Portland craft distillers grow up, evolve

Portland craft distillers grow up, evolve

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Christian Krogstad of House Spirits Distillery on the bottling line of his Krogstad Aquavit, a liquor based on a traditional Scandinavian recipe. Krogstad is a founding member of House Spirits, which hopes to take on investors to grow its business.

SHAKEN AND STIRRED

STORY BY LUCY BURNINGHAM // PHOTOS BY PAULA WATTS

A tanned, barefoot Rod “Harry” Harris splashed some amber whiskey into glasses from aboard the RoLin, his 70-foot yacht moored in Portland’s RiverPlace marina. Harris helped make the spirit himself at House Spirits, a small-batch distillery in Portland, as part of the Whiskey Your Way program, which allows participants to blend and age their own 15-gallon barrel of whiskey for $4,900.

The liquid got him thinking. Two years into retirement, he needed a project. And not only did he like whiskey, he liked the liquor industry. Harris started talking about buying a controlling interest in House Spirits; founding owner Christian Krogstad was ready to grow the business. Harris saw the possibility as a karmic extension of his past life. “I’m trying to give a little love back to some entrepreneurs, which I didn’t have time to do when I was running my own business,” he says.

Harris founded Harry’s Fresh Foods in 1978, a fresh and prepared foods company in Portland. When he sold the company in 2007, it was reporting $70 million in annual sales. With experience running such a large-scale business, and available capital, Harris and like-minded investors represent a ripe opportunity for the local artisan distilling industry. While Harris decided not to invest in House Spirits, Krogstad had discussed developing a national brand that would eventually entice a large, national buyer. “These guys just need capitalization and a strong plan,” Harris says.

It’s a need many of Portland’s artisan distillers share, a fact that’s become increasingly obvious during the past year. The city’s high concentration of local distillers, which produce everything from organic vodkas to fruit brandies, has inspired countless articles and glowing reviews from local and national publications. But the high profile doesn’t erase the financial challenges. The Oregon Distillers Guild has 19 members, up from 16 since 2008, but it’s the loose collection of four Eastside Portland craft distillers who call themselves Distillery Row that is a more accurate microcosm of the evolving industry. Tough times have forced some to close, while survivors are eyeing the possibility of fast growth.