Brad Irwin got into the business of distilling by accident.
“As a bartender for about 20 years, I really had a passion for trying to understand what made spirits taste differently and have unique flavor profiles,” he said. “Because of that, I started to study how they were handled from a production standpoint and the distillation process.”
In his pursuit of that knowledge, he said he became really fascinated with the production methods of making good whiskey.
“My wife and I asked ourselves the question, ‘Why don’t we make good whiskey?’” he said.
In 2009, the couple started Oregon Spirit Distillers and “it’s been awesome ever since,” according to Irwin.
Bend is an ideal place to make whiskey because Oregon has the necessary resources, Irwin said.
“What’s super important to us, makes our product fantastic and drives our desire to succeed in this business, is the relationships that we have with the agricultural community,” he said. “It feels fantastic to be taking one of Oregon’s best commodities, grain, and turning it into a product that is sold not only to Oregonians, but outside of Oregon as well.”
In August, Irwin opened The Barrel Thief Lounge and a new distillery at 740 NE First Street. The company, which didn’t have a restaurant component before, went from 5 to 19 employees.
“In many ways it’s a new endeavor for us. Almost all of our previous success was wholesale,” he said, mentioning that Oregon Spirit Distillery has 11 products including whiskey, vodka, gin and absinthe. “By adding the lounge component, we have the ability to control how our products are showcased. It ultimately gives us more interaction with customers.”
Fifty percent of the visitors that come to Bend, visit a brewery or a distillery, Irwin said. Arguably, brewing and distilling is one of the major industries of Central Oregon. Irwin anticipates making 250 barrels of whiskey this year and houses the largest whiskey barrel inventory in Oregon with more than 400 aging barrels.
“We’re becoming a destination for out-of-town people,” he said. “It’s really neat to be able to give them a high-quality experience when they’re here; show them the brands, give them a tour and a great meal. They will then take that memory of their experience with them, back to wherever they are from, and order our product.”
In a nutshell, Oregon Spirit Distillers gives customers the distillery-to-glass experience.
“There are very few places in the U.S. that you can enjoy the spirit in the form of a cocktail at the same location where it is made,” Irwin said. “You can’t do it at Jack Daniels!
For more taproom talk with Brad Irwin, come to Pints March 31 at the Deschutes Brewery Tap Room.