In high spirits
It's just after 4 p.m. on a Saturday, and Jefferson Spirits bartender Ken Shearin is busy crafting cocktails for an already growing crowd.
In between joking with customers and taking orders, he grabs a bottle of tequila infused with a variety of ultra-hot chili peppers from behind the bar. "I keep a special tequila for adventurous types," he says with a laugh.
The hardwood-trimmed establishment, tucked away on Medford's East Main Street just west of Interstate 5, is the most recent Jackson County bar where the "cocktail renaissance" is in full swing, part of a surge in nationwide liquor sales over the past four years.
According to a February 2014 briefing by the Distilled Spirits Council, the U.S. spirits industry posted retail sales of more than $66 billion in 2013. Jackson County liquor stores alone posted over $20 million in sales.
Whatever your poison, you can find it in the Rogue Valley, where people are consuming it by the bucket. The newest store, on Delta Waters Road in north Medford, has posted steadily increasing sales since its doors first opened in the second half of 2010.
"The sheer amount of cases is staggeringly high," says Quannah Combs, a territory manager for Young's Market Co., one of the state's largest liquor distributors.
Refining their craft
The biggest trend in the market, Combs says, is a movement away from flavored vodkas toward aged, "craft" spirits.
"To me, craft is ... if not everything you do is automated, and you test your batches, and you take pride in what you do and you're not part of a large corporation," he says. "Portland and Austin (Texas) have kind of been trendsetters."
Combs pointed to one particular product, Texas-produced Tito's Handmade Vodka, as an example of a small operation that's made major inroads in the state's liquor market.
"Tito's Vodka in Oregon is about 100 percent over where it was last year (in sales)," he says. "Tito is a real guy, who hand tests every batch and knows when to cut off the head and cut off the tails of the distillate."
Embracing that kind of artisan approach is exactly what prompted the opening of Jefferson Spirits just over a year ago, says founding partner and chef Chaz McKenna.
"We like to think us being here is raising the bar," McKenna says. "No vodka and Red Bull, no Fireball."
Instead, shelves of the back bar are lined with bottle after bottle of high-end whiskeys, some of which, McKenna says, were purchased for specific regulars.
McKenna, who moved to Medford from California's Humboldt County, says he was looking for a bar that stocked the quality of liquor he personally liked to drink.
"I'm the kinda guy who goes into the liquor store and comes out with six bottles of brand new things," he says.
When asked whom he credits with carrying the cocktail torch in Medford, McKenna pointed to Elements Tapas Dinner & Drinks down the street as the only game in town when he moved to the area.
As far as he knows, Elements proprietor Chris Dennett was the first to bring artisanal cocktails to Medford, back in December 2006.
"Maybe the old Hong Kong Bar (in Ashland) was doing something similar," Dennett says, scooping ice into a cocktail shaker. He's since appeared in the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association's Main Ingredient magazine, and won widespread local acclaim for his creations.
On the back bar above him, much like at Jefferson Spirits, are row after row of aged whiskeys, infused vodkas and high-end gins. "The most important thing about crafting a cocktail is knowing how the flavors of the ingredients work together," Dennett says. "I would say infusions are where we've been most creative lately."
As he works behind the bar, Dennett hands Combs — who's stopped by with a whiskey delivery — a large jar from a high shelf.
The taped-on label reads, "pumpkin whiskey." Combs unscrews the jar, unleashing a slightly fruity, dense aroma from chunks of pumpkin submerged in Canadian whiskey. "Not quite ready," he muses.
While you won't be getting Fireball shots at Jefferson Spirits, it's one of the more popular distilled offerings at The Gypsy on West Eighth Street in Medford, where co-owner Robin Bittinger says whiskey-based cinnamon liqueur largely has replaced Jägermeister as the shot of choice.
"(Jägermeister) has really slowed down," says Bittinger's husband and co-owner, Clay Bearnson, gesturing to a multibottle dispenser of the spiced German liqueur that once fueled the hangovers of an entire generation of 20-somethings.
Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, introduced in 2006, has since climbed to the top of sales charts across the country, including those of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. It ranked Fireball as second and third, respectively, in dollar sales and gallons sold statewide in 2013. "Jack Daniel's (Tennessee Fire), we also get a lot of requests for," Bittinger says.
That kind of popularity is no surprise to Combs, who jokes that Fireball could in some ways be considered an aged product, since it's made with aged Canadian whiskey.
"Say what you will, Fireball is the No. 1 liquor product in America right now," he says.
Bittinger and Bearnson have run The Gypsy since 2003, when they bought the bar at its original Riverside Avenue location.
In 2008, they moved the bar to its current location on West Eighth, inside an old radiator shop they've lovingly furnished in classic bar Americana. "We like to think of it as an extension of our place," Bearnson says. The bar gets a steady stream of regulars, as well as passers-through who discover it on Yelp.com, where it's been highly rated for both its food and beverage selection.
Bearnson says the bar, which boasts 31 taps, is heavily beer-oriented, but also does a brisk trade in mixed drinks. Most of those, Bittinger says, are lighter spirits — rum, vodka, gin. "There's always flavored vodka," she says.
The state of the state
Oregon's state-controlled liquor stores face stiff competition from border-area outlets in neighboring states — especially in Jackson County, just over the line from California. "We lose a significant amount of business to them," Combs says.
While the California stores may sometimes be cheaper or have products not available through OLCC distributors, he says, buying from Oregon stores puts money back into local infrastructure.
"When they're spending money here," he says, "it's going towards drug and alcohol treatment programs, police services."
As far as the future of different product categories, it's bright for some and dim for others, says Combs, a "certified specialist of spirits."
"Rum is not growing right now," he says. "The category is flat."
A few new Irish whiskeys — Irish-owned Teeling and American-owned Donegal — have started appearing in Oregon liquor stores, infiltrating a market historically dominated by Bushmills and Jameson. Combs says he expects the brands to be fully competitive within the next decade.
He says the current demand for bourbons, though, will only keep growing. Wednesday afternoon, he was busy delivering a precious supply of Pappy Van Winkle, an aged bourbon from Buffalo Trace Distillery. "There's maybe 35 bottles for all of Southern Oregon," he says. By that evening, all of those bottles were expected to be accounted for. "I would say bourbons are the sector we've grown the most in," agrees Elements' Dennett.
The Spirits Council has attributed international growth in the whiskey sector partially to nostalgia for the America of old. Now, a new generation of American distillers is looking to change consumers' conceptions of what whiskey can be.
"I think that Americans are growing up, and realizing we can do it better," Combs says.