Celebrating 20 Years of Craft Distilling

Celebrating 20 Years of Craft Distilling

Record high temps in Portland last weekend had everyone feeling like summer is just around the corner and we’re particularly excited here at New Deal as it marks a major milestone for us. It’s a big one! This summer we’ll be celebrating our 20th year of craft distilling. We want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all our supporters over the years— without you, we wouldn’t be here. Thank you for buying our vodka in the early days when we were still figuring it all out. Thank you for trying our gins. Thank you for adding our liqueurs to your cocktails and bar programs. Thank you for coming to our bottle shop & tasting room and trying out our weird new products. And thank you for being genuinely excited about our whiskeys and small-batch releases. We’ve learned a lot about distilling in the last 20 years and it hasn’t all been easy, but we’re living proof you can accomplish big things if you set your mind to it.

For those who haven’t heard the story, New Deal began with an unconventional start. Tom Burkleaux, New Deal’s owner and head distiller, joked about having to make his own vodka due to a looming recession. To some this may sound insane but with so many craft brewers and creative DIY makers in Portland, to Tom, this idea seemed possible. However, at the time, there were no online resources for distillation, nobody to ask for help, and really only one book he could find on the subject. Adamant on exploring this idea, Tom rented a 10x10 space and used a credit card--with only a $3k limit--to buy New Deal’s first still, which we still have. With that one book and lots of experimentation, he figured it out. A friend pushed him to take the vodka to market and he wrote a business plan: sell one bottle of vodka to a stranger off the liquor store shelf. 

Thanks, in part, to a taste test done at the Willamette Week offices, there was interest right away. Friends were helping with bottling and labeling by hand, quickly learning that producing just a few cases was a tremendous amount of work. As New Deal grew, Tom explored infusions and flavors and how they could be achieved with real ingredients instead of synthetic flavorings widely used by legacy beverage alcohol brands. Gin was the next phase of experimentation. Then liqueurs. A major turning point happened in 2012. We bought our current distillery building on the corner of SE 9th and Salmon which allowed us to install our custom Christian Carl still and an automated bottling line. A larger space and more specialized equipment allowed for even more experimentation into the worlds of rum, brandy, whiskey, and beyond.

For some in this business, the goal is to build a brand and sell it. When asked what Tom would do with the money if he sold New Deal, his answer was that he’d buy another distillery. Experimenting with different mash bills, tinkering with distillation methods, trying new things, learning new things— this is genuinely what he wants to do with his time. We’re looking forward to another 20 years of craft distilling and thank you from the bottom of our hearts for giving us the opportunity to share the fruits of our labor with all of you.

To commemorate our 20th year, we sat down with Tom so he could wax nostalgic about the early days of his craft distilling art project and how two decades of hands-on learning is only the beginning.

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