Tom Burkleaux: Owner and Distiller at New Deal Distillery
When Tom Burkleaux first started making his own vodka in 2001, there wasn’t even a term for what he was doing. “Back then we didn’t have a name for it. We certainly didn’t call it craft distilling,” Tom says. His inspiration to begin distilling was born from a 90s’ fondness for vodka combined with the economic downturn of the early 2000s. “I thought, ‘I’m not drinking yuppie vodka in a recession. Boy, I gotta solve this problem,’” Tom remembers. “And it just came to me that people should be making spirits on a small scale.”
Tom, along with his friend Matt VanWinkle, decided to do the smallest, simplest thing they could do to get a distilling license. The two found a tiny 10 x 12-foot commercial space in Southeast Portland’s industrial district, bought the smallest still they could find, and set to work experimenting.
As Tom explains it, “distilling is devilishly simple in some ways. You boil something and the vapor comes off and condenses. I always ask people, ‘Have you ever made a wine sauce at home?’ You’re reducing it and it smells good. The distiller doesn’t care about what’s in the pot. We care about all that smell and aroma and alcohol that you’re boiling off. We want to condense that.”
Tom and Matt received their license in 2004 and six months later, their basic vodka was ready. New Deal Distillery had officially arrived on the scene, but it looked like they were the first ones at the party.
“The most baffling thing to me from 2001 to 2007 was ‘Where is everybody?’” Tom says. “I call that time ‘The Wilderness.’ You look at Portland, all the beer makers, the coffee, and the wine, so it was like, ‘Why aren’t more people doing this?’”
Finally in the late 2000s, Tom began to get some neighbors. House Spirits moved to Portland from Corvallis in 2005 and the now defunct Integrity Spirits opened in the Green Dragon shortly after in 2008. As more distilleries entered the neighborhood, it became a destination with the name Distillery Row. Tom credits the brewing industry for paving the way for Portland’s distilleries to market their products as part of a whole experience rather than focus on their peers as competition. “Craft brewers created a culture of cooperation among small artisans, small brewers working together, helping build their industry,” Tom explains. “The guest tap is a brilliant idea. People think that’s natural, but it’s not. Very few places sell their competitors’ products. The brewing industry not only created educated consumers for us, they gave us the idea of working together.”
Today, New Deal Distillery works with six other local distilleries including House Spirits, Brandyworks, and Eastside Distilling to offer the Distillery Row Passport. Purchase of a passport waives all tasting fees and encourages guests to visit more than one distillery. The passport’s popularity demonstrates how much local and tourist awareness of the distilling industry has grown in the past decade.
New Deal’s has grown with a greatly expanded product line from its initial vodka to over a dozen different spirits and liqueurs. These spirits range from gins and rums to chocolate, coffee, and ginger liqueurs. Most recently, whiskeys, including a bourbon, a rye, and a few single malts. He also has been growing his own roses for a rose liqueur he is working on and is trying his hand at Soju, a new challenge for New Deal given the spirit’s rice base.
For Tom, it all really comes down to offering his customers what he likes to drink. “We’re always exploring things that are interesting,” he says. “For example, I like bitter liqueurs and amaros so I’m exploring that. Absinthe never caught my fancy, so we won’t be playing with Absinthe.”
“I like everything I make,” he says with a smile. “Well, I like everything I bottle.” It’s certainly a policy that’s served New Deal well.
New Deal Distillery’s tasting room is open noon to 5 p.m.Wednesday-Saturday. Find out more at www.newdealdistillery.com.