The largest waterbed in Portland is filled with Columbia Valley wine. Technically, it's not really a waterbed; it's an industrial bladder for transporting food-grade liquids. Nevertheless, for the high-end hooch makers at Artisan Spirits, the bright orange, 6,000-gallon cushion of syrah is a comfy enough spot to take a nap.
"We go so long," says Artisan co-owner Erik Martin, "sometimes we work 55 hours at a time." Often, he and his partners will just drift off to the wine bag for some shut-eye.
"We've all slept on it at some point," says co-owner Ryan Csanky. "What I really want to do is get a couple of big pillows and a duvet cover for it."
"It's the most comfortable distillery in the world," boasts Martin.
When the syrah isn't offering comfort to Csanky, Martin, and third co-owner Shane "Doggy" Thatcher, it's being turned into Martin Ryan vodka, one of two products currently in production at Portland's youngest micro-distillery. Along with Apia honey vodka, Martin Ryan is the newest local vodka to hit area bars and liquor stores.
All three owners are Portland natives who've known each other since their days at Beaverton's Sunset High School, class of 1992. A couple years ago, Thatcher found himself traveling regularly to Russia's Volga Basin. There, he experienced local, hand-made honey vodka, some of which he managed to get into the States. The heady Russian elixir became an inspiration for him and his two long-time compatriots. In July of 2007, the distillery was up and running with the idea of creating excellent spirits from all local ingredients.
"Our whole thing is: What can we use that's local? What can we do that's unique?" Csanky says. The answers to those two questions are: just about everything and a whole heck of a lot.
One of the more unique things about Artisan Spirits is that they create their vodkas from scratch. Many local distilleries ship in neutral grain spirit, which they then cut, filter, and bottle, or redistill and infuse. This is not the case for Artisan. Their Apia vodka begins life as a home-made honey mead using Buzzing Canyon honey.
"We know this honey came from bees that visit raspberry blossoms in Eugene," Csanky says.
Martin nods in agreement, "We know exactly where our products are coming from."
The local flavor is completely evident—giving Artisan Spirits' vodka its essential quality. Martin Ryan, for instance, has a sense of terroir carried over from the Columbia Valley grapes. In the glass it is shimmering and leggy with a ghostly syrah nose. On the tongue, it has a wonderful feel, and a slight sweetness that adds complexity.
The Apia is something altogether different. It is far sweeter, but much more smooth. Its creamy mouth-feel and drinkability make it one of the more dangerous spirits I've had the pleasure to enjoy. It's sipping vodka, and it would be easy to sip yourself right into oblivion.
Vodkas like these are helping to make the fellas from Artisan Spirits the darlings of the micro-distillery world. They have worked hard to get there too—all of them have day jobs. Still, they plan to expand, hoping to roll out an absinthe, one or more gins, and a line of bitters sometime in the near future. It might mean more work, but they shrug it off.
"When we're here at five in the morning and haven't slept for two days," Csanky explains, "it doesn't bother us. We step outside, look into the distillery and say, 'Look what we've done.'"
"We're rock-star distillers," Martin adds.
Csanky rolls his eyes, "Don't quote him on that, it sounds cheesy."
Sure, it might be a bit cheesy, but only rock stars would have a 40,000-pound waterbed filled with wine.
Ryan Csanky is a distiller by day and a bartender at Wildwood by night. He believes the best way to showcase Artisan Spirits vodka is by creating a classic martini. Here's his recipe.
• 2 ounces Martin Ryan or Apia vodka
• 2-3 dashes of high-quality dry vermouth. (Csanky suggest Vya, Noilly Pratt, or Cinzano Bianco)
• 1-2 dashes of orange bitters
Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.