The Spirit of Experimentation: Westward Whiskey

We tour the brand’s facilities in Oregon

Straight ahead, through the front doors of Westward Whiskey‘s new distillery, there are dozens of bottles in varying shapes and sizes with an assortment of labels tucked into a glass case. These are the Portland brand’s archive bottles, stretching back to when they were originally founded in 2004 as House Spirits Distillery. There’s a small-batch bourbon whiskey, an original version of Krogstad’s Aquavit, an Oregon ouzu, shochu, creme de cacao liqueur, a handful of bottles of Westward and much more.

Though a lot of these were limited to one-offs and special releases, the archive is indicative of something larger: though the brand has a history of crafting scalable brands (Aviation Gin, Volstead Vodka, Casa Magdalena Rum, Krogstad Aquavit and now Westward Whiskey), it’s experimentation that they excel at most.

In that spirit, at the core of the brand’s whiskey is an excellent brewery—a 35 bbl one to be exact. (One bbl is the equivalent of 31 gallons.) Almost everyone on staff at Westward previously held positions at breweries—ranging from master brewer to operations manager—and it shows in their house-brewed whiskey wash, which doubles as a palatable beer on its own. Comparably, the process for crafting spirits is far calmer: they’re flat beverages and spend most of their time, in this instance especially, in barrels at another facility (except for their surprisingly complex white whiskey). There’s less instant gratification, but for Westward the long-game is stimulating.

Inside their barrel facility in nearby Clackamas, Oregon, there are rows and rows of barrels—ex-Oregon pinot noir iterations, a handful of their third fills and plenty of others—filled with various spirits. In total, there are over 4,000 barrels in the facility, which is affectionately called “Jenny.” Whether it’s Casa Magdalena rum (aged for a few years until it tastes of bananas), a Westward Whiskey (offering a barrel its third fill) or a 27-month-old all-Oregon whiskey that tastes of candied dates and raw wood, touring the treasures of “Jenny”—led by owner and master distiller Christian Krogstad—proves tantalizing.

Especially alluring is the brand’s willingness to ship used barrels off to collaborators and vice versa. Tasting a pair of beers finished in Westward barrels gives new meaning to the byproduct of their spirits: a Breakside Brewery pilsner gains depth and bitterness, while an IPA from Bent Shovel Brewing pulls fruit and coffee notes from the barrel. On their end, Westward Whiskey finished in an Oregon pinot noir barrel accentuates its fruit characteristics. Another one, made from local baker Ken Forkish’s sourdough starter, boasts funk and a unique mouthfeel.

“The bottom line is, when I was brewing beer or with spirits now, I want you, when you finish a glass of our whiskey, to immediately want another one. So, it’s not palate fatiguing. It’s not strident in any way. It’s very flavorful and very rich, but it’s deeply satisfying,” Krogstad says.

This sensation is most prevalent in one of the brand’s newest releases: the Westward Whiskey Oregon Stout Cask. The whiskey is the culmination of their relationship with the state’s best breweries; it boasts deeper, more roasted notes and a drier finish.

“These are 100% new American oak. We dump those, send the barrels out to 25 or so participating breweries throughout Portland, and Oregon, and they age their stouts and porters in them. We get the barrels back and then we age for a minimum of one more year,” Jordan Felix, of the Westward brand, says.

“Most of what we do is in fermentation and really crucial, but every aspect of what we do is art and science,” Krogstad finishes. Though they may not release everything they make, it’s likely done not to show their clever hand; to give them time to continue experimenting with their stock until another small-batch release surfaces from the sea of barrels.

Images by Evan Malachosky