When the Bendistillery celebrates the grand opening of its new tasting room and distillery near Tumalo on Saturday, it will mark the start of a new era for one of the most successful craft distillers in North America.
The small-batch producer of vodka and gin, founded in 1996 by Jim Bendis, now has the capacity to become the first American company to grow its crops on the same land where its distillery is located.
Although visitors to the opening celebration won’t yet have the opportunity to see the Bend, Oregon, company’s 24 acres in full agricultural mode, they will be able to tour the entire property and sample each of the Bendistillery’s five spirits.
Juniper trees, whose berries are an essential ingredient in gin, surround the property. Chief marketing officer Alan Dietrich said the company will soon build a garden and greenhouse to grow the six different kinds of peppers that go into its Mazama Pepper Vodka. Hazelnuts, part of the recipe for Cofia Hazelnut Espresso Vodka, are widely grown in Oregon, and Dietrich said he expects other “botanicals” to thrive in the garden.
The majority of the acreage will be planted in organic wheat. “We should be able to produce enough grain for single batches of estate gin and vodka,” Dietrich said. One batch is about 210 cases.
Bendis pioneered an industry that has grown to about 300 craft distillers across the United States. About 25 of them are in Oregon, said Dietrich, who joined the company 10 years ago. Sales of gin and vodka in 2000 were about 600 cases, he said; in 2010, he anticipates the figure to be about 30,000.
Earlier today, Dietrich walked me through the production process, suppressing a slight smile as he referred to the distillery as a “boozery” and to the products as “corn liquor” and “bathtub gin.” The initial process, he said, is almost identical to brewing beer, except that no hops are added.
“We mix grain (usually corn), which produces sugar, with water and yeast and heat it,” he explained. It is fermented for a couple of days, then pumped into a still, where alcoholic vapors boil away from the water, in essence purifying them. “At this point, it’s 95 percent alcohol,” he said. “Moonshine.”
After repeated filtering through charcoal and lava rock, it is pumped into a tank where Bend City Water — “It’s already great water, but we make it even better by removing chlorine and particulates”—is added to bring it to proof: 80 proof (40% alcohol) for vodka, 95 proof (47.5% alcohol) for gin. “To the best of my knowledge, we are the highest-proof American-made gin,” Dietrich said.
Crater Lake Vodka, filtered 10 times, and the higher-end Diamond Vodka, filtered 100 times, are briefly introduced to oak barrels. “We may be the only vodka distillery in the world to use oak,” Dietrich said. “It takes the burn away. But we put it in for only a short time.” How short? “Minutes.”
Production manager Hannah Routon and her team of distillers infuse Cascade Mountain Gin with whole juniper berries, about two gallons per batch, after filtering. “We think it has more body and flavor, and is generally more complex, than English-style gin,” Dietrich said.
Mazama Pepper Vodka is infused first with sweet bell peppers; then with medium peppers, like Anaheims; and finally with spicier peppers such as habañeros and serranos, Dietrich said.
Saturday’s grand opening is scheduled from noon to 6 p.m. In addition to tastings and distillery tours, it will feature live music by several local artists as well as a trio of demonstration cyclo-cross bicycle races.
The Bendistillery is located at 19330 Pinehurst Road, just off U.S. Highway 20, about a mile northwest of Tumalo. Normal visiting hours will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday and noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. Tours will be by appointment only. Read more at http://www.bendistillery.com.