Interview: Christian Krogstad / Founder and Master Distiller of Westward Whiskey

My first taste of Westward Whiskey was a doozy, a 131-proof Single Malt single barrel, selected by K&L in 2019. It really blew me away. I actually bought it nearly a year after its release, and on sale. That such an incredible whiskey had not sold out in minutes like so many lesser, more familiar and common whiskeys, says something about the state of American whiskey FOMO. Namely that FOMO or its lack doesn’t always have much to do with the actual experience of a given whiskey.

That whiskey—from barrel #B-236-11—reached right out of the bottle upon uncorking and the glass upon pouring. It would not be contained. The nose exploded with aromas of rich and vibrant malt, fresh moss, dark molasses, gooey caramel, dark chocolate fudge, and a spiciness I associated with Indian and African teas like Chai and Rooibus. On the taste, all of those notes were amped up further. The finish lingered forever, with chocolatey malt, caramel, the tea spices, and a nice cooling sensation closing in around the spiciness…

The vibrancy, the contradictions, the aliveness of this whiskey conjured vivid memories of my own past experiences in Portland, Oregon, where Westward is based. I’d gone there for reasons to do with my work in theater, a festival in one instance and a conference in another, and on both visits the sociopolitical vibe was evident—in the streets, in businesses, seemingly centered in food, crafts, and social services. It was notably not a racially diverse city. Oregon’s origins as a Whites-only state founded by KKK sympathizers and affiliates stands in stark contrast to the more recent Summer 2020 protests in Portland against systemic racial injustice.

Portland’s racist founders must be worn to dust from spinning in their graves, like felled logs in a river on their way to the sawmill for transformation. Today, few would accuse Portland of conservatism. White privilege? Certainly. This big city situated in and amongst sprawling mountain forests has a complex legacy of contradiction, evolution, and scrappy entrepreneurial ideas that value the small, the local, and the neighborly. In all its paradoxes, Portland is a decidedly American place.

To be clear: In referencing Portland and Oregon’s complex racial history, I am not implying anything about Westward Whiskey, its founders or staff. My point is rather that in that single barrel #B-236-11, Westward had created a whiskey that captured a sense of the vibrancy and the intensity with which Portlandians have lived for generations. Energies once dedicated to segregation are now outpaced by commitments to inclusion and creativity, a respect for place, and a welcoming attitude of hospitality and of sharing. Portland is certainly not free of problems, race-related or otherwise. But the evolution is palpable. And the specificity of Westward’s whiskey brought my own past experiences of Portland vividly to mind. This is good whiskey doing what good whiskey does—it unleashes our stories.

And so it was with great enthusiasm that I met with Westward founder and master distiller, Christian Krogstad. Krogstad applied his prior history with food, wine and beer to spirits, experimenting with malting techniques commonly used in beer and with finishings in various used wine barrels. Before sitting down with a full flight of eight Westward offerings, we toured the facility. Krogstad took me through the whole process, tasting the ingredients each step of the way—from tossing back a handful of raw barley grains to sipping the mash mid-fermentation to the White Dog in mid-distillation. At each step, Krogstad noted the flavors and how that particular stage of the process was contributing toward the final product.

Indeed, flavor is a key interest in what Krogstad does. And how those flavors reflect the local culture is fascinating. So when we sat down with our flight, I asked Krogstad about these things.

MARK J – I’m always curious about what gets a person started on their whiskey journey. What was your ah-ha moment?

CHRISTIAN – Growing up I’d always loved beer. I got into imported beer around 1980 and craft beer in maybe 1982 when Red Hook first started. Then I got into home brewing and really loved it. But I also loved whiskey, malt whiskey especially. My father introduced me to it. The first time I had Glenlivet was probably 1978 or so. My father had brought a bottle back from somewhere duty free and I was twelve, and I was like, This is amazing!

So in 1991 I moved to Portland to become a professional brewer. And it wasn’t such a big jump from home brewing, because I understood the process conceptually. Obviously there are larger volumes and different equipment. But the same sort of thing is happening. I’d never seen a malt whiskey distillery until I was managing the Edgefield Brewery. I’d never gone to Scotland, and, even if I had, seeing it on that scale you don’t necessarily appreciate the process. So that was the big ah-ha moment, when we were making it out there at Edgefield. It would take all week to fill a barrel because the still was a little 30 or 60 gallon pot. So, seeing the process at Edgefield, which was so inefficient, I was like, I think we could do this better.

So was it ultimately the process of making whiskey that drew you, or the flavor experience?

