In Oregon’s libation industry, few names have as much weight behind them as Bull Run Distillery’s Lee Medoff. Lee began his career as a brewer for McMenamins but began exploring distillation in 1998. Since then, Medoff has gone on to become one of Oregon’s most prolific master distillers, a founder and first president of the Oregon Distiller’s Guild and a true pioneer of craft distilling on a national level.
In 2004, he and his good friend, Christian Krogstad founded House Spirits, a craft distillery that has produced classics such as Aviation Gin, and trend setters like Krogstad Aquavit. Lee’s success has been based in his own propensity for creativity and his natural inclination towards experimentation. In many ways, this willingness to try new things and to constantly approach his craft with creativity, is what defines craft distilling, and what has contributed to Lee’s success.
Bull Run Distillery has had it’s doors open for a few years now; they recently purchased their building on NW 23rd and Quimby, and opened up the doors to a new tasting room in Carlton, OR. Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with Lee and pick his mind about his journey, current project and his perspective on the Craft Distilling scene as a whole.
When did you first start as a brewer at McMenamins, and what, if anything, did you learn from those first years?
I started brewing at McMenamins in 1990. I feel fortunate to have gotten involved in craft brewing when it was starting to really take off. There was a lot of energy, excitement and experimentation going on. I learned that great beer doesn't necessarily require state of the art equipment. Everyone seemed to have that DIY attitude and eagerness to make the best beer possible.
Was is it a pretty natural movement for you, to move from brewing into distilling?
Moving from Brewing into Distilling felt like a natural progression. Especially with making whiskey. It was fun adapting my brewing knowledge to making whiskey wash. The process was similar but the result was intended for a different purpose, I had to think several steps ahead to what the character of the whiskey would be coming off the still which had everything to do with the grain and fermentation.
What was the mission with House Spirits? What gave you and your friend the impetus to start the distillery?
I don't think we had a defined mission starting House Spirits aside from the feeling that distillation was the next new frontier. I had brewed and was leaning towards being a winemaker when I was fortuitously presented with the opportunity to distill. By 2004 I could see that the interest in craft distilling was starting to take off just like craft brewing a decade before. It had the same energy, and I come from a very entrepreneurial family. My grandfather, father and sister all started their own businesses so I felt compelled to join them.
I’m sure that project had great personal significance for you; what motivated your next move with starting Bull Run?
House Spirits was a real boot strap operation and it gave a real sense of accomplishment to make something out of nothing. Making Aviation Gin was a real turning point. I think it exemplified the spirit of craft distillation where we took something familiar and recognizable but gave it a unique unconventional twist.
I also made a little whiskey continuing with ideas I had been working on at Edgefield. I really felt that malted barley had great potential for an American Whiskey and would fit in whiskey washes when able. Three years in we released our first malt whiskey and to everyone's pleasant surprise it was a success. It flew off the shelves and was quickly gone but there wasn't anything left. That was a good lesson and made me realize that Whiskey would require a much greater commitment but its potential was much greater than any clear spirit. That's when I started thinking about a dedicated whiskey distillery that became Bull Run.
In your mind, what differentiates BRD & House Spirits as projects? What have you taken with you from your experience with House?
I think Bull Run is a much more intentional project. House was a leap of faith where we made it work on the fly. It was exciting and terrifying and a real education everyday. At House whatever we thought of we would do. I made Aquavit because I went to Sweden. I made Sochu after visiting Sake One, Ouzo because I like Greek food, beer schnapps because there were breweries all around us. The tendency to experiment and bring ideas to life is addictive but can be distracting and overwhelming. A distillery can be a fun laboratory but it is also a business and to be successful requires focus.
Talk a little bit about the whiskey at Bull Run, what would you say defines your style of distilling and distinguishes BRD whiskey.
