung out.
Other people, like Bruce Russell, wail on the staves to the left and right of the bung with a ball headed hammer. This wiggles the bung a bit until the pressure inside the barrel pops the bung up and out.
At Jack Daniels, they straight up murder that bung with a hammer until it pops into the barrel, kind of like pushing a wine cork into the bottle, instead of extracting.
Otis had a new strategy. It sort of fit with his gentle, methodical demeanor. He used a cloth and a large pair of pliers. He’d wrap the bung with the cloth, grab the bung with the pliers, then rotate up and out gently. Kept the bung in good shape, nice and graceful. Nice work, Otis.
We tasted this barrel, a standard expression single barrel from them (no finish) and it was drinking great. Clocking in right at 129 proof or so, this had been maturing exclusive in an ISC Char #2 barrel since its barreling in July of 2016. So many rich layers of cocoa, maple, tobacco, rich butter cream and honey reminded me of our 2022 selection with an extra backbone of spice and sweet oak. A hint of blackberry on the finish. It was awesome, and it was ready. Thumbs up – off to bottling it goes.
While he made some notes on his trusty iPad, I noticed an interesting tasting setup on a wall behind us. I asked what was in the briefcase. Otis remained silent. It was either nuclear codes or empty air, but I’m not one to encroach on another man’s briefcase.
Otis and I did some more walking and talking. Westward had an unusual attitude towards experimentation: if it sounded cool, they’d do it. I filed this tidbit away in the back of my mind for a rainy day.
As a result of their willingness to experiment, they had a number of interesting other casks on hand that they were working on ideas for.
In this picture you can see that they have a number of large oak blender vats for when they marry a couple barrels. They’re old, so so old. Interestingly enough, they basically always need to be blending and marrying something, otherwise the vats degrade too quickly due to age when they are empty. That stuff is so cool to me, living whiskey history that’s creating top notch modern expressions even at old ages.
Some additional barrels caught my eye. I squeezed between rows of barrels with Otis and we checked on some stout cask expressions. We tried a few of those. We moseyed a couple aisles over and tried a pallet or two of other vintages (year of distillation) of their single malt. We talked about beer. We talked about wine. Otis mentioned maybe he had a few barrels of wine cask we could taste. No guarantees he said, but what could it hurt to taste a bit?
Oh we tasted. There’s an immense pride in the PNW for their wine, so it was really cool to taste through a number of PNW single malts from Westward aged in PNW wine casks. There was one I really loved that I couldn’t stay out of. Punching a touch over 130pf, this was no meek creature. Those signature caramel and butter cream and tobacco notes of the Westward melded beautiful with red fruits, currant, cranberry, strawberry and some balancing tannin. Great stuff.
I asked if I could select that cask as well and Otis said he’d see what he could do. We talked some more, mostly about how the brewing scene and distilling scene had grown, melded, shaken up, compressed and more in Portland. Otis mentioned they were moving into a bigger space shortly which I found impressive and surprising but it made sense. If they were about to triple distilling capacity, they’d need someplace for Otis and his forklift to put it. He seemed pretty jazzed about more space and more experimentation possibilities.
It was time for my ride back to the distillery, I snapped a picture or two and was on my way back.
Their front desk was vacant but neat. Snap.
I met back up with Jonathan and we took a short walk downtown. Earlier in the day we had an interesting discussion about the things we like to drink when we’re not working. I expressed that wine was a favorite of mine because it felt like a final frontier of sorts.
In my earliest days of whiskey, a new bottle and brand was a new adventure, an opportunity to experience a complete unknown with no idea of what it may taste or present like. I’ve had the privilege to taste thousands of whiskeys since those early days. As a result though, there’s a lot less mystery for me in whiskey. That’s a good thing, but sometimes I miss the feeling of being lost in a new tasting experience, devoid of context, reference, an idea of what something may taste like.
Wine for me is that new experience. Jonathan mentioned earlier in the day he had an idea for when barrels were tasted for the day and I liked the look of mischief in his eye.
Portland is a weird city. That sounds like a pivot but it’s not. With weird comes an eclectic blend of the coolest things. As a result, I soon found myself in a tiny shop that specialized only in Sake.
I’ve had Sake, like, maybe twice. Other than the ‘what’ of sake and how it’s made, I know nothing about it. I felt like Charlie at first glance in the chocolate factory. So much interesting stuff.
Jonathan and I spent a bit of time chatting with Nina, the owner of the shop. (Sunflower Sake) and tried three different sakes. I didn’t take notes, I should have, but I was living in the moment.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to dive in and run with a Sake Raiders (lord knows I have enough on my plate), but even that small tasting changed a couple notions I had about sake that were incorrect. I loved the bready, melon forward and salinity driven profiles of the three expressions we had. Would have paired awesome with food.
From there, we split for a bit. I wanted to drop off some stuff at my hotel, but Jonathan mentioned that if I was interested, he had one more local spot to check out that night after hours. I mentioned I had planned to explore for the evening anyways, so that would work out just fine.
His final local stop for me was none other than the fairly notorious Multnomah Whiskey Library. I hit the hotel, got some work done, cleaned up the inbox, freshened up and another scooter ride later, I was pulling up to the unassuming front of MWL.
What a neat spot. I gotta say. I didn’t take pictures of anything other than my drinks because, well, that felt rude. Gotta blend in. You get it. I threw the bartender off his rhythm (not really) ordering my favorite travel cocktail: a Negroni. He asked if he could riff. I said of course. Never ask questions when someone requests a riff. As long as you trust them. He seemed like he knew what he was doing.
Minutes later, he wheeled up a drink cart and got to work on a Negroni with some Montenegro in the mix. Loved it.
I also tried a pour of the Cascade Moon – extra aged Dickel that’s bottled at 39.9% ABV, which I had always wanted to try but never seen. Jonathan let me know this round was on him, so I also wanted to be on my best behavior – the 1970’s Arbeg would have to wait for another day.
Multnomah is a cool spot. I had some bread, rocked a few olives and Jonathan and I caught up on personal lives, the future of Westward, a future Portland event (!!) and generally shot the shit. I don’t always get to just sit back with folks after the barrels are done – they have lives and jobs and other work and family and stuff and I don’t like to usurp that. I was thankful for our time together and after our round, it was time for us to split up.
I hopped on my scooter (these things are awesome) and headed out in search of dinner while dodging the locals left and right. I had a day in Hood River to plan for, some work that had no doubt piled up, but I was hungry and I needed to find a bite. Off into the city I went…
Pt III tomorrow