It was the flavors. I didn’t know I wanted to make it until I saw it being made and thought I could do it.

Flavor seems to be a key goal at Westward. That was my first impression of tasting the whiskey—the explosion of flavors. And I notice the word comes up a lot in how you and the marketing talk about your products. What do you look for in flavor? What makes a flavor profile “Westward”?

The term flavor is used interchangeably for aroma, flavor, mouthfeel and everything. Of course I’m looking for a nice and interesting aroma and flavor. But more importantly I’m looking for textural elements, mouthfeel, and balance. In anything—food, beer, whiskey—I like bold, I like flavorful, but not strident. I don’t want to make the spiciest curry. I don’t want to make the hoppiest IPA. I want to make something that’s balanced within sweet and sour, or tannin if it’s wine, whatever the triangle is you’re creating within as your balance grid. Things that are out of balance—in whiskey, something too alcohol or peaty or woody or whatever—that lack of balance is what can cause palate fatigue. So you can have an IPA that has a lot of bittering hops, and as long as it has a balancing malt sweetness it’s not going to be palate fatiguing. You can drink it just fine. My goal has always been that when you finish a glass you want another one. I don’t want anyone to refer to something I’ve made as “an acquired taste” or “challenging.” I want it to be at one and the same time flavorful, bold, and assertive, but balanced.

I’m very much in the hospitality industry, really. Sure, I make whiskey. But ultimately whiskey is the hospitality industry. I started working restaurants in 1985. At home I host people. I like people to have an enjoyable experience, so, I keep tabs on how they’re eating and drinking. What I love about Westward, if we start with the original, is that you don’t have to analyze it. You can just drink it. There is nothing out of balance or offensive about it. But it has a lot of flavor. You certainly can analyze it if you want, because there’s a hell of a lot going on there. But I don’t want you to be compelled to have to break it down.

People assume, because of food movies and because I’m into food… Well, for example, I started to watch that documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about the sushi chef in Japan with the very small place and it’s impossible to get a seat. I don’t like that worship of food or of chefs, the expectation that you have to sit very quietly and eat.

Jiri Ono (L) with President Obama (R) in Sukiyabashi Jiro, the Tokyo restaurant that only seats ten customers at once. (photo credit: White House / Pete Souza)

So why is flavor important? On the one level it’s about enjoyment, so there’s a practical aspect to it. But it also seems there’s a philosophical aspect.

Flavor is the biggest trigger of memory. We associate flavors with moments. If you’re with friends and you’re drinking Westward, that’s going to be a flavor that in the future triggers memories of that moment. It’s also just interesting. So by creating a whiskey with more expressive characteristics, flavors and aromas, it’s a differentiator. It’s not vodka. And it gives you something to talk about, if you want to talk about it.

And why single malt?

Oh there are so many reasons. It never occurred to me to make a bourbon or a rye. I was a brewer. I was making a wash for thirteen years. I went to brewing school to learn how to make a whiskey wash—I just didn’t know it at the time. At the time I thought I was just learning how to make beer. If I’d started out in Kentucky, of course I’d make a bourbon or a rye because there’s that tradition there. There’s no whiskey tradition in the northwest. Just like there was no beer tradition either. So because there was no beer tradition we were kind of unmoored. That’s why all the innovation came about. We had no preconceptions about what we were supposed to do, so we could do anything. Same thing with whiskey. Because the brewing tradition came first—well, a twenty-year-old craft brewing tradition—it made sense to do what I know.

Also, all the two-row malting barley is grown in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. We don’t grow corn, we don’t grow much rye, we grow barley. And I just like it better. There’s something about a well-made beer or malt whiskey that touches my soul. There’s nothing more satisfying than malt. I don’t know why, but… As a human species we’ve had malt, beer and whiskey for a thousand years. But American bourbon and rye are a pretty new thing.

You experiment with a lot of cask finishings. What do you look for in choosing used casks for these finished whiskeys?

The cask finishes are about accentuating flavors that already exist in the whiskey. Westward has plum, prune, and raisin elements already, for example. So if you put it into wine barrels that exhibit that as well, like a pinot noir cask, it just turns those flavors up. None of the cask finishes are creating flavors that weren’t already there. They’re highlighting existing flavors. So I find an interesting wine barrel, and then look for which barrels of Westward are going to benefit most from that association. We find the whiskey that talks to us and tells us it wants to be in that wine barrel.

What drives your commitment to local ingredients?