Ever since I started distilling at Edgefield in 1997 and through my time at House I have been interested in malted barley whiskey. I started Bull Run to make it my signature whiskey. There is no history of making malted barley whiskey in the US and the opportunity to create a whole new style of American whiskey is what motivates me. Most people think of malted barley whiskey as Scotch, Irish or Japanese, all of which I enjoy, but the resemblance to those whiskies stops with the malted barley.
I use 100% (un-peated) malted barley from Oregon which I ferment at high temperature using ale yeast to produce very fruity esters. These concentrate down in the distillate with an almost brandy like nose. I use new oak which keeps with the American tradition of whiskey aging and may be the greatest difference between European and Japanese styles. The fruitiness in the distillate disappears after entering the barrel but after three years it starts to return, and is the signal I use to determine that the whiskey is ready to bottle. I find the sweet spot, where the fruity nose and rich cereal finish combine is between the fourth and sixth year, but I am aging select lots longer.
My all Oregon project, which is aged in Oregon Oak, I intend to hold until the seventh or eighth year before considering bottling. The American malted barley whiskey style is still being defined but I've attempted to make a whiskey that is democratic, where it is complex enough to enjoy on its own but lends itself to whiskey cocktails new and traditional.
I feel very fortunate that our independent bottling has allowed me the luxury of not rushing our malt whiskey and also has given me a treasure chest of fine whiskies that I had no intention of making on my own. These have been the basis of our barrel finishing line up which has grown from a fun experimental line extension to an integral part of the success of Bull Run.
Nowadays we see Craft Distillery, I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about the ethos of Craft Distilling and why people are starting to find smaller distilleries appealing.
I think craft distilling has parallels to craft brewing. The success of craft brewing was in offering beers that were different from the big national breweries. Giving people a world of flavor. I think the same can be said for craft distilleries. Craft distillers are pushing the boundaries of consumers expectations on what a Gin or Whiskey or Rum or any spirit can or should be. By using non-traditional ingredients, unusual grains, different types of cooperage, smaller barrels and aging products in their unique local environment, deserts, mountains, ocean sides, all contributes to something new and fresh. All the craft distillers I know are passionate innovators willing to try new things.
We know you are a maverick and a pioneer in the Craft Distilling scene, what trends have you noticed recently in the resurgence of Craft Distilling both in Oregon and nationally?
I see the interest in whiskey by nearly every craft distillery no matter the size as a great sign of a maturing industry. Of all the spirits, and I may be a little prejudiced, making whiskey has the greatest risks but also offers the greatest rewards. Think about it: there are no vodka magazines or vodka clubs but there sure are a lot of whiskey magazines, and whiskey societies. There is a huge consumer interest in whiskey and its growing.
What do you think are the top challenges that Craft Distillers face?
The greatest challenge for craft distillers is navigating the world of distribution. The cost to develop a large distribution network is very expensive and time consuming for a small distillery. With consolidation in distribution there are fewer and fewer choices and the traditional supplier/distributor relationship has changed to put more of the burden of selling and marketing on the supplier.
You’ve been a part of a few bottles that have caught major traction in the market. Is that something you can really foresee, like “this one, this one will take hold” or is it always a surprise?
I wish there was a magic formula, but I don't think there is one. A brand has to reach a certain level of sales and markets on its own before a larger beverage company would take interest in it and propel it nationally. I think with craft distilling the "it" factor will be much more localized. I'd like to see a time when if you visited Kansas City there would be a defining spirit that would be the thing to drink and when you went to Atlanta there would be something different and if you went to Eugene there would be a must have and on and on in every city.
What’s next for Lee Medoff and Bull Run?
Primarily enjoying more drams with my friends and peers, but when I'm not I'll be rummaging through the cellar looking for my next release. French Oak Pinot Finished Single Malt? 12 year Bourbon finished in Cognac barrels?
For more on Medoff and his locally inspired creations, visit Bull Run Distillery for a tasting.
Bottle image © The Portland Pour, all others © Bull Run Distillery