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We Celebrate 90 Years of Hood River Distillers with President and CEO David Ballew

Hood River Distillers, Oregon’s first distillery celebrates nearly a century of crafting award-winning spirits from the bounty of the Pacific Northwest.

In 2020, generational family member Ronald Dodge, Executive Vice Chair, handed the reins of the company to industry veteran David Ballew, who was subsequently named President and CEO in 2022.

Under Ballew’s leadership, HRD has focused on its premium brand portfolio, innovation, and expansion to new markets. We ask him to tell us more.

Talk to us about Hood River Distillers, its history and heritage.

Founded months after the Repeal of Prohibition in 1934, Hood River Distillers is the oldest and largest distillery in the Pacific Northwest. Founders Albert Peters, Edwin Pooley, and Edgar McClain began making fruit wine and brandies from the abundance of fruit in the region, taking only a brief hiatus to make industrial alcohol for the war effort.

By the late 40s brandy’s popularity began to wane with Americans who had begun to favor vodka as the tipple of choice, and in 1949, three West Coast businessmen, whose families are still owners to this day, purchased the operations and the company transitioned to rectification. By the late 50s Hood River Distillers had begun blending and bottling spirits for distribution throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Launching and nurturing dozens of brands over the decades, Hood River Distillers saw that the answer to the future was returning to its brandy-making roots. With the purchase of Clear Creek Distillery in 2014 and Captive Spirits in 2016, the company now offers a portfolio of brands that span every level on a liquor store shelf, and nearly every spirit a cocktail bar would need. From value to premium, amaro to whiskey, Hood River Distillers has it all, with liquid credentials that keep customers coming back for more.

Another large part of the vision is recognizing the importance of embracing our brand partners and authentic spirits across the portfolio. In 2013, Hood River Distillers purchased Lucid Absinthe Supérieure, the first genuine absinthe made with real Grand Wormwood to be legally available in the United States. The company still works closely with the creator and founder of Lucid, T.A. (Ted) Breaux, who worked diligently with the TTB to get a 95-year ban lifted.

Tell us about your spirits brands—What sets them apart?

Hood River Distillers has a rich history of being innovative with our brands. We also strongly believe in giving consumers exceptional value for their hard-earned dollar. Yet, there is one thing we are uniquely blessed with – our exceptional water source. Our stunning homebase in the shadow of Oregon’s Mount Hood provides us access to glacier-fed spring water, and this water is used in all products that are produced and bottled at Hood River Distillers.

Recognizing not only the importance of this resource, but also how it aligns with our company values, we have partnered with The Freshwater Trust, a Portland-based non-profit that uses extensive research and science to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems across the West and beyond. We provide a generous annual contribution, and since our partnership started in 2021, we have donated just shy of $100,000 to this organization and look forward to continuing this relationship.

In addition to our exceptional water source, which we believe to be the best tasting water in the US, our spirits celebrate the bounty of the Pacific Northwest. Award-winning brands such as Clear Creek fruit brandies and liqueurs, Timberline Vodka, and Old Delicious Apple Brandy are made using the plentiful and delicious fruit which grows within a 200-mile radius of our Distillery. Our portfolio also boasts groundbreaking American Whiskeys, including McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt – the first American Single Malt in the United States – and Trail’s End Bourbon, both finished with Oregon Oak.

Our team is dedicated to the art of craft spirits, which is reflected in every bottle provided to consumers – regardless of the price point. We have a team of 80 employees, and we’re fond of saying there are a lot of fingerprints on every bottle. We are proud of what we offer to customers in the on- and off-premise, and we are committed to being leaders in quality and innovation, while supporting our community.

What is important for bartenders to know about your expressions?

Hood River Distillers strives to provide premium products that are not only enjoyed neat, but also enhance a cocktail rather that getting lost among mixers. For example, Batanga Tequila is a 100% agave tequila that highlights the agave and enhances a margarita rather than getting overpowered. Big Gin was created by bartenders for bartenders. Not only does the brand have a London Dry expression, but it also plays with barrel-aged expressions. Timberline Vodka is unique in that it combines grain and non-GMO apples from the Pacific Northwest to ensure it has a smooth and inviting profile. And, for those who want to geek out on history and unique expressions, we offer the First American Single Malt, McCarthy’s, in a 3-year-aged, 6-year-aged, and other limited expressions such as Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso Finishes.

Spirits brands are innovating to attract a new generation of drinkers. Talk to us about this concept.

Any brand worth its legacy must find a way to attract new consumers and Hood River Distillers is no exception. We recently launched Forthwest Whisky, which has a timely and powerful energy about moving forward, regardless of the direction. We know that particularly after the last several years, consumers are craving optimism, fun and an embrace of the fabulous. The Forthwest portfolio is made up of serious whiskies for light-hearted occasions, that bring unexpected big bold flavors. We recently launched with three flavored whiskies crafted using custom and proprietary natural flavor blends. We dare you to try our Shiny Apple, Giant Peach or Spice of Life – you’ll never go back to any other flavor. In addition, we’ve released an exceptional 5-Year-Old Blended Canadian Whisky, which is unflavored because we know some consumers like their whisky, well to taste like whisky. Also, unlike most flavored whiskies, the Forthwest Whisky flavored portfolio is bottled at 80 proof, as is the unflavored whisky.

But more than delivering on new and exciting products, we also are paying attention to what our younger consumers are telling us. Younger adults support brands that share their values. Sustainability and responsible business practices are important to them, so we are incorporating recycled glass into new packaging and new product launches, and our support for The Freshwater Trust mirrors their concern for the environment.

What are bartenders doing with some of your brands / what types of cocktails are they creating?

Bartenders want the best ingredients in their cocktails and that is where Hood River Distillers’ portfolio really delivers in both classic cocktails and unique recipes. Our friend and partner in DeGroff Spirits, Dale DeGroff recently created a cocktail called Departure that features both our Batanga Tequila Reposado and DeGroff New World Amaro. Keenan O’Brien at Westward in Seattle created a refreshing Cucumber Tarragon Agua Fresca and paired it with Batanga Tequila Blanco, lime, and agave syrup. For the classics, such as mule, they’re playing with adding flavor, such as swapping out the vodka for our Forthwest Giant Peach Whisky and it’s truly delicious. For a twist on a classic, our friend Max Barwick in Greensboro, NC uses Lucid Absinthe in a custom creation with bitters, rum, fresh lime juice and Falernum to create what Ted Breaux calls the most delicious Daiquiri he’s ever had. And for a variation on the Cosmo, Robbie Wilson, Bar Owner and Manager in Portland, Oregon created The Cosmos, which features Timberline Vodka, Monarch Triple Sec, Clear Creek Cranberry Liqueur, and lime juice.

What is next for HRD?

We are proud to be celebrating Hood River Distillers’ 90th Anniversary this year – and look forward to many more years to come. We’ve spent much of the past five years refining and building our award-winning portfolio. We’ve brought many new products to market, such as Batanga Tequila, Timberline Vodka, Forthwest Whisky, DeGroff Aperitivo & Amaro, and special barrel finishes for McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt and Trail’s End Bourbon. We’ve also undergone package redesigns for Big Gin, Sinfire Whisky, Easy Rider Bourbon, and the full Clear Creek portfolio, and finally, we’ve opened our new Tasting Outpost in downtown Portland. We’ve got a great team, and great brands and now we’re ready to grow!

The post We Celebrate 90 Years of Hood River Distillers with President and CEO David Ballew appeared first on Chilled Magazine.

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