We use local products as much as possible. Most of our whiskey barrels come from Kentucky. But all the finishing casks are local. We aren’t using imported sherry or port because that’s already being done. We have a fantastic brewing culture here in Oregon, so we have all these partners for stout casks. We have a world class pinot noir region. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to spend much time in the wine country here?

I haven’t, no.

You really owe it to yourself to spend some time in Oregon wine country. It’s so beautiful down there. It’s an industry predominantly made up of very small wineries. The first time I went to Sonoma in California, my aunt lived there in this big old Georgian house between the Russian River and Iron Horse Vineyards. This was 1980. My cousin was working in restaurants and people would bring wine by, and wineries then didn’t charge for tastings. Sonoma then was so laid back. It didn’t have buses taking you around. It was a sleepy little county. Oregon wine country is starting to change, but it’s still a bit that way. So it’s a great industry and I have a bunch of friends with wineries and we get barrels from them. Some of it is very intentional and some of it is very, like, I’ll take what you have and see what we can do with it.

So how much of the use of local ingredients is practical and how much of it is philosophical?

It’s both. It’s practical because we don’t have to pay to ship something a long way. If you buy a port barrel from some broker, you don’t really know what you’re going to get. You don’t know how it’s been handled, whereas here we can go down and check them out before we take them. So from a practical standpoint, not only is it cheaper but we also have much better control. And then from a philosophical standpoint, why would I buy a barrel from somebody I don’t know in Spain when I can buy a barrel from a friend here?

I’ve been noticing how many people in the industry here in Portland help each other out.

Oh yeah. That’s part of the reason we really wanted to stay in this district, Portland’s Distillery Row, which we started in 2006. There was one other distillery in the neighborhood at the time, and two others just starting up. I had been part of the Oregon Brewers Guild and saw how beneficial that was for the whole industry. Sure we’re competing. But really we’re competing with the big guys, not each other. Am I really going to go after another tiny brewery? Why bother? So, we were able to make that understood to everyone in the local distillery business, too. We established Distillery Row, did events together, marketing together. And likewise, back when I was managing a winery we would lend equipment, borrow equipment, share people. There is a lot of collaboration. It’s really refreshing, and it’s fun. And it’s not just within each industry—wine, spirits, beer—it’s also across industries. I think there have been enough examples for people to see how well it can work, and how everyone benefits. And consumers love it. The media loves it. It’s such a feel-good story. If the industry was saturated, maybe there could start to be an unhealthy level of competition. But at this point everyone gets along and people collaborate all the time. There are tons of examples of joint projects, joint labels…

What do you think the local terroir—the grains, water, weather—brings to Westward whiskeys? Does one aspect dominate, or is it more about something in the process?

It’s everything. But I would say the fermentation has the most impact. Most of the flavors you’re getting on, say, the original Westward—the fruit, the banana, Bartlett pear—those are from the fermentation. I get toffee, that’s more from the grain. I get caramel and vanilla from the barrel. The weather doesn’t necessarily change the flavor, but it effects how the spirit interacts with the wood. There’s no sugar in there, other than what comes out of the barrel, which isn’t very much. But you get that spirit sweetness, which is why I then like to refer back to the White Dog, the new-make. There is absolutely zero sugar in it. But it tastes sweet. Very fruity on the nose, like a tequila, a very fruity fermentation character, some grain, then on the palate more grain, more grape-nuts, toasty, biscuity, very oily and mouthcoating.

Do you sell the White Dog?

No. We just do it for tastings, so that people can compare. It’s educational. We did used to bottle it, and we still get bartenders asking for it because they’d made certain cocktails with it.

In my theater work, there are times when I feel myself leaning into the craft of it and times when I lean more into the art. The craft and the art are obviously related, yet they also feel distinct. Whiskey is also a craft and an art.

Absolutely.

What drives you as a craftsman, and what drives you as an artist? When do you lean into one versus the other?

So I grew up in a very heavy science family. My father was a physicist who worked for Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Missile Division. He was pretty serious about it. He never pushed it on me, but I loved him and wanted to emulate him. And I was the youngest of six. My older sister got her master’s degree in marine microbiology. My eldest brother got his PhD in geochemistry and works for the Department of Energy. Next older brother got an engineering degree. A sister with an architecture degree, and a brother with a PhD in something science related I don’t even understand. So I was on this course, too. I had a really good background of understanding from my family and went to the University of Washington honors science program. I really went at it hard. But I always really enjoyed cooking. And I was just miserable in school, so after a year I dropped out. I wasn’t going to class and I was getting the “gentleman’s D,” which is your invitation to not take the next level class.

