Interview: Mel from Eastside Distilling
Portland, OR is undoubtedly known for its craft beer and food scene.
However, there is also a solid group of distilleries in our lovely "city of roses" that are putting Portland on the map for craft spirits as well.
One of those distilleries is Eastside Distilling. I stopped by their tasting room for a visit a few weeks ago and was treated to a tasting of their entire spirits line-up.
I guess it was my lucky day because my host was none other than Eastside-legend Melissa Heim. Mel was kind enough to agree to an interview, so it's your lucky day as well because you get to hear from the creative force behind Eastside Distilling.
What is your role at Eastside Distilling?
I am the Executive Vice President of Operations and Master Distiller, second in command.
What got you started in working as a distiller?
A serendipitous relationship. I got my start by being in the right place at the right time and was offered an apprenticeship by the distiller at Rogue Ales and Spirits once he learned that I had a palate for craft beer and spirits.
What’s something about Eastside that sets it apart from other brands or distilleries?
Eastside is a fast-growing powerhouse in the craft spirits revolution but we had an uncertain entrance into the space, like most start-ups, as one of the first 150 licensed plants in the country.
I always tell bright-eyed entrepreneurs that if they really want to succeed in this space they’d better have a few things sorted out: capital, talent, innovative brands, distribution, and then more capital. We as a small team put tremendous efforts into the installation of these key pieces of the business as an investment into our overall vision to be a creative brand factory. We see opportunities to grow organically with our award-winning brands but to also grow alternatively with accretive acquisitions and our bottling subsidiary.
All of our efforts have been geared to creating and sharing more craft spirits with more consumers. There’s a reason why we have a 20 spirit portfolio. There’s a reason why our prices range from ‘craft value’ to ‘super premium’. There’s a reason why we have 5 retail locations. Eastside has itself evolved from the one-trick pony rum producer to an electrifying culture where creativity and success go hand-in-hand.
Did I mention NASDAQ? We’re also the only publicly traded craft distillery in the country so anyone can buy a share and have some ownership in our success which is pretty cool. Symbol: ESDI
Eastside Distilling is one of the founding companies of Portland’s "Distillery Row” correct? Can you tell me more about that?
That’s right. Back when the CEID (central eastside industrial district) was, as a majority, affordable manufacturing and industrial buildings with a small fraction being food and entertainment businesses; it was a good little place for the dreamers to set up creative workspaces. In fact, New Deal Distillery recently posted an amazing throwback picture on their social media showcasing their humble roots in a small, maybe 12x12 room with a single sink on the back wall depicting those early days of the row.
Eastside was also one of those little places. In fact, we still use that space today on SE 7th as a tasting room and for private events/parties. I worked out of that space when I started here in 2012, 1,000 sq. feet that included the tasting room and office, and then we made the move to SE MLK in 2014 when we started busting at the seams. It was important to stay close to our roots on the row and for the consumers who enjoy the passport tours that are offered. As the row grew, and more crafters started manifesting their dreams, so did our strength in numbers as a united tour de force that has yet to be replicated anywhere in the country. It’s like the brewery blocks downtown back in the day which are finally making a major comeback.
As a group we try to offer visitors and locals alike a one-stop strip of boozy goodness. It was sort of lonely when there was only the two of us, now there are 8 and the consensus is ‘the more the merrier’. We share in each other’s successes and I will shamelessly promote all of them. Shout out to the Westsiders as well!
What Eastside product(s) are you most proud of and why?
There are two. First, and this might be surprising, is the spiced rum.
Spiced rum seems simple enough, especially since the commercial spiced rums are one-noted and cloyingly sweet. That flavor profile is easy to replicate but we don’t make spiced rum like the conglomerates. I wanted to make an actual SPICED rum, you know, with spices that was spicy. It was almost a full year of R&D. I had almost 100 sample jars in every crevice of the space. I knew I wanted layers of flavor and some eccentric ingredients without being totally pretentious in my attempts. There was also the fact that I didn’t want a single grain of sugar in the bottle.
So yeah, after almost of year and purchasing every exotic flavor I could find without putting us out of business I had a wonderfully light yet complex rum that tasted like a traditional cola. That went on to be named best in the Northwest and I think it is a surprising find for those who try it.
The second one is the Oregon Oaked bourbon.
We started with two barrels and really didn’t have control of the flavors as whatever came out was what the finalized batch was. Over the course of 4 years I acquired almost 100 Oregon Oak barrels with a variety of char and toast levels and vat out each batch as a unique blend. We pioneered the use of Garryana Oak for whiskies and are becoming the market’s prime source for such offerings. The blending process has been an educational one and I’m thankful that my creative processes are encouraged and supported and that the coopers are willing to work closely with me in designing the barrels to my specific tannin profiles.
When I came by for a tasting you mentioned that you don’t drink spirits much (unless you count rosé). BUT if you were to get a cocktail and it was guaranteed to be awesome, what would it be?
Ok, I may have been fibbing about that as I happened to be on a Rose kick that week but you can’t blame a chick.
I like anything with fresh ingredients. I like the unexpected. I drink my whiskey straight but I like to be wooed with savory things such as herbs and greens and bubbly things from my mixologists.
For example, if you made me a drink with Portland Potato vodka, nectarine kombucha, agave and perhaps a mint sprig– I would drink that. What I don’t drink is sugar unless it’s in its natural fruit form but I love tanginess that’s found in vinegars and fermented goodies. A classic gin and soda is also a staple because I’m a classy lady.
What I’m saying Jordan is that you need to make me a cocktail.
Where can we find Eastside Distilling products?
For bottle sales, Eastside products can be found in the majority of Oregon Liquor stores, check out oregonliquorsearch.com to find bottles near you. That includes the wonderful expressions from Big Bottom Distilling, our partners in crime. (*if by crime you mean producing and distilling super premium, delicious booze and selling it to you, then yes, crime).
You can also visit one of our 5 retail locations in the metro area where we do sample and sell spirits and other local treats. Eastside selectively distributes to outlying states such as Washington, California, New York, Illinois, Nevada, D.C., Georgia, Massachusetts, etc. and even Canada.
If you’re not in any of those regions you can purchase bottles online at hitimewine.net and crafted-life.com . Eastside spirits are poured at various bars and restaurants around the city of Portland – I recommend Adam Keefe’s smoky Marionberry Manhattan at Loyal Legion or Andina’s signature cocktail, the SACSAYHUAMÁN, made with habanero infused Portland Potato Vodka. And if they don’t have it, ask a bartender!