Call New Deal Distillery's Tom Burkleaux an alcohol altruist. Using craft vodka as a catalyst, he commonly donates to progressive organizations and local nonprofits, as well as sponsoring art events around the city. Belief in charity and unity is the driving doctrine behind this inner Southeast spirit factory. Oh yes, and then there's the booze.
Burkleaux, as giving as he is, is also a mystery. Ask his age and he'll chuckle before answering, "old enough." Still, it's apparent this ageless man has spent the last seven years creating some of Portland's more affordable and recognizable craft vodkas.
The distillery is home to the flagship New Deal Vodka, as well as a straight-from-the-hip boozy bargain known as Portland 88, and a Southwestern pepper-infused barnburner called Hot Monkey. Each retails for less than $25, allowing Portlanders to booze it up in true local style.
Burkleaux is a citizen who wears the philosophical underpinnings of Portland like a badge of honor. It's about community. And drinking. A drinking community, if you will.
"I always wanted to do something that was part of this city," he says, citing inspiration for New Deal's genesis in quirky local businesses like Voodoo Doughnut and Pix Patisserie.
His taste for vodka and his DIY heart, though, are ultimately what led Burkleaux, and business partner Matthew VanWinkle, to start making spirits. Essentially learning as they went, the legend is that they filtered their first batch of vodka through an aquarium. Sure, it may not have been the best, but it was a start.
"When I had the idea [for a micro distillery] back in 2001, I didn't even know if it could be done," says Burkleaux. "To me it was just always about making something."
And not just something, but good, inexpensive vodka. "When I started this in 2001, I thought we were headed for a recession," Burkleaux explains, noting that he didn't want to drink crap liquor during hard times. "I wanted something for the people around me, the local people."
These ideals are laid out in the New Deal manifesto, an admittedly rambling drunken rant covering politics, hope, and prosperity—all of which are enhanced by, or better with, booze.
"The times were changing," the manifesto reads, "and we thought, 'God, we need a vodka for those times.'"
"Those times," have essentially become "these times," and as people across the country worry about a depression, it seems appropriate to drink a Rooseveltian libation. Especially when you consider how affordable New Deal's products are.
That affordability ties into Burkleaux's theory of thrift store elegance. "Some of the most beautiful, stylish people in town can walk into a thrift store and walk out with beauty," he says. "Having the best for us has never been about conspicuous consumption or having money."
He has tackled the issue of making elegant and thrifty vodka by being deeply creative with his spirits. Like a tippling Kandinsky, he blends and balances the flavors of every run to produce his intoxicating creations.
He gestures to his airy distillery, outfitted like a bohemian loft. "Once you have this, it's kind of like an arts studio, you just never know what you're going to do."
There are, however some inspired projects in the making. Burkleaux has plans for basil vodka, a line of organic spirits, and, of course, whiskey. Hopefully, they'll all remain affordable. After all, it's in the manifesto: "Our customers work hard for their money and deserve to have a good time," it reads. "Tip up your glasses—you earned it."
SPECIAL! COCKTAIL RECIPE
New Deal's flame-wielding simian, known as Hot Monkey, makes a great Bloody Mary, but Burkleaux offers this simple and astounding recipe for the Mercury's spice-loving drinkers.
• 3 parts pineapple juice
• 1 part Hot Monkey Vodka
Mix well and serve on the rocks. Garnish with lime. Sip and enjoy.