Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Oregon Spirit Distillers: Making Spirits Bright

Why did Shon Rae make a career change from an irrigation district to a whiskey maker? Because, as they say, “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.” While the former assistant manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID) now works in operations at Oregon Spirit Distillers, water still plays a key role in her work as an ingredient and input. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background in water and how you came to be in your current position. 

Shon Rae: I was the assistant manager of COID, where I primarily managed internal operations. Water in the Deschutes basin is shared among eight irrigation districts, municipal needs, and the river ecosystem. Most of the irrigation infrastructure is over 100 years old, and we are still using the ancient technology of gravity and weirs to deliver our precious water resource. As climate changes and water becomes scarcer, the need for modernization has become paramount. Modernization is extremely expensive, and there are differing views on how it should happen. All these elements feed a very contentious industry. I left because, as they say, “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.” COID is an amazing irrigation district with a knowledgeable staff that is personally invested in doing the right thing for the basin as a whole. There are many things we can’t control when it comes to water, and it breeds contention. When the opportunity to take an operations position at the distillery came up, I decided that I was ready for something a bit more positive. 

Irrigation Leader: Please introduce Oregon Spirit Distillers. 

Shon Rae: Oregon Spirit Distillers, founded in 2009, was born out of owner Brad Irwin’s passion for distilling and his interest in different styles of whiskey and what makes each of them different. Today, our distillers are motivated by the same thing. We are located in Bend, Oregon, where local craft businesses are booming. We take our craft seriously and aim to bring you the best spirits of their kind. 

With one of the largest whiskey-barrel inventories in the state of Oregon, we are known for our award-winning whiskey, which is made from local and regionally sourced grain and pure Cascadian water. As we continue to grow outside the state of Oregon, we are committed to Oregon agriculture and the Oregon spirit. 

Oregon Spirit Distillers stands for integrity in all that we do. From hands-on production methods to onsite distillation and aging and beautiful packaging, we stand behind our family of craft spirits 100 percent. 

Since the company started, we have used over 3 million pounds of locally grown agriculture to make more than 3,500 barrels of American whiskey, a value-added agricultural product. That translates to almost 175,000 cases of whiskey alone. In addition, we’ve seen nearly equal success with our dry gin, absinthe, and vodka. Our distribution footprint has grown to 29 states as of this year. It makes us proud to share Oregon-made products with the rest of the country. 

Irrigation Leader: Why is water quality important in making whiskey? 

Shon Rae: Part of making whiskey is adding water to a mixture made of grain that is called a mash. The mash is boiled, fermented, and run through a still. Obviously, water is a part of the entire process. After the water is separated from the alcohol and the alcohol is distilled, the alcohol sits in a barrel for a minimum of 4 years. Then, it must be proofed down by adding water. Adding poor-quality water would affect the taste of the spirit. Central Oregon has exceptional water—it’s clean and clear, and we drink it straight from the tap. That happens to make our whiskey pretty darn good. In addition, all our grains are sourced from Oregon, and it takes water to grow them. We’ve also just purchased a little farm that has COID water rights where we will raise botanicals like wormwood and fruits to add into our spirits. Wormwood is an herb with a distinctive aroma and flavor that we use in our absinthe and gin. 

Oregon Spirit Distillers sources all its rye, wheat, and corn from Bishop Farms.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about how the distillery uses spent grain to feed local cattle. 

Shon Rae: To make whiskey, we turn whole grains into a mash. We have a mill that grinds the grain up and then dumps it into what is called the mash tun, where we add water, heat it up, and add enzymes that cause the mash to create sugars, which are then distilled. Once that process is done, we take the water out and basically wash the leftover grain into a tub. That spent grain is then taken to local farms to use as cow feed. 

Irrigation Leader: How do you conserve water during the distilling process? 

Shon Rae: We recycle and reuse all the water we use to heat and cool. Some of the clean condenser water gets used to swell the barrels before filling them with whiskey. When you distill whiskey, you end up with what are called heads, hearts, and tails. The hearts are what goes into the barrel to become the whiskey you drink. The heads are a product with higher-than-comfortable quantities of acetone and methanol; it gets bottled up and used as cleaner for all our equipment. The tails are an oily, low-alcohol liquid that comes off after almost all the alcohol has been collected in the hearts. The tails are actually reworked into the next distillation. 

Irrigation Leader: Tell us about your tasting room and tours. 

Shon Rae: We have a tasting room that is open to the public. Visitors can taste all the different spirits that we make, and we also serve cocktails and have a light food menu. Visitors can also tour the distillery. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the distillery’s plans for the future. 

Shon Rae: Our goal is to continue to expand our distribution, certainly in the United States but also internationally. In order to do that, we plan to double our production capacity within the next 5 years. Since we are quickly filling every nook and cranny of our Bend, Oregon, distillery, we are building new warehouses each year and beginning to think about where we will build a new distillery. In addition, we are planting an orchard so that we can continue to use locally grown agriculture in a more diverse product line. 

Shon Rae is the operations manager at Oregon Spirit Distillers. She can be contacted at shon@oregonspiritdistillers.com.