And so I decided I wanted to be a chef. I went to one of the top restaurants in Seattle at the time and got what was essentially an apprenticeship—doing the grunt work, washing dishes, kitchen prep. But it was such a toxic, horrible atmosphere, the classic abusive work environment. I was learning some things but it was miserable.

So I left, did a lot of other jobs and some travel, and then started home brewing. And that was a revelation. At first I approached it just like cooking. You follow a recipe. But then I wanted to understand it better. There’s all this literature on brewing. It’s a well-studied endeavor. As I got deeper and deeper into it, my science background that had once made me miserable started coming back into play in that I could read the brewing texts and understand them. That helped my craft. And that was really the ah-ha moment right there, that brewing is this blend of art and science. You don’t have to understand it as a science. You can just make beer. But you can really benefit from understanding the science. And I loved that it wasn’t just science. The art part of it is— Well, there are certain things that aren’t as well understood by science. How you, personally, perceive a flavor, that’s the art.

What part of the process do you consider the craft and what part is the art?

It’s all both. I don’t know that you can segregate them. Because it’s the science and craft that produces the art. It’s like Vangelis. What part of that music is understanding the computer programing, taking apart the synthesizer and understanding how it works, and what part of it is the music Vangelis creates with those machines?

This word “craft” gets tossed around a lot. Sometimes people use it in terms of the size of the operation. My understanding is that Westward falls under this idea of craft, having to with scale.

Oh sure, we’re tiny. We’re not as tiny as we used to be. But we’re certainly small.

What are craft distilleries able to do that is particular, as opposed to larger mainstream distilleries?

I don’t know what the difference is. I’m probably not a good person to talk about craft versus… I mean, what’s the alternative to craft, really?

Some people talk about it philosophically. The commitment to local ingredients, for example, seems to be something that happens a lot in craft, as opposed to larger producers, and there is often a philosophy or even a politic behind that.

And there are a lot of craft producers who aren’t using local stuff, or who source. A lot of craft breweries want to make a certain kind of beer, so they’re using a British malt and a German hop. A hop from the Czech Republic tastes different than the hops from around here, so, if you want that Czech flavor you have to use the Bohemian hops. Is that craft? You’re certainly putting a lot of energy and effort into it, and paying attention, and it’s very intentional. So maybe craft has to do with intentional decision making. And maybe it’s producer driven rather than finance driven. Inevitably, with a business that’s been around a long time, shareholders want to squeeze more and more return on investment out of it, and so decisions start to be made by the finance department rather than the production department. Is that craft? I don’t know.

Do you find working on a smaller scale offers particular opportunities?

It does. But working on a larger scale provides some opportunities, too. So, for example, we can have grain malted to order for us now. We’re big enough to be able to ask for it to be done a certain way, whereas when you’re smaller you take what you can get.

I don’t know what to say, I’m a terrible person to talk about craft. I don’t know what craft is. There are big brands that pay attention to every step and really do an amazing job day in and day out. You hurt their feelings when you say they’re not craft, when they’re putting their hearts into it. There are plenty of small producers that make garbage, and small companies that just repackage other people’s products. Are they craft? I guess if you’re really mindful about your sourcing. Like Pappy Van Winkle. They don’t make it, right? But they craft it, because of the barrels they’ve selected. So what is craft? That’s a deep philosophical question I don’t feel qualified to answer.

A favorite whiskey moment for you?

A favorite whiskey moment… There have been a lot… Well, like I said, it was very memorable first tasting Glenlivet Single Malt.

This was the pour your dad gave you at twelve?

Yes. And more than once. Always just a quarter ounce or so, of course. But I think the thing that most sent me on this track happened in Seattle. I was at Kell’s Irish Bar in Post Alley there. I’d just turned twenty-one. It’s an Irish bar but they had every single malt available in Washington at that time. I was talking to the bartender and I told him I wanted to learn more and try new things. At that time there weren’t so many scotch single malts available here as now. And the bartender gave me some Glenfarclas 105, a higher-proof than average. That was a revelation for me. It had this intensity, and was still balanced and flavorful. And at that time, twenty-one years old, I didn’t yet know that the barrels were filled at 115 to 125 proof, and that, as they age, the proof naturally goes up or down. Most scotch then was brought down to 80 proof, the minimum, maybe 90 proof. So it was revelatory. And I loved that whisky. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Glenfarclas.

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