Sometime in the late 18th century, a band of small-batch distillers fled to the Kentucky countryside, where corn was abundant and a new liquor tax—which had just spurred a bloody rebellion—was rarely enforced. They shipped their whiskey in charred oak barrels, which imparted an amber coloring and a pleasant, sweet-smoky flavor. Recognizing a good thing, they made some more and, with a stroke of marketing ingenuity, stamped the barrels with the whiskey's region of origin: "Old Bourbon."
Two hundred years later, Kentucky bourbon is still the king of American whiskey. But another band of small-batch distillers has settled in Portland, Oregon, where the ingredients for fine whiskey—grain, water, wood—are plentiful and the laws are friendly to moonshiners who want to turn an honest buck. Right now, in garages and warehouses around the city, plans for another Whiskey Rebellion are being hatched. This time the barrels will be labeled "Oregon Whiskey," and if all goes well, what's inside them will rival the best that Kentucky and Tennessee have to offer.
On a recent visit to Portland in search of these whiskey pioneers, I head to an industrial neighborhood near the Willamette River in the southeast part of the city, where several new whiskey-producing distilleries—House Spirits, Integrity Spirits and Highball among them—have set up shop.